At exactly 8pm, Sunday, April 22, a siren diffused the air of Jerusalem, and then followed a moment of silence –that was the beginning of the memorial ceremonies at the Western Wall. The following day at 11am, again, the siren wailed ending into another silence –that was the launch of similar ceremonies but at the 43 military cemeteries countrywide. These were preliminaries leading to the 59th anniversary celebration of Israel’s independence.
The Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, was in honour of the fallen soldiers and those Jews who died in terrorist attacks. The number of soldiers and security personnel, who died in 1947, is estimated at over 20,000 and in the 1948 War of Independence more than 6,000 died, with 15,000 wounded. In the Six-Day War of June 1967, after which Israel recaptured the entire Jerusalem City, over 770 Israelis were killed. And so the celebration of independence was preceded by cherished memories of these heroes.
Addressing the bereaved families that Sunday night at the Western Wall, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recognized the price paid for the State of Israel. “We paid with the blood of the best of our children for all our futures and for the hope to live in our country in peace …. We will remember the fallen and that their memory will remain etched in the heart of the nation forever.”
At the same function, the IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi warned Israel’s enemies: “We are a stiff-necked people, hurt but not tired. Even as our one hand is extended in peace, our other hand is well-placed on the trigger guard to meet any enemy and oppressor. No one should test our ability.”
Despite the great sense of identity as a people manifested during such festivities Israelis are however divided over what this independence is, how it should be celebrated and to where it should lead the nation. They have different views and expectations.
For the secular Jews, this is a mere national holiday like Independence Day in any country, that’s all. That however is not the case with others.
The hareidi-religious group (traditional Judaism) criticises, firstly, the means by which the state has been attained –not according to Messianic expectation. Besides, they are not happy with the secularised way of celebrating so much that some wouldn’t want even to participate in it.
The ordinary religious Jews take Independence Day as a religious holiday; a day of thanking God for saving Jews from the humiliation of long exile and bringing them to the Land of their own. So they recite the Hallel, have a festive meal, sing and dance, and wear special Sabbath clothes. Their prayer at the close of these celebrations is quite revealing: “May it be Thy will that just as we have merited the beginning of the Redemption, we shall also merit hearing the Shofar [horn] of our righteous Messiah….” for them the independence is already a step towards the fulfilment of the messianic promises.
The Religious-Zionist Rabbis have their own views clear of how things should be and Rabbi Uri Cohen is blunt about it. The status of Israel is so unique that it should not be compared with other nations that are mere grouping of people around their common interests by which a state is a mere means of realising those interests. Not so with Israel, the state of the Chosen People.
Israelis are “one soul in separate bodies,” Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy says. Only when they live in one community are they true to their make-up. Settling in the land and building the temple are therefore simply part of the natural expectations to fulfil.
Therefore, the justification of the existence of Jewish state, Rabbi Daniel Shilo observes, is not merely to provide shelter for Jews after centuries of persecution. For that he is not happy with the secular Zionist movement that emphasises the link between the Nation and its Land but weakens the bond of the Land and the Torah. He has the following proposals in order to correct the situation:
Firstly, the boundaries of the Land of the covenant promised to Abraham must be respected and never to be left to politicians to demarcate them.
Secondly, non-Jews have to leave the land or submit themselves to Jewish legal court that will allow them to live here but with limited rights –no political rights, for instance.
Thirdly, the Monarch is to be re-established and the Sanhedrin to take charge of judicial function based on the Torah.
And lastly, the Temple should be rebuilt in order to revive the full Jewish Divine worship.
That all depends on the Jews themselves to realise, Rabbi Kroizer urges, and they ought to be confident they are capable of such achievement. Even though the completion may not be in their generation they should not abandon the vision and these goals must always be clear to them.
At first sight, this reading may leave an impression of a people that is fanatic, discriminatory and even racist, perhaps. That would be but only one side. There would be another.
Here is a nation that continues to reflect on her future and does not simply pull the cork out of the bottle, fill the glass, do cheers, take a sip and then sit back and amuse at self-congratulations: We did it!
What next? How do we proceed? Always remain vital questions for a people with a vision. One may not agree with its content, of course –one doesn’t have to –but at the same time one simply cannot miss the great sense of direction and purpose.
If only many of the African political leaders could have that resoluteness for the wellbeing of their nations at heart, no matter how imperfect their visions might be, the years of independence of their countries could have already made a lot of difference for the betterment of the people.
© Evans K. Chama 2007
A Missionary of Africa studying theology in Jerusalem