On Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the IDF, as I do every year, I joined thousands of Israelis at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. I paid tribute to my best friend, who shall forever remain a happy, smiling, carefree twenty-year-old.
The mountain encapsulates all of Israel in an area the size of two city blocks. There is the big black slab of the tomb of Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement and the visionary who had the audacity to dream of a Jewish State when everyone around him thought he was delusional. Within a five-minute walk from Herzl’s tomb is Yad Va-Shem, the Holocaust memorial and museum. Symbol of the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, it too is on Mount Herzl, next to our founding fathers. At the cemetery, one can also visit the area reserved for former Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other dignitaries – the men and women who made Israel what it is today. A path leads from the Yitzhak Rabin grave to the military section of the cemetery. Thousands of graves, all uniform in shape, size, and color, are the final resting place for Israel’s fallen – soldiers, police officers, members of the Secret Service, and the Mossad all resting in row after row, section after section, every tombstone identical to the next but for the name and dates of the fallen. At Mount Herzl, all the distinctions that sometimes tear us apart, secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, left wing and right wing – all those distinctions disappear as we mourn our loved ones. From Herzl through the Holocaust, from our founding fathers to this year’s most recent fallen soldiers, Mount Herzl tells the story of Israel better than any other site on earth.
23,544 fallen men and women. Proportionate to the size of the US, it would be somewhere in the vicinity of one million dead Americans. A staggering number. When one thinks in terms of time lapse, our fallen soldiers have given the ultimate sacrifice in the last 70 years. This is not ancient history. These are not the Jews who perished in the revolt against the Romans in the year 69 A.D., these are not some all but forgotten names from ancient history. The family and friends of all our fallen are still around, still living, still among us. They still remember, and they tell their stories. For 24 hours, from sunset to sunset, the country is plunged into grief and memory. Almost sixty new names have been added to that horribly long list of victims since we marked Remembrance Day last year. Sixty families have been added to the roster of grief. Sixty stories of dreamers and doers, of men and women and children with families and parents and friends who will always remember them and one day a year will be hugged by the collective Israeli society, which will lay a comforting arm around their shoulders and pray with them that next year there will be no new names on the wall. For Israelis like to argue and we do so vehemently – sometimes even violently. But on the Day of Remembrance, all differences are set aside, all discussion and debate are paused for 24 hours as we come together in collective unity to remember those who have paid the ultimate price so that we may continue to live and argue and debate in our democratic society for the next 364 days.
One of the most famous poems written in post-independence Israel is called “The Silver Platter.” It tells of a young man and a young woman, rising from the ashes of war, standing before an awe-struck nation. And the nation asks them who they are, and the young man and young woman reply that they are the silver platter upon which our State was given to us. This is a nation reborn after two thousand years with the blood of 23,544 men and women who made it all possible for the rest of us. Today we stand by the graves of those people, the Silver Platters who bequeathed to us our independence and made us strong enough to withstand all future attacks.
Remembrance Day is, in my opinion, the saddest day of the year. While other days mark sadness and grief, and while we marked Holocaust Remembrance Day only two weeks ago, this day of remembrance for our fallen soldiers is sadder to me because it touches upon every single Israeli. Not one family in Israel has been spared, all have paid the ultimate price for our independence, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardic, religious or secular. It is personal for us, for every Israeli, because we all have a relative or a friend among the 23,544. It is a sad day, but it is also a proud day. These men and women gave their lives for Herzl’s Zionist ideal, and they fought for it. They embodied his dream of a proud and strong Israeli People relying only on itself, strong enough to stand up for the whole Jewish People, strong in the knowledge that, in the words of the Mishna, “If I Am Not For Myself, Who Is For Me?”
Later that day, as we made the hard transition from mourning to celebrating Israel’s 69th Independence Day, we reminded ourselves once again that if it weren’t for 23,544 brave men and women, we would be today a dispersed and persecuted people scattered throughout the diaspora.