A couple of weeks have passed since the big celebrations. Enough time for some reflections.
Allow me to describe the event based around the people who made the headlines. I have picked Israeli journalist Yisrael Cohen of Kikar (a leading Haredi website); Minister of Culture Miri Regev, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the Prime Minister; the 12,000 people who participated in a special Kululam (if you haven’t heard about this yet, read on); author and Israel Prize winner David Grossman, Minister for Education Naftali Bennet and another Israel Prize winner Miriam Peretz.
Let us begin…
Haredim and Israel’s Holy Days
Yisrael Cohen is a Haredi journalist. In the lead up to Yom Hazikaron (the 24 hours prior to Israel’s Independence Day) he released a video op-Ed on one of the most visited websites in the country. In it he rather clumsily set out the “classic” position of the Haredim with respect to the Holy Days in the eyes of most of Jewish Israeli society. Whilst his main point was that, in the spirit of respect for multi-cultural values, non-Haredi society cannot and should not expect Haredim to mark Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers in the way the State requires, what actually came across was the message that Haredim do not mourn for those lost in Israel’s wars. As you can imagine this created an immediate storm on social media. The backlash was swift and harsh, condemning Cohen and those whom he claimed to represent. The response among many Haredim, journalists and activists alike was similarly harsh.
There is an annual debate (almost ritual) as to what degree Haredim participate, respect, are apathetic or openly against Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hatazmaut. I have been following this social dynamic for some years, and in contrast to Cohen’s claims there is a growing respect and developing modus vivendi between Israeli society and the Haredim around these days, with respect from most Haredim avoiding publicly offending the rituals of the rest of society on these special days, and also increased events arranged by Haredim themselves to acculturate these days in a more Haredi style and environment.
After Yisrael Cohen went viral many of us involved in building trust between the Haredi and general society were concerned that this would set the relationship back years. The reality is that Cohen proved that the dynamic has moved to such an extent that the reaction to him was temporary and the process of gradual rapprochement was not harmed. Closer to my “home” I was very proud of the partnership Gesher repeated with the Haredi group Dossim enabling over 100,000 chapters to be said specifically in the named memory of each and every one of Israel’s fallen soldiers. In addition Gesher Fellow and friend Rabbi Menachem Bombach went viral with the video of the memorial ceremony that he led in his Haredi Yeshiva High School.
The last word on this topic should go the Hasidic Haredi Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, who represented the government at one of the hundreds of memorial ceremonies around the country – “We all, every one of us, share a joint fate. We live here together, side by side, and not one at the expense of the other. If we have unity and solidarity as a people and a society, then this is the best way to remember the fallen, and achieve victory over our enemies.”
Har Herzl Becomes a Political Circus
One of the annual centre pieces for the Yom Haatzmaut celebrations is the ceremony on Har Herzl, connecting the end of the Remembrance Day with the opening of Independence Day. If this event is central every year, it was to be a showpiece for Israel’s 70th birthday. Sadly the political jockeying the led up to it, reduced it to the level of a circus. Political arm-wrestling pitted Miri Regev and Benjamin Netanyahu in the blue corner and Yuli Edelstein in the red corner.
Instead of focusing on the content of the event, and the personalities and contributions of those set to light the torches (a central part of the ceremony – 12 torches representing the historic twelve tribes of Israel) we were feasted to a squabble that would have embarrassed most kindergartens. I have no idea who gained or lost politically from this, but we all lost as the TV commentators spent most of the evening with their stopwatches, timing how long the Speaker of the Knesset spoke (Edelstein) relative to the Prime Minister (Netanyahu). In my book, all three of them receive a failing grade.
Kululam is sweeping Israeli society. It is a form of shira batzibbur (lit. communal singing). Quick backgrounder: Israel has over the years had waves of public dancing and singing events. Both form parts of early Israeli culture and have receded over the years. Kulalam is taking communal singing into a new phase. Hundreds (or in this case thousands) buy tickets to a concert where the audience become the performers.
The event is made up of two parts.
First half – rehearsal of a song, sung in multiple voices, and the second half is a recorded series of performances of the song. On the Sunday prior to Yom Haaztmaut 12,000 people gathered in Yad Eliahu arena, normally the place where Maccabi Tel Aviv battles it out in basketball, in order to sing one of the most famous songs in the Israeli repertoire, Al Col Ele, by Naomi Shemer.
The crowd, graced with the presence of President Rivlin reflected a very broad spectrum of Israel society and was an outburst of energy and joy. Those that were there were uplifted by the power of song and the togetherness that harmony in music inspires. It will not surprise anyone to know that the video went viral with over 1.4 million views.
In the wake of the Har Herzl kindergarten, this suddenly felt like a cathartic replacement, a genuine “people’s” response to the politicians, and perhaps a reminder to us (and I would hope to them) that they work for us, and not the other way around.
