Yom Hazikaron requires urgent reconsideration

This will not be a popular or comfortable post. It will likely offend people I respect and care for. It will alienate some of you from me and me from some of you. And it will do this on a day that is supposed to unify us viscerally and fundamentally in primal terms. I remember how rigidly I stood vigil over a ceremonial flame in the middle of the night as an infantryman on Yom Hazikaron, as devoted a ritual acolyte as one can imagine, a barely breathing watchman mimicking dignified marble in the chill of a Galilean night. I followed orders. I marched in step. I did so willingly. I did so earnestly and ardently. And I didn’t realize then that this is what the day is about, to a large degree. It is supposed to move us into line, into step. But I needed no coercion. I was a true believer, an eager participant in the mystification of the political. It seems a very long time ago now. Because, it actually was…and not only with regard to time.

I hate Yom Hazikaron. Yeah. I know. Everyone hates it. Or thinks they do. We are supposed to hate it. But I don’t mean it that way. I hate it in the sense of opposing it, except for the directly bereaved for whom, let’s face it, Yom Hazikaron stretches sometimes subtly and sometimes intensely across their days for the rest of their lives.

I think we have ritualized our militarism to a degree that we cannot even imagine who or what we would be without it. We nourish and nurture a cycle of grief, while putting so little emphasis on reflecting how we might try something a little different, or on imagining a future that might look different. Instead, we use this occasion largely to prepare the next crop of sacrifices. Because we depend on them. Not only materially. We depend on those sacrifices for our identities. We idealize the fallen, and implicitly (and sometimes not so implicitly) communicate to our children that dying for the country makes one “the best of us” (a line frequently recited about the dead) instead of trying to take responsibility for an abhorrent reality we ourselves are foisting upon our children, instead of trying to change it. We have a liturgy of tohar haneshek (purity of arms) and eyn breirah (no alternative) and minesharim kalu, me’arayot gaveru (swifter than eagles, mightier than lions). How the mighty have fallen! And we engage in precious little heshbon nefesh (critical self-reflection, taking an account of our lives and our souls).

We have become fatalists. We are no longer visionaries. We tell ourselves that we now control our fates and our history for the first time in millennia, while shrugging that this is the best we can do as we continue to pour 20 times the energy all year round into talking about what is wrong with ‘them’ instead of challenging ourselves with the imperative to do better, or at least keep trying to find ways to do it better. We are led by idolatrous jingoists. And we lack the will to chose better.

I know that expressing anything critical, any slight veering from my assigned ritualized place in the savage disassembly line will make me into just one more “Ashkenazi leftist who tells everyone how the state sucks” in the eyes of many whom I respect. Others will read this and continue to brand me a “meek ghetto Jew” and a “kapo” and accuse me of justifying terrorism and refusing to accept reality, which really means THEIR perception of reality. Fine. I know. BUT, let’s not pretend that these rituals don’t compel a glorification of state power and of physical force over creative aspiration and moral vision. Don’t tell me that these rituals don’t function with a purpose, to get us all in line so that we can continue to project responsibility onto anyone and everyone else. And don’t tell me that we can’t do better than we have done when we no longer even try.

I refuse to continue to participate in cultic practices that perpetuate a politics of arrogance and an opportunistic avoidance of responsibility and imagination. It literally makes me sick how we dress elementary school children up in uniforms and charge them with pantomiming violent death and prompt them to idealize the dead, turning the fallen into mythic emblems instead of recognizing them as a reflection of our own all too human failures. I didn’t go this year to my son’s school ceremony. Last year, as I left with my son, his best friend, and his best friend’s Abba, who is a staunch right-wing voter, I held my tongue. Then, when the boys were far enough ahead of us, he turned to me and said in disgust that it had been like one of those horrific Hamas videos where they dress children up in suicide bomber costumes and asked me if we are really so different from them. At least someone was reflecting critically for a few seconds.

I don’t think 23,646 Jewish dead and hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish non-combatants made homeless is an occasion for dignity and appropriateness. And I think those dead and those displaced, the lives and the communities that have been destroyed, should not occasion dignified and perversely pleasurable grief, fetishism, and commitments to future sacrifice. I think they should occasion frustration and outrage and demands that our leaders lead instead of merely managing our conditions and their own positions.

Don’t tell me that this is the best we could have done up until now. Believe that if you like. But that approach means nothing will ever change, unless the world finally decides to organize itself for our convenience. Elementary school boys will continue to be prompted to play at dead soldiers and to fantasize about which elite unit they will join or start preparing themselves for pilots’ course. Because this is what we do. Because this is who we are. Like Joseph, we have gone astray in the field. We, too, are to’im basadeh. This, we should know, means we are in a very precarious present and face a dubious future. A future that portends sibling strife and parental grief and ruptures in identity and relationships and very very real, very unmythic bodies.

If Tisha B’av, when we mourn the destructions of the Temples, is an occasion for reflection and penitence, kal vahomer (a fortiori) Yom Hazikaron.

About the Author
Ori Weisberg is a writer, editor, and translater. He holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught at Michigan State University in English and Jewish Studies, was a Golda Meir Post-Doctoral Fellow and served as Guest Lecturer at The Hebrew University, as well as at The Kibbutzim College and Bar Ilan University. Dr. Weisberg is also the composer of "Hashoshanim," a world-beat setting of the entire text of Shir Hashirim in an 18-song song cycle. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three implausibly attractive children.
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