Josh Fine

The Spirit of 76

Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) were last week, but it feels like ages ago. Such is time during war. Each day feels like an eternity as we worriedly check news from the front and continue to wait for the return of hostages.

I’ve heard it said that these holidays are like the national High Holidays. The religious High Holidays in autumn start with the gravity of Rosh Hashana, then peak with the extreme solemnity of Yom Kippur, and then burst out in joy with Sukkot and Simchat Torah. The national High Holidays follow a similar cadence: They start with the sadness of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), then peak with the agony of Yom HaZikaron, and then erupt in raucous celebration with Yom HaAtzma’ut.

Of course, this past year the joyous finale of Simchat Torah was shattered in tragedy. We are still living the horror of that black day, and the celebration of Yom HaAtzma’ut was muted. With war raging and hostages in captivity, it didn’t feel right to celebrate. And at the same time, with so many sacrifices made to defend and preserve our country, it didn’t feel right not to celebrate.

Yom HaZikaron was devastating. Memorial Day is very personal in Israel as everyone knows someone who fell in battle or was a victim of terror. As a new immigrant, I didn’t have that personal connection in previous years, but this year everyone did, including us newcomers. I’m always nervous before Kol Nidre on Yom Kipper eve. The solemn awe of the service looms, and the whole day I am concerned about being ready, getting to synagogue on time. People shuffle in early, and every seat is taken as people who never attend synagogue show up. The crowd swells, there’s a quiet murmur, and then silence as the haunting and familiar melody of Kol Nidre begins precisely on time.

Yom HaZikaron is the same. The central square in our town began filling with people well before the start time. As the eight o’clock hour neared, the crowd swelled. Everyone was there. There was a quiet murmur and then we stood in complete silence. Sharply on the hour, we heard the wail of the memorial siren. It was a familiar ritual, this year imbued with freshly painful meaning.

A massive crowd gathers for the Yom HaZikaron ceremony in Ra’anana, May 12, 2024. Photo by author.

But Yom HaAtzma’ut felt weird. The time-honored rituals were canceled. No air force flyover show. No firework displays. There was an outdoor concert featuring classic Israeli music. Lots of people were out, but the mood was subdued. Many of us felt out of sorts.

I guess feeling out of sorts is appropriate for Yom HaAtzma’ut 5784. For months the world has appeared upside down and backwards. I attended Harvard about 25 years ago, and I have been watching in disbelief how quickly a four-century-old reputation of academic rigor has been destroyed. After the shocking images of Harvard students glorifying terrorists even while the massacres were ongoing, a group of Jewish alumni convened and in the months that followed commissioned a comprehensive audit of antisemitism on campus. The findings are disgraceful – far from an issue of a few misinformed students, the demonization and marginalization of Jews and Israelis on campus stem from a systemic indoctrination by faculty across multiple departments and schools.

I watched in disbelief a press conference with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis where Erdogan expressed “sadness” that Greece considers Hamas a terrorist organization instead of a “resistance movement” and Mitsotakis simply replied “let’s agree to disagree.” In what universe is Hamas not a terrorist organization? Regardless of one’s views on the appropriateness of Israel’s response, how does an organization that proudly films themselves beheading, burning, raping and torturing civilians, an organization that steals babies and grandparents and continues to hold them underground – no matter what one believes about Israel, how is that not terrorism?

The whiplash, the feeling of being upside down, stems from living this horror in Israel, where everywhere you turn you see the faces of kidnapped and murdered innocents smiling at you from posters, while the world seems to normalize it – while professors at once respectable universities herald the atrocities, and while two NATO leaders “agree to disagree” as if this is some arcane trade dispute.

For me a major moment of whiplash was a recent article in the New York Times, another once-reputable institution that has proven to be rotten at its core. In its coverage of the propaganda video Hamas released of the kidnapped Israeli-American Hersh Goldberg-Polin, the reporter explained that “international law experts say that a hostage video is, by definition, made under duress…and their production can constitute a war crime.” I am sure the Times editors congratulated themselves on their objectivity. Rather than focusing solely on criticism of Israel, they also point out where they think Hamas may be committing war crimes. But for those of us who have not yet lost our minds, the article stops you cold. It demonstrates just how much people outside Israel, and elite institutions in particular, have normalized themselves to the atrocities we are all still struggling to cope with. In a sensible world, it is unnecessary to point out that a hostage video may constitute a war crime when the kidnapping of hundreds of civilians in the first place cannot possibly be anything other than a war crime. It is like saying a school shooter may have committed criminal trespass when he entered campus without permission to murder dozens of children.

At the Yom HaZikaron ceremony in our overflowing town square, my daughter looked out at the massive crowd and turned to me. She said that as sad as it is to be here, it is comforting to see all these people who have not yet forgotten which way is up. And I told her I felt the same. It is scary to be in a world that has lost its footing, where institutions we once thought sacred have been exposed as bastions of hate. But standing in absolute silence with tens of thousands of neighbors, my daughter told me that she thinks we’re going to be ok. Because if we can’t rely on anybody else, we can at least rely on each other. And there are a lot of us.

On the afternoon of Yom HaAtzma’ut, we still didn’t know how to celebrate. We ultimately decided to head up the coast to a national park that preserves a stretch of idyllic Mediterranean coastline to enjoy the natural beauty of our beloved country. On the sandy shore in the late afternoon, we played matkot, a quintessential Israeli beach game where you hit a rubber ball back and forth with paddles. There’s no winner or loser or score – you just try to keep the game going as long as you can.

Playing matkot with my daughter at Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, Yom HaAtzma’ut, May 14, 2024. Photo by the author’s wife, Julie Geller.

As the sun sunk lower over the sea, I thought maybe this feels right for Yom HaAtzma’ut # 76. It’s no raucous celebration. But here I am a new Israeli, raising my family here, playing matkot with my daughter, and just trying to keep it going.

About the Author
Josh Fine develops cabin resorts in mountain and rural areas of the United States. He made aliyah in 2019 from Denver, Colorado. Josh lives in Raanana with his wife and three children. His oldest child currently serves in the IDF. Josh graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School and was the president of a Denver-based real estate development company before moving with his family to Israel.
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