Why do I expect American Jews to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day?” This question has been keeping sleep from my eyes for the last several weeks. As a shaliach, getting people to come and celebrate the Israel 63 Festival on May 15 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center is a relatively easy task: the Israel Festival is a fun event with great attractions for the entire family. But why would American Jews come to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony?
For Israelis, Yom Hazikaron is very personal; every Israeli I know has either lost a relative or a friend during military service in the Israel Defense Forces, or knows someone who died in a terror attack. My wife, Inbal, lost her uncle Aaron even before she was born. It was in the Yom Kippur War, when his tank was hit while trying to prevent the Syrians from invading the southern part of the Israeli Golan Heights. I lost some of my best friends during military service.
“Most Americans don’t commemorate American Memorial Day,” a good friend here in Tucson told me.
“For Tucson Jews, the Holocaust memorial on one hand and the Israel Festival on the other are the important events at this time of the year,” a senior member of our community told me. “You should not expect American Jews to relate to Yom Hazikaron in the way Israelis do,” I was told again and again.
Only during the CUFI (Christians United for Israel) Night to Honor Israel on April 11 did I truly understand why I expect Jewish Americans to commemorate Yom Hazikaron. While I was listening to the amazing speech of the keynote speaker, Mr. Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor, enlightenment struck me: The Jewish people suffered persecution for over 2,000 years; the Crusaders, the Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, even anti-Semitic waves here in the United States around 1920 and many more intances. Jewish blood was spilled way too often and with an incomprehensible ease through history, with the most horrific example being the Nazi Holocaust. Let us not be mistaken; Germany prior to World War II was a very modern country with a thriving intellectual society. The Jewish community was highly integrated. Yet, as we all know, Germany engineered the most terrible genocide in human history.
It is only thanks to the brave soldiers, men and women, of the Israel Defense Forces, who gave their lives for the protection of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, that we can fulfill our promise to the next generation, “Never Again!”
It is only thanks to the 22,851 Israeli soldiers who gave their lives from the creation of Israel till this day, in wars, in heroic rescue operations of Jewish communities around the world, in the battle against Arab terrorism, in ongoing security operations and secret operations with stories yet untold, that we can live up to our promise. The eyes of the Jewish Ethiopian girl rescued from starvation, the praying lips of a Yemenite rabbi, the expression on the face of a young Jewish woman from Poland arriving at the port of Haifa on 1950 — all could bear witness.
It is one day a year, for one hour, that we get the honor of paying them our respect, showing their families and friends our solidarity and appreciation. On May 5th at 6:30 p.m. at the JCC we will honor them and their families. I hope you will choose to join us in this important ceremony.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s Israeli shaliach (emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.