The period of about three weeks from Pesach (Passover) to Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is densely packed with commemorations and celebrations. We start with the holiday of Passover, known as the "time of our freedom." Shortly after that, Israel commemorates Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah - the day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Bravery.
One week later, Israeli Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron, a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers, police and other security officials and victims of terror - in Israel and outside of Israel - is commemorated and then one day later it is Israeli Independence Day. These are powerful and emotional days filled with compelling public ceremonies, observances and rituals.
I have written about some of this in the past so I am not going to rehash what I have previously written. But I thought I would highlight a few things.
The combination of Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut all emphasize the importance of Israel - the tremendous price that Jews have paid before they had a state - and then to establish and maintain the State, the need for the state as the defender of the Jewish people around the world, and the fragility and preciousness of the state along with its resilience.
On Yom Hashoah (You can watch this year's ceremony here), six Holocaust survivors are called up to light memorial torches. Their stories are told before they come up. Their numbers are dwindling each year. One survivor, scheduled to light a torch, died this year one week before the ceremony. All of Israel's dignitaries are in attendance - the President, the Prime Minister, the Supreme Court Justices. And in between, there are powerful musical performances. In most years, there is a common theme. The Jewish community suffered devastating, murderous losses in Europe at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. If only Israel had been in existence in 1939, perhaps it could have helped, it could have saved lives, it could have prevented so much death. And, of course, from the Israeli viewpoint, it is only a strong Israel that can genuinely fulfil the promise of "never again" for the Jewish people.
One week later, Israel commemorates the loss of more than 24,000 soldiers and security personnel killed since the establishment of the State and the loss of thousands of victims of terrorism in Israel and abroad. Once again, there is a torch lighting ceremony (shown here) before the same dignitaries along with bereaved families who have lossed loved ones. There are powerful musical peformances (Here and Here) and not a dry eye among the attendees. The following day, there are ceremonies at cemeteries across Israel as loved ones are remembered and missed.
As the sun sets and Yom Hazikaron ends, the sadness turns to joy and Israeli Independence Day is ushered in - this year marking Israel's 74th birthday.
Once again, there is a torch lighting ceremony - this time featuring Israelis who have reached tremendous heights with their accomplishments - in different walks of life. Yom Haatzmaut ceremonies have honoured scientists, artists, musicians, health care workers, athletes, leaders of charitable organizatons and so many others. There are dance peformances, military fly-overs, fireworks, musical performances and, of course, speeches. Across the country, there are celebrations with musical peformances, carnival-like atmospheres and raucous, exuberent crowds - thrilled to celebrate Israel's accomplishments over its first 74 years.
One of my personal highlights is a program that Israeli singer Idan Reichel has run for the past few years. He has asked Israeli soldiers - most of whom are in the army as part of mandatory conscription - to send him recordings of themselves singing. He and his crew receive hundreds of entries. They then select 10 of these young soldiers. Reichel and his crew show up at each soldier's base and suprise them somehow - with an invitation to sing at the national Independence Day performance. The 10 soldiers spend some time preparing with Reichel and then perform at the national ceremony with their family and friends in attendance. At the end of the evening, Reichel picks one lucky winner to co-write a new song with him to be recorded and released. The whole event mixes so many key aspects of Israel. Reichel meets with and selects Israelis from all across the country - religious and non-religious, from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds - men and women, from the north and the south, the east and the west, all of whom are serving in the IDF, defending the country. The singers are all emotional, excited, very talented and very proud.
Finally, after watching the solemn commorations of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, one week apart and then thoroughly enjoying the gleeful and exciting Yom Haatzmaut celebrations, I noted that I had received an email earlier in the day "warning" me about the movie "My Tree" that is now being shown on CBC Gem as part of "Jewish Heritage" week. I decided that I should watch the film, which was released in 2021 by Toronto based Jason Sherman.
Sherman has an attractive and easy going style in his narrative. He seems personable enough and sincere in his "quest" to look into the story behind the planting of a tree in his name at the time of his bar-mitzvah many years ago - coincidentally - at the shul that I am still involved in when I am in Toronto.
But his seemingly "curious" nature is somewhat of a cover for a manipulative and unbalanced hatchet job on the Jewish National Fund ("JNF" or Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael - KKL), and by extension, Israel. At the outset, Mr. Sherman mocks his Jewish heritage by poking fun at his bar-mitzvah ceremony, where he can't even bring himself to wear a Kippah standing in the Synagogue's main sanctuary, with his film crew, and reading some prayers. After some coaxing from the Synagogue's executive director, he reluctantly agrees to cover his head. It is evident that he has gone back to his bar mitzvah shul to mock it. He doesn't meet with the Rabbi of the shul or mention that he has tried to do so. The current Rabbi would be too compelling and wouldn't fit with the theme of this "documentary."
Sherman then sets out on a journey to Israel to look for the tree that was planted in his name at the time of his bar mitzvah in the 1970s. At the outset, Sherman gives his abbreviated version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, he notes that in 1948 "war broke out," as if it were a rain storm suddenly beginning. No mention of the fact that all of Israel's surrounding neighbours attacked Israel - and certainly no mention of what happened with all of the Palestinian land that was held by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. Or the Jewish towns and villages that were wiped out by the Arab armies during that war. In fact, Sherman refers to the founding of Israel as the "Nakhba," - using the Palestinian term for the great disaster.
