Today, Israelis are mourning their dead in the wars their country has been forced to fight to secure and keep their freedom. Tomorrow they will celebrate that freedom on their nation’s 65th Independence Day since its modern rebirth in 1948. The juxtaposition of these two days on the calendar tells us a lot about the country’s history but also the meaning of the price of liberty that its people have continued to pay in the face of an ongoing siege that is still not lifted.
Americans do well to pay notice to these observances. For one, it is because they highlight how lucky we are in live in a country where Memorial Day is more about car sales and three-day weekends than grief over the fallen. But is also because our freedom, though always in need of vigilance, is not quite so precarious as that of the citizens of a small country whose neighbors are still largely bent on its destruction. These insights should make us more grateful to our veterans and those who currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, but they should also inform our discussion about foreign policy at a time when the voices of isolationism are getting louder.
The most striking thing about Yom Hazikaron—the Day of Remembrance—that is being solemnly observed today in Israel is that it is not marked by parades or chest-thumping military observances. Rather, it is a day of intense national mourning for the fallen.
The experience of having to deal with the heavy toll of dead that Israel has incurred in the last six and a half decades—comprising more than 23,000 military dead and 75,000 wounded as well as more than 3,000 civilian casualties of terrorism–is something unknown here since World War II. Indeed, when you consider it as a percentage of population, it is probably more accurate to say that Americans have not had to deal with casualties on the scale that Israel has suffered since the Civil War.
In a small country where military service is compulsory for most sectors of the population, these dead aren’t merely statistics but deaths in the family. Thus, when the country stopped early today in solemn commemoration for the fallen, the grief is real and the emotions raw.
But at the end of day of solemn mourning, the national mood is reversed as Israelis plunge into a day of flag-waving Independence Day barbecues and frivolity. There is a touch of schizophrenia in this, but the country’s leaders knew what they were doing by placing these days next to each other rather than separating them, as well as by putting them only a week after the day set aside for remembering the Holocaust (a topic that Rabbi Daniel Gordis explains in the Jerusalem Post).
While Americans rightly think their freedom is an inalienable right bestowed upon them by their Creator, in recent generations we have come to think of it as just another entitlement for which most citizens should never be required to pay. Such complacence is understandable. The sacrifices of previous generations have made the United States not only free but the world’s only superpower. Its defense is a function of oceans and continents rather than a few hilltops and a narrow and vulnerable coastal plain, as is the case with Israel. Our neighbors are both friendly and militarily weak. Though some of that feeling of invulnerability was shaken by the terrorist assaults of 9/11, the feeling that nothing can touch us remains, even if it is a bit less confident than before.
But in Israel, the connection between the ultimate sacrifice and the life of the nation is not remote. It is immediate and quite real.
For all of the talk about Israel being the superpower of the Middle East, it remains a tiny sliver of land in a sea of hostility. It faces Palestinians in Gaza who have used their independence to create a terrorist state that is nothing more than a launching pad for missiles sent into Israel. In the West Bank, it must deal with Palestinians who still refuse to negotiate peace and have rejected offers of statehood because they find it impossible to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
In Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces neighbors that are formally at peace with it but whose populations and many of whose political leaders reject coexistence. The rest of the Middle East is equally unwilling to live in peace. While most of the nations may not have the capability to act on their hate, the clock continues to count down toward the day when Iran will have the nuclear weapons with which to make good their threats to destroy the Jewish state.
To state this is not to discount Israel’s amazing achievements and strengths. The accomplishments of the last 65 years are so great that it is little wonder that many think them miraculous rather than merely the product of hard work, ingenuity and sacrifice. Israel is economically and militarily strong and it is, as President Obama said last month, not going anywhere in spite of the flood of hatred and anti-Semitism that is directed at it.
Israel’s many enemies foolishly think that a day will come when they will grow weary of the struggle and give up. They are wrong. For all of its problems, and they are not inconsiderable, the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand the connection between mourning and freedom. Unlike most Americans, they know their existence has not been bought cheaply. Nor will it continue to be secured at no cost.
This is something that Americans, who share the values of democracy with Israelis as well as an understanding of the connection of the Jewish people with their ancient biblical homeland, need to keep in mind. While Israelis first mourn and then celebrate today, their American allies should watch with admiration and a renewed commitment to doing their part to ensure that Islamist terrorists and tyrants will never be allowed to extinguish this beacon of freedom in the Middle East.