Celebrate Israel

Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day – and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, fall on April 18 and 19 this year. Israel is celebrating 70 years since the establishment of the Jewish state.

Here in America, most Jews aren’t at all aware of Yom HaZikaron. Here in Birmingham we don’t have any communal ceremonies for Yom HaZikaron. Many of my friends and I celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut the same way we celebrate Independence Day in America – with a barbeque! And that’s what we’re doing here: Yom HaAtzmaut is being celebrated with the “When Pigs Fly Kosher BBQ” on April 22.

Here in America, most of us don’t pay much attention to our own Memorial Day, let alone to Israel’s. Memorial Day here seems to be more an occasion for sales and out-of-town getaways, thanks to the long weekend. It’s a very different experience in Israel.

Israel is such a small country – and has fought so many wars in its short existence – that almost everyone either knows someone who gave his/her life for the country or knows someone who lost a close family member. It’s a very solemn day: kids in school all have official ceremonies honoring those who died for Israel, solemn music is played on the radio, entertainment venues such as movie houses are closed. Everyone who lost someone makes a pilgrimage to the grave. Since the Jewish day begins at sunset, the start of the holiday is marked by a one-minute siren at 8 pm on the eve of the holiday, and there’s another two-minute siren at 11 am the following morning. It’s an eerie experience when the siren goes off in the morning: traffic stops completely, cars and buses stop in the middle of the street, everyone stops, gets out of their vehicle and stands at attention. It feels like a very long time.

But all that changes at sunset, when we transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut. And that juxtaposition was a brilliant decision: yes, we mourn and are sad for those we’ve lost, but the reason they gave their lives – Israel’s independence – is right on its heels.

If you compare Israel to other countries that gained their independence from Britain in the mid-20th century – Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and India – Israel has the smallest population, and yet has accomplished the most.

Israel is one of only 12 countries in the world that has launched satellites with “home-built” launch vehicles. Israel has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, but it’s generally considered one of only nine countries to have that capability. In 70 years Israel has transitioned from being an impoverished country with an economy largely dependent on agriculture, to being the “Startup Nation,” home to the second largest pool of venture capital outside Silicon Valley. In many ways Israel is as much a part of Europe as of the Middle East. We’re the only country in our neighborhood to be a part of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a body of developed nations. Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees now than it had in 1900 – a testimony to the donations we gave as kids to the blue boxes for the JNF. And Israel did all this while absorbing nearly a million Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries and another million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Israel obviously also has a lot of challenges and problems. Regional instability – including the civil war in Syria and Iran sponsoring terrorism. Corruption in the government – a former president and a former prime minister were both convicted of crimes and sent to prison and the current prime minister is under investigation in four different cases. Discrimination against minorities – including against Israeli Arabs (who are full citizens), Ethiopian Jews, and non-Orthodox Jews. And then there’s the conflict with the Palestinians which seems insoluble.

But, overall, Israel has accomplished an incredible amount in the last 70 years. And Israel didn’t do it alone – we had help from American Jews, such as yourselves, and from the American government, which gets a lot of credit for Israel’s state of the art military, now ranked as the 15th most powerful in the world. We can all share in the sense of accomplishment and celebrations surrounding Israel’s 70th birthday. Yom Holedet Sameach! (Happy Birthday!)

Rav Barry