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We must ensure my brother and all the others did not die in vain

Imbuing our incalculable loss with meaning means fulfilling this moment's greatest imperative: to not tear ourselves apart
Alex Singer's grave at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. (courtesy, The Alex Singer Project)
Alex Singer's grave at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. (courtesy, The Alex Singer Project)

My brother, Alex Singer, fell in battle in southern Lebanon on September 15, 1987, his 25th birthday. As on every Yom Hazikaron, I will be thinking of him. On this year’s Memorial Day, I will also be thinking of the over 1,400 new families who have joined us in what Israelis call mishpachat hashchol, the “family” of those who are bereaved.

What does this family share? Yes, a sense of loss. For us, every day is a Yom Hazikaron. But we also have something less appreciated by people outside this most dreaded of families: the determination that our loved one who made the ultimate sacrifice will not have died in vain.

For many years, the war in which Alex fell had no name. He served in the security zone that Israel held in Lebanon for 18 years, from the 1982 Lebanon War until Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli forces in 2000. The message of the withdrawal, and the public debate that led to it, was that Israeli soldiers were dying there for no purpose. How were we, the families of the fallen, to feel about this?

Today, we know why our soldiers were there. We know that if they had not left, we would not be fighting now against a force many times as dangerous as Hamas, armed with around 150,000 missiles that could dwarf any attack we have seen so far.

Similarly, if we had not left Gaza in 2005, Hamas would not have built a dictatorship and terror army in Gaza, and October 7 would not have happened.

None of this is to say whether the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza were warranted. Maybe they could have succeeded if other mistakes hadn’t been made. It is to say that the families should know that their loved ones did not die in vain.

There is now an Israeli consensus not seen in half a century that we are fighting a just and essential war. And yet, the account with our fallen is still open. The greater the loss, the greater the desire for meaning to that loss.

Hundreds of thousands of young Israelis have been changed by the annus horribilis of 2023. First, previously apathetic Israelis realized they couldn’t take the basic principles of liberal democracy for granted. Then they realized that the very existence of the country could not be taken for granted. A generation has become activated, not just by fear, but by obligation. One of our daughters told us that two of her best friends each lost a best friend, one in Kibbutz Be’eri and the other at the Nova music festival. Everyone, it seems, is just one or two degrees from a terrible loss.

Even without a direct connection, there is a widespread feeling of obligation to change, to not be the same people and country that we were before.

How should all this energy be channeled? Is there more to the legacy of the fallen than simply ensuring Israel’s survival? How should “not in vain” be translated into action?

The answer lies, I believe, in the greatest imperative of this moment, which is to not tear ourselves apart. We can withstand wars, we cannot withstand being divided. This is because our solidarity as a people, now and throughout Jewish history, is our source of strength and hope. Other countries have the luxury of being able to survive despair. We don’t.

The blame game

Each side is accusing the other of sabotaging unity. Both are right, but unequally. The prime minister has the primary responsibility to unify the country and has been doing the opposite. Benjamin Netanyahu must be held responsible for the failures leading to and on October 7. But those, however catastrophic, were the result of grave miscalculations. What is even more inexcusable is his ongoing willful refusal to pivot away from politics as usual even during a war when healing the nation should have been his top priority. Any wartime leader – Churchill, Roosevelt, Zelensky — understands that unity is the foundation of victory. Yet within days, Netanyahu revealed his political mindset by trying to lay blame on the very commanders who were trying to fight the war.

Even Netanyahu could have quickly gained the trust of most Israelis if he had genuinely taken responsibility, promised new elections, and started making decisions based on what was best for the country regardless of his coalition. Ironically, he would be in a much stronger position politically if he had done so. If he had stood up to Ben Gvir rather than Biden, he could have been one of the most popular and secure politicians in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu could instantly diffuse the intensifying protests by setting an agreed upon date for early elections. He might even be able to form a centrist coalition without his extremist allies, despite the political risks to himself. His unwillingness to try will be another count in history’s indictment of him as Israel’s most divisive leader.

But Netanyahu’s opponents also bear responsibility for pushing the country up the escalation ladder of division. The Kaplan movement has made a strategic mistake in making their protests more against the government rather than for elections. They could have used the language of unity rather than the language of hate. To force elections, they need to have two-thirds of the people behind them, not one-third. And that will only happen if the people feel that joining them promotes unity, not division.

Quest for unity

There is another way. The Fourth Quarter, started two years ago, well before the judicial protests and the war, is a grassroots movement “dedicated to fighting polarization and promoting national unity.” Founded by the charismatic Yoav Heller, it presciently recognized that Israeli society was at risk of coming apart, exactly as David Ben Gurion predicted at the state’s founding. “The test of Zionism will be when Israel turns 75,” the Old Man said. By then, “the children born will no longer meet Holocaust survivors, nor will they know the founding generation. Our belief in the righteousness of our cause will require a renewed definition, not based on what was, but rather on what will be.”

The quest for unity may sound naive, but it dovetails precisely with the new post-October 7 politics. There are no real divisions over security anymore. The new political fault line is between uniters and dividers. This can be seen in the relative popularity of the anti-charismatic Benny Gantz over both Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Whoever stands most for unity will receive a tailwind from hundreds of thousands of soldiers coming back from the front only to find that the heights of solidarity they experienced had frayed into renewed, and perhaps even more bitter, infighting. These reservists know how pathetic our differences are compared to what we have in common.

Upon leaving the hospital after his near-fatal wounding, Idan Amedi, perhaps Israel’s most famous and beloved reservist, expressed with elegant simplicity the strategic imperative to preserve our only superpower. “The Israeli people is the strongest in the world. When we are unified we are invincible,” Amedi said.

Prioritizing unity is also our moral obligation to those who, to borrow from Lincoln, “gave the last full measure of devotion.” As the sirens of Yom Hazikaron command us to stand and remember, let us “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this [Jewish] nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” and that the hopes and dreams of the Jewish state “shall not perish from the earth.”

About the Author
Saul Singer is co-author, with Dan Senor, of The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World.
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