Harriet Gimpel

In-Between Memorial Days

We light a memorial candle at home every year on the eve of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a week after the end of Passover, a week always filled with Holocaust movies and documentaries on television. We usually bargain with our souls over the degree of obligation to watch more, or less, knowing we will not forget, questioning if watching is required to honor memories, and then my idea of compromise is watching a movie like “Woman in Gold,” at least one evening. Lighting the candle that flickers for 24 hours is non-negotiable. Last Sunday evening, 8:00, we lit the candle, and watched the national ceremony broadcasted from Yad Vashem.

This year, during that week, like every week since October 7, the evening news, interviews, and documentaries following the news were largely about the war in Gaza, negotiations over a release of the Israeli hostages, antisemitism on American campuses. The Holocaust documentaries were interwoven, less distinguishable from the current events, and more easily avoidable. This year, current events folded into Holocaust memorial stories – how a Holocaust survivor jumped out of her window on October 7, and saved her life from the Hamas attackers. Mistakenly, momentarily, it can be taken lightly among accounts of October 7.

Every Yom HaShoah, a siren is sounded at 10:00 AM. Israelis stop in their tracks, wherever they may by, whatever they are doing, and stand for a moment of silence. A colleague shared that engrossed in work when the siren sounded, he headed towards the bomb shelter in his building. Then he remembered.

I wondered last Monday if Holocaust Memorial Day had provided a national day of escape from October 7, or were we avoiding Holocaust Remembrance Day because of October 7? Or were we simply spectators, or players, in the arena of public discourse on legitimacy and propriety of comparisons drawn, or not, between the two?

After every Yom HaShoah, there is a leadup to Independence Day, and the day that precedes it, Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron. After a week of Holocaust movies, there is a week when the evening news is followed by documentaries, interviews, and films about Israel’s wars and heroes, losses, and victories. This week, this year, is hardly distinguishable from any week since October 7. Except for growing discussion about how you plan to cite Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, if you can’t quite bring yourself to celebrate – this year.

The discussion is not uplifting. I’m preoccupied by concern for the living hostages. I’m worried by discussion regarding Israel in Rafah. Disturbed by my inability to know who to believe. In the ideal scenario I would rid the world of Hamas, doing what Israel can to make that happen – if I could guarantee that no innocent Gazan would be injured in the process. Simple. Not.

On some levels I practice avoidance of the plight of innocent Gazan residents, victimized by Hamas, victimized by Israel, victimized by neighboring Arab nations, victimized by the world filled with people chanting against Israel and its existence. The thoughts are tormenting.

This week, I escaped into a translation job for the Yitzhak Rabin Center. Fascinated by his roles in wars, his roles in peace, his judgment, and his statements. Historical parallels and nuanced differences.

Yitzhak Rabin served as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War. Summarizing it shortly thereafter, he reported [my translation],

The combatants in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory, but its price. Their friends fell by their sides wallowing in their blood. And I know that the awful price that the enemy paid also touched the depth of the hearts of many of them.

Moved by the words, while voices argue in my head: If we need to fight to protect and defend ourselves, we need to be the hard-hearted lest we fail to give the fight what it takes. Re-reading the words, I refuse to silence the first inner voice heard when I read them: Would a military or a political leader today make that concluding statement?

I hope and believe that today our soldiers see the price the “enemy” pays. Does the world see the innocent Gazan enemy victimized by Hamas, doomed to paying prices imposed upon Hamas? Does the world see the Gazan people, abandoned by Hamas launching rockets at Israel with these innocent victims at a distance of 350 meters?

The Rabin Center texts describe his service in 1948, and in July that year in Lod and Ramla during the War of Independence: “The sight of the convoys of displaced [Arab] refugees with their belongings on their shoulders left a heavy impression on the IDF soldiers.”

The sight of displaced Gazans, 2023-2024, with their belongings on their backs, or under rubble, and worse is haunting.

In this war, Israeli soldiers fight terrorists. Hamas. Nukhba. Hamas. Terrorists.

Is Israel expected not to defend itself? Hamas fails to provide shelter in its multiple tunnels for its innocent subjects. Would that interfere with their strategy to ensure Israel is blamed?

Who wants to say I’m drinking some rancid brand of Israeli Kool-Aid? I am torn apart inside anyway. War is ugly. I regretfully and painfully believe Israeli soldiers, like all soldiers, commit war crimes. Israeli soldiers. Contrary to the tutti-fruity taste of Kool-Aid on a hot summer day.

