On the morning of September 11, in Jerusalem, hundreds gathered at the 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza to remember and honor the victims of the September 11 attacks that occurred 15 years ago today. Among the distinguished guests were police force and emergency responders from the US, President of the World Jewish Congress, Ron Lauder, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, and former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. Also in attendance were members of the US Embassy, dozens of Young Judea students, as well as American immigrants to Israel, bussed into the ceremony from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by Nefesh B’Nefesh.
For American-Israelis, remembering September 11 each year is painfully relevant. The memory of the 2001 attacks lingers in our national consciousness two fold. Many of us were in the US, even in New York City, on the 11th of September in 2001. We remember exactly where we were when we heard the news and we can recall the exact moment as if it were just last year. “Some days never go away,” Mr. Lauder lamented in his ceremony address. “Recollection is like the pain itself.” For those who live in Israel, this consciousness cannot be separated from the Israeli national consciousness that is invoked after we hear of every terrorist attack in the streets of Jerusalem or the cafes of Tel Aviv. Just as the memory of September 11th is etched in our memories, so too is the day following the State of Israel’s establishment in 1948, Yom Kippur 1973, and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination on November 4, 1995. Indeed, Israel may be the country that best understands America’s pain of September 11. But more importantly, Israel provides a successful model on how to wake up on September 12, ready to work towards a better future.
Israel is the land of ceremonies, happy and sad. Israel has ceremonies for soldiers entering and finishing the army, ceremonies for coming of age, and ceremonies for Independence Day. Israel has ceremonies for fallen soldiers, ceremonies for victims of terror, and ceremonies for remembering those lost in the Holocaust. Through Israel’s ceremonies, Israelis not only honor the memory of the event, but through group gatherings, we understand the responsibility that the memories impose on every individual and as a group. Ceremonies, active remembrances, naturally turn a group consciousness into a group call for action that unites the people. Without community ceremonies and observances, September 11, is too easy to ignore. At the end of today’s September 11 ceremony, Mr. Oren concluded with a call to action, urging Israelis and Americans to renew our commitment to the memory of those lost: “We honor them by defending our common freedoms. We will continue as Americans and Israelis to fight for those freedoms.”
The people of Israel also know how to effectively pass on stories to future generations. Jews understand that there are certain events in history that are too important for future generations to forget, as our existence depends on remembering those stories. By remembering, we strengthen our community. After all, the word “remembering” literally means, “to become a member again.” With every memory that we honor, we become that much more a part of the Israeli and Jewish community. This is why Jews tell the story of Passover each year. There is strong emphasis on each individual to take part; even the youngest of the group is given a special honor. Of course, none of us at the Passover table have personal memories of the events of Passover. But by telling the story, and acting out each stage, we feel as if we participated in these events ourselves, making the events enter our national consciousness and identity. Until then, a story is just a story, rather than a part of our identities that guide our values and daily life. As those born after the millennium who have no personal recollection of September 11 enter young adulthood, it becomes increasingly important to remember the event to better direct our future.
Last, Israel’s required enlistment into the army and national service for adults breeds a sense of obligation and unity among Israeli youth. Unlike some of our parents and grandparents, it is easy for young Americans to take for granted our comfortable lives. Most of us have not lived through a World War, famine, economic depression, or something of the like. September 11 was, for many of us, the closest to national tragedy we have seen in our life times. And yet, American youth criticize the US, unaware or dismissive of the great sacrifices made by previous generations on our behalf so we sit on our comfy couches, expressing our outrage on the Internet about anything and everything. Of course, required army service is not the only way to impart a sense of responsibility into youth. Any long-term investment in something bigger than oneself for the benefit of society puts our own problems in perspective, and increases a sense of obligation to those around us.
Americans can learn a great deal from the extent to which Israelis renew their commitment to honoring memories that have shaped their national consciousness. Israelis gather for ceremonies, tell the stories of important events year after year, and ensure that the young act on the obligation that memories impose on us. “We can commemorate, comfort, and document. We can rebuild, improve our defense, and counter effects of extremists. We can guard our values,” said Mr. Shapiro. “But the next task relates to memory. Will the next generation fully comprehend the calamity and responsibility imposed by September 11?” Just as Shapiro observed, “Israelis are always asking this exact question.”