Today Israelis observed a sacred national ritual, the annual “Yom Hazikaron,” “Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen.” Each year, the day includes the powerful rite of a two-minute siren that sounds throughout the country. Wherever they find themselves - - in offices, highways, agricultural settlements, schools, and basketball courts, Israelis stop whatever they are doing and stand in silence. In a noisy, fast-paced country with a vibrant and often cynical press, this is a rare and extraordinary moment of silent reverence. It is a time of collective memory and grief, giving honor to those who gave their lives for the state.
At sunset (for the Jewish day begins in the evening, following the language of the Biblical creation story, “And it was evening and it was morning”), Memorial Day turns into the joyful “Yom Ha’atz’ma’ut,” or Independence Day. There are celebrations in the streets, fireworks and parties, with children waving flags and playing with special toys unique to the day. It is a playful and joyous time, with an underpinning of deep wonder that the state exists at all, having come into being in the wake of unspeakable horrors, and continuing to thrive against enormous odds.
Yet in recent years, many commentators have observed that Independence Day has become a more somber affair. For many Israelis, the intractable nature of the conflict has brought a measure of sadness, even despair, to thoughts of the history of Zionism and the miracle of the establishment of the state. Some have said that the antics in the streets have quieted down, having given way to sober reflections about what it would take to move from the perpetual state of conflict in which Israel has lived throughout its history to a time of peace.
Earlier today I received an e-mail that brought me great joy on this Yom Ha’atz’ma’ut. The Jerusalem Post carried a beautiful article by Aziz Abu Sarah, a long-time Palestinian peace activist, now director of Middle East Projects for the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Abu Sarah writes of his personal practice of wishing Israeli friends “chag same’ach,” “happy holiday,” for Israeli Independence Day. How could a Palestinian refugee, who had lost his home in 1948, lost loved ones and his freedom in the decades of conflict, treat the day as a joyous holiday, as Israelis do, when for Palestinians, the day is known as “Nakba Day,” or “Day of the Catastrophe?” How could a Palestinian set aside his own sense of grief and anger to wish an Israeli friend a joyous day?
This is the stuff of peace-making. For a Palestinian to acknowledge his or her Israeli friend’s joy on Independence Day, or for an Israeli to reach out, acknowledging a Palestinian friend’s sorrow on the very same day, is to embody a deep understanding that there are two conflicting narratives in this war-torn land. For decades both sides have cried out that theirs is the only true narrative. Such inability to hear and acknowledge the reality of “the other side” will never move us from intractable conflict to co-existence. When Palestinians can acknowledge the profound, loving connection that Jews have to the Land of Israel and when Israelis can acknowledge how shattering the establishment of the State of Israel was for Palestinians, we will finally be on our way to peace.
I am awed by Abu Sarah’s profound ability to feel the other’s joy while still feeling his own pain. And I honor my Israeli friends who call their Palestinian friends on this day each year, to express their hope that by next year we will all celebrate a joyous Independence Day for the new State of Palestine. May both peoples soon know joy, safety, security, freedom and dignity, in their own sovereign lands.