Yom Hazikaron is commonly referred to by many people - as "K'dosh Kdoshim" - the holiest of the holies. For some Israelis, it is more meaningful then Yom Kippur. It is a day marked or observed by Israelis across the political spectrum, religious and non-religious, of different ethnicities, and all different ages.
According to official Israeli sites, 24,068 soldiers and security personnel have died since Jews first began modern efforts to rebuild Israel in 1860. In addition, approximately 4,216 Israelis have been killed in terrorist attacks. Following the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Yom Hazikaron was established as a day to remember fallen soldiers, which would take place every year the day before Israel's national Independence Day. Over the years, Yom Hazikaron was expanded to include those who were killed prior to the establishment of the State and in 1997, the Knesset enacted a law to include remembrance of victims of terrorism on Yom Hazikaron.
Like with Yom Hashoah, which we observed last week, we walked over to the Ra'anana ceremony last night at 8 p.m. All of Ra'anana's stores and restaurants closed early (around 6 p.m.) last night, as they did across the country. We went early to be able to find seats. There were thousands and thousands of people. Large sections of seating were reserved for families of fallen soldiers.
The ceremony started with a two minute long piercing siren. Thousands stood silently thinking about those who had died and. bracing themselves for a difficult ceremony.
The commemoration itself was about 1 hour and 20 minutes. It included speeches from the Mayor of Ra'anana, a representative of the bereaved families, the city Rabbi, and others. There was a special emphasis on the Yom Kippur War, which took place fifty years ago, in 1973. Images flashed across screens of worshippers in synagogue the day the war broke out - suddenly hearing sirens and alarms across the country as Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur. There were several stories about the lives of different soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the country and the names of every soldier, originally from Ra'anana, who had been killed, were read out. There were also several musical performances which were emotional, moving and exceptionally well presented.
We went back home and watched the tail end of the national Israeli ceremony. After that, TV stations broadcast musical performances for several hours by Israeli artists singing mournful loss-themed songs, much of this from a live performance in Tel-Aviv. This was all interspersed with interviews and stories about fallen soldiers, their families and their fellow soldiers who served with them.
Over the course of the day, Israeli TV programming is non-stop Yom Hazikaron programming. There was a second nationwide two minute siren at 11 a.m. There was a national ceremony at Mount Herzl and there are stories throughout the day of fallen soldiers and their families.
Yom Hazikaron is such a powerful day in Israel because of the nature of Israel's army and the role it plays in society. Since everyone is or can be drafted in Israel, the army is still very much a citizen's army. Israelis, young men and women, from all walks of life serve and units can be made up of people from different places, different backgrounds, different ethnic origins, economic circumstances and political views. They come together in the belief that it is necessary to defend the country. (I am not pretending there are no political issues here - including issues relating to who is required to serve - but I am deliberately avoiding those issues for now - that is for another post).
Israelis recognize that the army is there to protect Israel against very real existential threats. Two of Israel's wars, the 1948 War of Independence and the 1973 Yom Kippur War were very much existential wars in the truest sense of the word. In 1948, Israel was heavily outnumbered and had vastly inferior equipment to that of the array of surrounding countries that invaded, right after Israel declared its independence. In 1973, Israel suffered crushing losses during the first few days of the war, with Syria threatening to march towards Tel Aviv and Egypt threatening to march northwards. In both cases, heroic efforts by Israeli military forces led to eventual victory, at a heavy, heavy price.
In 1982, when Israel became involved in the first Lebanon War, Israel's north was under incessant attack from rocket fire from Lebanon. In 1996, during the Second Lebanon War, rockets from Lebanon hit Israeli targets (mostly civilian) across the country. More recently, Israel has faced barrages of rocket fire, targeting civilian areas, from Gaza and has had to defend the country.
And today, although things can seem relatively peaceful at times, there are serious threats to Israel from Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Hamas and Palestinians. The army must maintain a constant state of readiness, relying heavily on a wide range of intelligence operations, as well as the readiness of its well trained forces, in preparation for any possible outbreak of hostilities.
A common theme at Yom Hazikaron is the gratitude that we owe these fallen soldiers. It is because of them, their colleagues, their efforts and their sacrifices, that Israel was established and has been able to make it to his year's 75th anniversary.
The founders of Israel recognized that Israel's establishment and independence came at a great price. They determined that the only logical day on the calendar to mark Yom Hazikaron would have to be the day before Yom Haatzmaut - Israel's Independence Day.
They understood that Israel's greatest day of celebration, which is marked by fireworks, street partying, festivities across the country - could only be celebrated properly if it was preceded by a day honouring, thanking and commemorating those who made it all possible.
Yom Hazikaron will end tonight at sundown and Israel's 75th Independence Day - Yom Haatzmaut - will begin immediately after sundown. The country will demonstrate its resilience by moving seamlessly from grief to joy, from remembrance to celebration and from the country's cemeteries to national parks, musical stages, outdoor festivals and fireworks. It is a difficult transition. The message is that Israelis have no choice but to remember and thank those who were lost - while at the same time doing everything possible to get the most out of life and celebrate what we have.
To all those who we remember on Yom Hazikaron - Y'hi Zichram Baruch - may their memories be blessed.
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