This past April, my granddaughter, Eliana, and her eighth-grade class at the Solomon Schechter School in Manhattan spent two weeks in Israel. This is something Schechter graduating classes throughout the country do, and it is a wonderful trip.
The group traveled from the Golan Heights to the Negev, went rafting on the Jordan River, explored the tunnels under the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and met with young Israelis their own age. In short, they took the grand tour of Israel, and left profoundly impressed with what it meant to build a sovereign state and with the struggles as well as the pleasures of living in it.
Of everything they did and saw, my granddaughter was most taken by the observance of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and immediately afterward by Yom HaAtzmaut, its Independence Day. She and her classmates stood silently with the rest of the country when the sirens sounded to mark the memorial ceremony. And they danced in the streets of Jerusalem with celebrating Israelis to commemorate the country’s birth. She felt a close bond with the state during those rituals, she said. “I understood how hard life has been for Israelis,” she explained, “yet how much pride and joy they feel in the country.”
That duality of sadness and happiness has been at the core of the state since its beginnings and continues to characterize it. The country is safe, its economy strong, its arts and technology thriving. Still, Israelis I know speak of a sense of unease, as though a shadow hovers over their land. In recent weeks the government has sent out leaflet after leaflet to families with reminders on how to don a gas mask and where to find a bomb shelter. Schoolchildren have been given practice drills in hiding on the floor behind their desks in case of emergency. Nobody speaks specifically about another war, but the barrage of instructions Israelis have received has made many of them tense and anxious. War with whom, and when?
Iran, of course, has been a threat to Israel for a long time, and the threat becomes more dire as that country comes closer to developing its nuclear capability. But now there are other fearful threats. The civil war in Syria, with Hezbollah’s support for President Bashar al-Assad and his government forces, has made that area especially dangerous. Gambling on Assad’s weakness because of the insurgency, Israel’s warplanes attacked targets in Syria to prevent the shipment of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is especially worried about chemical weapons. Syria has responded with threats of an outright battle if the attacks occur again. That’s frightening enough, but the real worry comes from Russia’s backing of Syria. Russia has confirmed that in the future it plans to sell Syria its S-300 air missile system — powerful enough to send missiles deep into Israel. The danger of the missiles is equaled by the danger of a confrontation between Russia and Israel, with Israel being dragged into the region’s turmoil.
Shades of the Cold War.
Back in the 1970s, the Soviet Union tried to assert its influence in the Middle East by supporting the Arab countries that opposed Israel. During Egypt’s War of Attrition against Israel, the Soviets supplied the Egyptians with sophisticated missiles and military aircraft, and also sent advisers to train Egyptian pilots. In some cases, Soviet pilots manned the planes themselves. Israeli fighter planes tried to avoid the Soviets, but in one fiery dogfight, Israel downed five Soviet MiGs, killing several pilots. The terrifying specter of war between Israel and the Soviet Union, and the possibility of America being drawn in to aid Israel, helped convince the Israeli government to accept an American-brokered cease-fire — which the Egyptians immediately violated. Now Russia is again putting itself into the heart of a Middle East conflict.
Then, to be sure, there is the continuing Palestinian problem weighing on Israel. Secretary of State John Kerry has been going all-out to try to get Israel and the Palestinian Authority into direct negotiations. It’s easy to be cynical about Kerry, and plenty of Israelis are. After so many previous American peace attempts, why should anyone expect more on this go-around? But others see Kerry as a fresh face, a peace advocate so passionate he may just succeed. In the midst of the apprehension I hear from Israeli friends, I also hear a soft note of optimism. Maybe with Kerry’s intense efforts the Palestinians will stop demanding pre-conditions for talks; maybe Israel will curtail its settlement building. Maybe there is still room for hope.
Yom HaZikaron folds into Yom HaAtzmaut in Israel and a 14-year-old girl marvels at the country’s resiliency. In the midst of sadness and anxiety, Israelis have always extracted happiness and hope. I pray that they will be able to do so again.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.