Along the way, Sherman cites such "luminaries" as Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, and Edward Said, all known Israel bashers. And frankly, I woudn't even have a great problem with that if he also cited or interviewed or spoke with some historians, politicians, scholars etc., who might give an opposing view. He could interview them, argue with them and raise his concerns. There is no shortage of people who would have thoughtful responses to some of what Sherman raises.
But there is no opposing view because this is not an objective documentary. It is essentially a propaganda film that describes Israel as an illegitimate war-crime state. The concluding part of My Tree longs for the day (at the end of the movie) where Israel will be replaced by a one-state solution. Sherman refers to himself as having been complicit in "war crimes" because his family planted a tree for his bar mitzvah by contributing money to the JNF.
Like any decent prograganda film on this topic, disguised as a documentary, the movie certainly includes some truths, cites some historical injustices and raises awareness of important issues. I don't mean to downplay the genuine injustices that many Palestinians have faced including those who lived in Arab towns that were overrun by the Israeli army in 1967. But there is no context at all. The wars that Israel has fought have been existential and that has included a battle over land in many cases.
Sherman mocks the notion that Jews had a presence in the Land of Israel historically, for thousands of years or that there is any reality to the historical connection that the Jewish people have to the country. He portrays Israel as a settler-colonialist state, rather than a movement to reclaim an indigenous homeland. He disregards legitimate land purchases, settlement and nation building on the the part of Jewish immigrants starting in the 1880s. Of course there is no mention, whatsoever, of any role the Palestinians might have played in the whole historical narrative and the hostilities. No mention of how the wars started, no discussion of terrorism, pre-1948 massacres, or any other parts of the historical record that might not fit with Sherman's thesis.
Now there is a great deal of controversy over the dichotomy and the opposing views of Israel - but one could certainly explore these issues and give them context - even if ultimately preferring the anti-Israel side of the narrative, as Sherman is inclined to do. Because of this lack of context or balance, it is no wonder that the film has been presented at Palestinian film festivals. It is probably quite popular among the likes of Peter Beinart, Sid Ryan, Roger Waters, JVS (Jewish Voices for Peace), the BDS movement and other groups and individuals that are opposed to Israel and its policies - or reject Israel's existense outright as a Jewish State.
By way of an example, Sherman wanted to discuss these issues with a Rabbi in Toronto. Apparently, the only Rabbi in Toronto who he could find to speak to him was a rabbi from the Danforth Jewish Circle that meets in a church. To her credit, I thought Rabbi Miriam Margles did a fairly decent job answering some of the points raised by Sherman. But would it be too problematic to try to meet with some other rabbis - perhaps the rabbi of the same shul that he went back to when asking about his bar mitzvah? Or perhaps other Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Chabad rabbis? Again, I find it hard to believe that no one would speak with him. More likely, he didn't want to hear or record what they might say because it woudn't fit his narrative.
Ultimately, the juxtoposition between the celebrations in Israel, and this type of movie made by an unaffiliated Torontonian, who happens to be Jewish, highlights the growing chasm between Israel and the diaspora. Israel is now home to more than half of the world's Jewish population and that population is rapidly increasing. On the other hand, the Jewish communities in Canada and the U.S. as well as other countries around the world are shrinking due to assimilation, intermarriage and general apathy. Further, according to some recent articles, the level of support among young Jews in the U.S. and Canada - for Israel - has also been dropping. This is disappointing but not surprising.
Last night, in Toronto, I attended at a Ma'ariv service at the same shul where Mr. Sherman was doing some of his filming. I was joining a family member to commemorate a Yahrtzeit. The shul was sparsely attended. But the more troubling point is that it was Erev Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day. There was no shul programming scheduled, no special prayers, no serious commemoration of this solemn day. In fact, the shul was having a "Town Hall Meeting" - of all days - on Yom Hazikaron. And that was, to me, another reflection of this growing gap between the two communities.
To end on a positive note, I can mention that, despite these trends, the number of Birthright groups travelling to Israel remains significant. Thousands of young Jews from around the world are taking a 10 day trip to Israel to see the country first hand, and hopefully come away with some sense of affinity, belonging, and pride for the country that is now home to such a large percentage of the world's Jewish population. And some of them may well wind up on a bus with one of our family members - who is now a full licensed Israeli tour guide.
Wishing everyone a Chag Sameach on Israel's 74th birthday and hoping that the coming years will bring peace, stable government, continued development in a wide range of areas, more great music and closer relationships with Jews around the world, including, perhaps, those like Mr. Sherman, who might come back for another visit. This second time around, aside from looking for his tree, he can also see his Temple ruins, his ancient synagogues, the burial sites of his ancestors and so many other important Jewish historical sites that just didn't seem relevant to the statement he was trying to make - including those particularly dear to my heart - like the ancient wineries, wine storage facilities and wine presses that were one of the largest sources of economic activity in the Temple years, during the first and second Kingdoms of the Jewish people in Ancient Israel.