David Grossman, Father of Uri, or Political Activist?
For the last 12 years there has been an event arranged on Yom Hazikaron that includes the families of Israeli fallen soldiers and terror victims and the relatives of Palestinians who have died in the conflict with Israel, including terrorists. This is undoubtedly a controversial event, and many in Israel find it at best distasteful and at worse a huge disrespect to the families of those who have lost loved ones to Palestinian terror. They feel, with a level of justification that the event makes an immoral comparison between Palestinian terror and the victims of terror. In recent years, and as the event has grown, it has attracted more political comment and there is a protest demonstration held opposite the event, showing their disdain and displeasure.
This year Grossman was awarded the highest civilian award of the State, the Israel Prize (for his literature and not his politics), but was denied the opportunity to address the assembled at the ceremony honoring the Prize Recipients. Instead, he was able to speak at the Yom Hazikaron event described above. Grossman whose son Uri was killed in battle during the Second Lebanon War, made a politically charged speech that was both eloquent and powerful, as you would expect from a prize winning writer. Whilst not knowing what is in any man’s heart or thoughts, it is possible to conjecture that the refusal to allow him to speak at the Israel Prize ceremony pushed him to a more aggressive speech at the remembrance event. Immediately following his speech there were calls at the fringe to disallow him from receiving the Prize the very next day.
To be clear, I do not like the idea of a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony, and especially one with obvious political overtones. There were also several things that Grossman referred to in his speech that I strongly disagree with. However, each and every Israeli does have the right to remember their fallen loved ones in a way they feel right. I just wish it were possible to do this without causing so much offence to others.
Miriam Peretz and Naftali Bennett
As mentioned previously the Israel Prize is the highest civil honour that Israel can bestow on its citizens, and they are awarded on an annual basis for those who have excelled in various categories, like science, Jewish scholarship, culture and civic society.
In great contrast to the previous night that sadly focused on the feuding between Regev, Edelstein and Netanyahu the Israel Prize ceremony managed to strike a very different tone.
The Israel Prize comes under the ministerial responsibility of the Education Minister, Naftali Bennett. His speech was replete with calls for unity. For the appreciation of difference and that argument (for the sake of heaven) is the way that the Jewish people has remained vibrant over so many millennia.
In an apparent nod to the bubbling controversy over Grossman and his speech from the previous day Bennett said “Author David Grossman is one of the most talented and leading authors in Israel, and next to him is Professor Alex Lebowski, one of the most important mathematics researchers and a resident of Efrat.,” reflecting the importance of a resident of Judea and Samaria alongside a fierce left wing activist. Bennett’s message was that both (and indeed all of the prize winners) are crucial for the success of Israel – “We are celebrating 70 years, and we have 70 faces,” alluding to the Rabbinic expression that the Torah has 70 faces.
After Bennett rose Miriam Peretz, who was officially awarded the prize for youth work. The full story is much more powerful. Miriam has taken personal tragedy and has turned it on its head, becoming an educator who has inspired thousands of Israelis with her story of inner strength in the face of severe adversity. Miriam lost two sons in combat, 12 years apart. Uriel and Eliraz were both in the Golani Brigade, and her other sons continued in the same tradition. In addition to losing her sons her husband also passed away, seemingly of a broken heart.
Miriam made an inspiring speech representing all of this year’s prize recipients, and it clearly came straight from the heart. Miriam made an impassioned call to action, and again, like Bennett, alluded to Grossman. She specifically referred to other prize winners who have experienced great personal grief and continue to work to contribute to Israeli society, again showing her understanding that each person understands through his or her vision what will make Israel closer to the ideal that we all strive for.
Among many highlights in her speech I think that this quote forms the heart of her clarion call – “If you miss one piece of the puzzle, the picture will not be complete, so I will not give up any part of my people.” It is the diversity of Israeli society and the Jewish people that ultimately gives it strength, it is not a unity of Kumbaya and holding hands, but a unity of multiple voices and views, beliefs and values. At the same as competing, these ideas strengthen and refine our mission statement as the sole Jewish country.
It gives me incredible pride to know that among the many wonderful things that Peretz has achieved she is also a Fellow of the Gesher Leadership Institute. We could not possibly hope for a better and more passionate spokesperson than Miriam.
The Israel Prize Ceremony was a highlight of the 70th anniversary celebration of Israel’s independence, but the day would somehow not have been complete without the politics and the controversy. This is Israel and hopefully through the continued vibrant, rich debate and argument it will reach the new heights and achievements to which every citizen strives, in the physical realm as well as the spiritual, social and cultural realms.
I hope that the message of diversity of opinion, together with acceptance that we have the ability to criticize and argue, without becoming enemies, will win the day. But in order for that to be our social priority, we will have to work hard every day, and not just during the Holy Days of Remembrance and Independence.