Denial. October 7 denial. Why are we surprised? Any different from Holocaust denial? Recognized. Infuriating. But familiar.

Denial of reports by Gazans of their experience can be nothing but commensurate with discrediting the credibility of Israelis’ experiences. Not comparing experiences. Comparing willingness to lend credibility to one narrative over another. Not comparing narratives. Recognizing their uncomfortable coexistence.

Perception of safety. Mine. Fear of Qalqilya. Irrational, I remind myself.  “Rational,” said my friend. Media playing with my perceptions. Fear of a Palestinian that Israel might launch an attack in the West Bank like attacks in Gaza. Unfounded, I could argue. I cannot dismiss their fears.

Israeli media bias and exaggeration with respect to antisemitism on US campuses doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But if you question media credibility, do it across the board.

The argument of the week: Has Biden abandoned Israel? I’m in the minority that doesn’t see it that way. Bibi has abandoned us. Haim reminds me we need Biden to help the people of Israel, not to help Bibi. Agreed. However, in the end, heads of state represent people and Biden deals with Bibi. Bibi Netanyahu, an exemplary model for political liars. Just one year ago we were demonstrating against his intentions of relinquishing democracy in the name of other political whims. Why should Biden support the only democracy in the Middle East with Netanyahu at the helm? Can he rely on Netanyahu’s word that Israel is a reliable strategic ally?

Were Netanyahu’s name replaced by his predecessors’ names – Rabin, Begin, Peres, Sharon, Olmert – I would analyze the situation differently. But the argument persists: Biden elevates Hamas confidence and status by withholding arms from Israel as a tactic to prevent Israeli moves in Rafah. I understand the logic. Netanyahu has consistently strengthened Hamas over the years. He is responsible for Israel’s declining credibility in the eyes of the president of the United States. He is responsible for the decision of the president of the United States and if that strengthens Hamas, credit should go where credit is due.

Black and white would be as delightful as an Oreo cookie with my coffee. But I am always in the gray area. That means I can always choose to leave the black behind and move towards the light recognizing the journey will never end, and the light remains, ad infinitum, beyond our reach. I will reach for it because I unequivocally want a Jewish state. Forgive me if you thought otherwise. Mea culpa. Not apologizing for my position, but for possibly leading anyone to think otherwise.

Looking towards Tuesday, Yom Ha’atzmaut, I contemplate the position of this Independence Day in the gray area, moving closer to the light.

Scrolling through visuals in my mind: At a conference last Wednesday, a former colleague made a presentation concluding with a video clip of Israeli students – Jews and Arab-Bedouin – from a college near Ashkelon – singing a prayer together for the return of the Israeli hostages from Gaza.

That evening in a WhatsApp group with my Israeli colleagues and my West Bank Palestinian colleagues, an Israeli shared a photo from the filming of a joint Memorial Service (filmed in Israel with only Israelis allowed to attend). The photo showed a table of memorial candles lit in pairs. The Israelis lit a candle for a loved one lost due to the conflict and chose a candle in memory of one of their Palestinian counterparts. A name is printed on each candle. A Palestinian woman in our WhatsApp group commented on the photo, “Thank you for having a candle with my brother’s name.”

I felt an emotional flood yet grasped for the rational. Her reaction touched me. A series of moving vignettes will infuse me with hope and remind me of the beauty of humanity – and humanity will prevail. Yet, since October 7, I am torn and tormented by my fears and recognizing theirs. “Moving” is not enough.

In the past two weeks, with public discourse on the meaning and traditions of Yom Ha’atzmaut for this year, an Israeli television station has prepared individual clips of its reporters and anchor persons, broadcasting from a chair a personal statement about what Independence Day means to them, this year. They recall childhood celebrations, the importance of our independence, concerns about the events of the past year, and variations on the theme of the opportunity that must be seized amidst this crisis and when this war comes to an end. An opportunity to reroute and rebuild our society. They personify inspiration. They provide hope.

I remember – our national anthem, Hatikva – the Hope – and I have some criticism of the lyrics. We need words inclusive of all Israeli citizens. This Yom Ha’atzmaut, I will sing Hatikva.

Harriet Gimpel, May 12, 2024

About the Author
Born and raised in Philadelphia, earned a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 1980, followed by an M.A. in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harriet has worked in the non-profit world throughout her career. She is a freelance translator and editor, writes poetry in Hebrew and essays in English, and continues to work for NGOs committed to human rights and democracy.
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