Each year as Yom HaZikaron approaches, a stark truth overwhelms all my other emotions: Even as I hold the collective grief of nearly 25,000 Jewish lives lost through war or terror since the founding of the State and the loss of two friends in a terror attack many years ago, I can no longer focus solely on Israeli loss on this day.
I’m not writing this for or about those who have suffered unimaginable personal loss. I believe strongly that those who have lost loved ones in the line of duty or in terror attacks — or whose loved ones have lost loved ones — should mark this day in whatever way brings them the most comfort and strength. I would never presume to tell them what that should look like.
But while I fear even voicing my feelings on this may be seen as disloyalty and betrayal, the way Yom HaZikaron has come to be commemorated by many Israeli and American Jews makes me even more afraid, for my country and my people — and I believe shifting the way we commemorate is key toward building a better future for both ourselves and Palestinians.
For most who commemorate Yom HaZikaron, the day’s rituals are fundamentally a communal and national exercise: they are not about the gaping wound left by the loss of a loved one, but rather about connecting with a collective narrative, strengthening a sense of Jewish peoplehood across religious, political, and national boundaries, and writing and rewriting our shared story of communal and national identity.
I myself feel a deep-seated desire to mourn as a country and as a people. Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, is an invaluable part of what has kept our stories, identities, and traditions strong and vibrant throughout centuries of exile and persecution. Our collective memorial rituals strengthen a sense of connection amidst profound loss and offer an important acknowledgment that our fellow Jews’ lives, and sometimes also their deaths, had meaning and purpose.
But when our memorializing takes place as part of a communal or national exercise focused solely on Jewish loss, it all too often simultaneously becomes an inadvertent tool for reinforcing zero-sum, us-and-them approaches to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I fear does a grave disservice to the Jewish people, Israel, and the pursuit of security, rights, and dignity for all:
As we mourn, we rightly lift up the infinite value of each Jewish life destroyed in this devastating conflict — but too often we also unwittingly perpetuate a narrative that collectively demonizes and dehumanizes Palestinians.
We uphold our image of Jews as fundamentally good and well-intentioned — but yield semi-consciously to a simplistic and flattened image of Palestinians as predominantly ill-intentioned.
We accept nearly all violence by the Israeli army as necessary and justifiable defense — but perceive and portray any violence by Palestinians as terrorism.
We rightly praise the courage and devotion of fallen Israeli soldiers — but too often our reverence contributes to an atmosphere in which it’s unthinkable to question the righteousness of any of their acts or even of the orders they receive, for fear of dishonoring the sacrifice they made or betraying our cause.
We’re wary of moral equivalency, warning that the deaths of those killed while defending Israel or in terror attacks cannot be equated with the deaths of terrorists — yet in so doing we avert our eyes from the fact that countless Palestinians killed in this conflict were not involved in violence.
Yom HaZikaron is and should be a day to remember and mourn our people’s losses — but it has also become an inadvertent tool for creating and perpetuating the narrative that we must indeed live by the sword forever, making a better future for Jews in this land seem ever more remote and unattainable. Because the stories we tell ourselves and our children about our history are key to identity formation, Jewish identity is increasingly bound up with a self-image of victimhood at the hands of Palestinians, hindering us from recognizing our own power and responsibility to bring about positive change.
But present for me throughout this is another powerful truth: there is extraordinary transformative power in recognizing the pain of the other. I remember the first time I heard a Palestinian recognize my inherited feelings of loss and fear as he spoke about his visit to Auschwitz and his growing understanding of the trauma Jews experienced there and throughout centuries of persecution. I felt profoundly seen and validated. I remember too the first time a Palestinian shared with me his story of a Jewish Israeli acknowledging his pain when his brother was killed by an Israeli soldier. I was overwhelmed by how much healing I heard and experienced in his description of that moment.
The immeasurable pain and loss that both our peoples have suffered permeates this land. One way to counteract the unwitting harmful impact of how we currently commemorate Yom HaZikaron is to consciously affirm that Jewish acknowledgement of Palestinian loss and suffering need not be a concession and need not lessen our own pain. It can actually be the opposite: a profound act of healing for both the other and ourselves, and a powerful tool toward illuminating a path out of this seemingly intractable conflict.
I’m not so naïve as to think that most Jews or Palestinians are prepared to acknowledge the other’s loss, pain, and grief on Yom HaZikaron, or at all. This conflict is still far too fraught for that. But irrespective of how others commemorate, each of us who finds even one moment to recognize the other’s loss and pain alongside our own can serve as one small seed: toward embracing our own agency to bring about change, and toward engaging with Palestinians not as enemies on the other side of a zero-sum game but as potential allies in both addressing the tremendous pain of the past and working to build a future in which all human beings in this land live in security, dignity, and freedom.