I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been in Israel with CJP’s Spark mission this past week. It’s no small thing that they invested in bringing the CEOs from a wide range of Boston Jewish agencies here for the 75th Independence Day, along with busloads of young adults and other community leaders. It was great to be in Haifa again, to visit with so many wonderful organizations and people that matter deeply to our community such as the University of Haifa and the Yemin Orde youth village. It was a blessing to spend part of Shabbat studying Torah at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
In particular, for me, it was meaningful to be back here on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Though I’ve been privileged to travel here some forty times over the years, I have not been here on this most solemn of days since I lived here for two years, back in the mid 1980’s. It is hard for Americans to comprehend the profound experience of a nation that comes to a full stop not once, but twice: at 8PM, the eve of Yom Hazikaron, and again at 11AM, for two minutes of silence as a siren blares across the country. Conversations come to a stop and people jump out of their seats. Cars stop on the highway. People step out onto balconies to be in community. There’s nothing like it in our culture, and to be here and share this experience with Israelis is a privilege.
And then the day transitions to night and Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day, a day of raucous celebration, beach dance parties, air shows, and general revelry. This somber state, transitioning to celebration, this sense of sacrifice and patriotism and pride, was present throughout the days leading up.
Last Saturday night I stepped away from our CJP mission after Shabbat to be at the democracy protest in Jerusalem. I came with a curiosity for these weekly demonstrations that have captured the attention of the world. Thousands of people were gathered in the center of the city – there was dancing and humor, including dinosaurs and a massive “redline” (of democratic norms, not to be crossed) balloon. It was powerful to hear Limor Livnat, a longtime Likud Knesset member and former Minister of Education, as well as an unassailable member of Israel’s political right – denounce her own party and talk about the judicial proposals being of a Likud party that she was no longer proud to be part of. The crowd grew silent as the sister of one of Israel’s many lost soldiers talked about her brother and their hopes; and then they were energized as Liberal and Orthodox speakers stood side by side committing to being together to fight for a Jewish and democratic state.
On Sunday afternoon, I stepped away again to join the Israel Policy Forum for a conversation with Shikma Bressler, one of the protest leaders. I went because it was important to me to hear directly from the protest movement before going the JFNA GA to hear directly from Prime Minister Netanyahu. As it turned out, amidst the promise of an actual protest in the GA hall during his remarks, Netanyahu announced earlier that same day that he would not attend. It was illuminating and interesting to hear from Bressler in this off-the-record discussion about the diversity of groups who are taking to the streets and their hopes for their nation’s future.
On Monday night, Yom Hazikaron, I had the opportunity to step away from our group yet again to attend the joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony organized by Combatants for Peace in partnership with the American Friends of the Parents Circle- Family Forum (a group I have had the pleasure of working with and supporting for years through our Boston Partners for Peace efforts). This event is ‘challenging’ for many, including me. It is no simple thing for Israelis and Palestinians to come together- on this of all days – to say that the life of a young woman killed by a Palestinian terrorist in a bus bombing and the life of a Palestinian child who died in an IDF operation both have value and should be commemorated. This is something that many here– including in positions of authority on ‘both sides’ object to.
Sitting in a park in Tel Aviv with 15,000 people listening to these families share each others’ losses and grief was remarkable. I was struck by the sheer numbers of people who would choose on this evening to come together in the spirit of human dignity and co-existence. I was struck that they did not hold back in their words, or obscure in any way how their family members died and at whose hand. I was also struck by their conviction regarding the urgency, and their commitment regarding their work together to bring about a better future for all of them.
I’ve been thinking about the crowds at the democracy protests a lot over these past few days. These masses are not radical. This democracy movement is not unpatriotic. They are not– as some would portray them- enemies of the state; these are deeply patriotic members of the Israeli public who are critics of the proposals and policies of their current government.
At the democracy protests, in a way that felt somewhat unfamiliar compared to American protest marches in recent years – these people claimed a profound patriotism. They’ve made their own national flag a symbol of the protest movement, so much so as to complicate various gatherings throughout the week of memorials and independence celebrations where a flag held up in a crowd became seen as an objection to the members of the government on various stages. These are Israelis coming together across all sorts of fractures and divisions to defend the core principles of their state.
At several moments this week, during our CJP mission in Israel, we were reminded of the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt’l:
“Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope.”
As the democracy protest on Saturday night concluded, the crowd sang HaTikvah (The Hope) – Israel’s national anthem. When we reached the line “lehiyot am chofshi” (to be a free people in our homeland) I found myself crying tears – tears of pain and love for this crowd and this people. But also tears of hope for them, and for their belief that people can come together to create a better future.
For all the troubles of this region, witnessing these people come together to take action I come away feeling more hopeful than I have been regarding its future. And that, truly, is the greatest gift of this past week.