This week Israel is set to pay tribute to the 23,835 casualties of war and terrorism who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. All give some, but some give all. As Israel commemorates Yom Hazikaron- (Memorial Day), whose full name is “Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.” One of the most well-known poems written in the Hebrew language, which will be read in memorial services across our country about the price we have paid, and continue to pay, for the Zionist dream, is Natan Alterman’s “The Silver Platter.” This poem’s title is based on a quote by Israel’s first President, Chaim Weitzman:
A State is not handed to a people on a Silver platter.
אין מדינה נתנת לעם על מגש של כסף
This opening quote sets the tone for this iconic poem of remembrance. The classic Zionist idea that the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) implies that without the sacrifice of the heroic generation of ’48, and the succeeding wars, we would not have a Jewish State. Alterman seems to imply that this is not the “passive” generation of Bialik’s Kishniev, the “City of the Slaughter,” who fled like scampering mice,” but rather the youth of the “silver platter” generation, who are the “new Jews.”
What is fascinating is that the poem, published in the Hebrew newspaper “Davar” in December 1947, three weeks after the November 29 Partition vote, long before the ultimate end of a war that would result in 6,000 casualties (military and civilian, 1% of the population) as a type of “op-ed” before the establishment of Israel, was that it was not about the fallen in Israel’s wars. Rather, it was a prediction of the deaths that would occur in future upcoming wars for the freedom of the State of Israel. In other words, it is not a “post 1948” text, it is a prophetic text. The human cost in fighting for our state will be very high. The poem does not glorify the dead, but rather mourns the sacrifice that will be made.
So the land grows still.
Red fades in the sky
Over smoking borders.
Heartsick but breathing, the people greet
The miracle that has no parallel.
The “miracle” referred to here is not in the traditional religious sense of the word, but rather the fact that the “New Jews” did not sit passively and wait for a God-provided miracle but took their destiny in their own hands…they did not mumble “next year in Jerusalem” as Jews had done for generations without tangible results…but rather we “miraculously” returned to Jerusalem/Zion/Israel by physically doing something.
Beneath the moon, they stand and wait,
Facing the dawn in awe and joy;
Then slowly towards the waiting throng
Two step forth – a girl and a boy.
The socialist bent of the “Palmach generation” is emphasized here with the dual heroes a “girl and boy.” No longer is the white-haired, long-bearded Rabbi the “hero.”
Clad for work and for war, heavy shod and still,
Up the winding path they make their way,
Their clothes unchanged, still soiled with the grime
Of the battle-filled night and the toilsome day.
The “work and war” imagery emphasizes the dual nature of Israeli society not just a militaristic society, rather one that emphasizes “Jewish labour” in building up the land.
Weary past telling, strangers to sleep,
But wearing their youth like dew in their hair,
Dumb they approach. – Are they living or dead?
Who knows, as they stand unmoving there.
Tear-stained, wondering, the people ask,
“Who are you?” – softly reply the two,
“We are the silver platter, on which
The Jewish State is handed you!”
In shadow they fall when their tale is told –
The rest let Israel’s story unfold.
The power of this poem is that it is addressing the reader across the generation gap. Not just those of 1947 but the questions and challenges are just as relevant in 2021. They, the “young metaphorical boy and girl” fall into the shadows as their “job has been done.” It is now up to the reader and the next generation to make sure that the “rest of Israel’s story unfold.” It as almost as if the 1948 generation (and all succeeding generations of the fallen) are saying: “Do not let our sacrifices be in vain. You must live for us. You must live our dream!״
With their death, they gave us life- במותם ציוו לנו את החיים
Dr. Tuvia Book is the author of “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Education” (Koren, 2017). His forthcoming book, Jewish Journeys, on the Second Temple Period, will be published by Koren this year. He also is a Ministry of Tourism licensed Tour Guide, Jewish educator and a Judaica artist. www.tuviabook.com