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Letter from Israel: Both mourning and celebrating as Israel turns 70

Children celebrate Independence Day at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

APRIL 26, 2018 – Israel ushered in its 70th birthday last week in much the same way it’s done since its inception: with grief and mourning followed immediately by celebration and revelry.
Unlike the long separation in the US between Memorial Day and Independence Day, Israel’s Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut hug each other, perhaps a metaphor for the messy, intermingled way of life that we live here where laughter and tears are a natural combination.

On the eve of Memorial Day, I attended an outdoor ceremony in the Jerusalem-area West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim with around 3,000 of the residents, many of them teens. After standing in silence for the minute-long siren that ushers in the somber 24-hour period, we watched the names and photos of the dozens of residents who have been killed in the line of duty or in terror attacks since the establishment of the state in 1948. Then mothers or sisters of slain soldiers spoke about their loved ones, interspersed with musical interludes.

This year, my son – nearly 18 – attended the ceremony with my wife and me. Our three older children have all completed their army duty, and emerged in sound physical and mental health. It’s not the same for many others. In a country of less than nine million people, it’s almost impossible not to know somebody who hasn’t lost a family member while serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
Looking over at Matan, handsome, taller than me, almost a man, and watching the images of kids his age who are no longer affected me profoundly and I found tears streaming down my face. I wanted to protect him, to tell him to run away, or at least try to get himself a desk job when he’s inducted into the army in another year and half.

But I remembered a conversation I had only last month with a 90-year-old veteran of the Palmach, the elite unit of the pre-state Hagana militia. Chanan Rapaport arrived in Palestine in 1934 at age 6 with his family from what is today the Ukraine. By the time he was 16, he was recruited by the Hagana, and in the years leading up to the 1948 War of Independence – and during the war as an IDF officer – he was a commander for some legendary operations that paved the way for the Jewish state.

“I didn’t think about what I was doing, I just knew that we were surrounded by hostile Arab populations, we bordered the sea, and we had all these Holocaust survivors coming here and looking to us for salvation,” he said, sitting in his Jerusalem living room. It’s just steps away from the courtyard where thousands celebrated David Ben-Gurion’s announcement on May 15, 1948, creating the state of Israel and where thousands gathered again last week to celebrate its 70th birthday.

“I knew that if I didn’t do what had to be done, nobody else was going to do it,” Rapaport said.

So I didn’t say anything to Matan last week. He will make his own choices – or the army will – about how he’ll spend his mandatory service to the country. That “If I don’t do it, nobody else will” feeling, however, is no longer prevalent as Israel turns 70.

For Israelis over a certain age – who remember the sacrifices of the early years, the ingathering of the post-Holocaust exiles, and the alarming threats to the country’s existence that accompanied the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War – it’s enough that Israel stands tall today.

A miracle over 70 years has absorbed millions of immigrants, created a vibrant but raucous democracy, and has spearheaded so many technological, scientific, and medical breakthroughs that have helped people around the world.

But for a generation of young Israelis – hoping to build a life, buy a home, enjoy a successful career – Israel is a land of obstacles and frustration. Raised in a modern world of global communication and financial opportunity, the miracle of the country being born and surviving against all odds is not enough for them.
They’re tired of perpetual conflict, of the corruption and the impossibly high prices. They want a normal country where they can buy a home and not go to reserve duty every year or fear an attack by Iran.

But for 24 hours last week, after the visits to cemeteries and documentaries on the Yom Kippur War made way for street parties, techno DJ raves, folk dancing, and barbecues, the collective Israel was able to stop the frenetic merry-go-round for another 24 hours and revel in the fact Israel – with all its flaws and frustrations – has turned 70.

The next 70 years will be a challenge for the still-young country – to see if those righteous reasons it came into being can become integrated with a new set of equally convincing and attractive reasons that will make Israelis take to the streets in celebration in 2088.

David Brinn is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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