Reuben Bank is a Junior at George Washington University in Washington DC and is spending his spring semester studying at Tel Aviv University. Reuben is a leader in JCJ’s College Campus Fellows.
“Lizkor.” To remember. These are the words that began the campus-wide Yom Hazikaron ceremony that I attended at Tel Aviv University. For Israelis, this day is about deep and unfettered grief. Looking at the faces of the students, faculty and staff during this ceremony, I saw that this was not the same American Memorial day that I am used to. Almost every one of the people around me served, in some capacity, in the Israeli Defense Forces. This ceremony was not just about remembering soldiers who had died in a far away war, this was about their friends from the playground as kids, their peers from grade school, their brothers and sisters, who gave their lives during wars and terrorist attacks only hours away from the homes they grew up in.
The beginning of Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks, is at 8 p.m. with a blaring missile siren. For two minutes this siren sounds, for two minutes the whole country stops. Trains stop moving, cars pull over on the freeway, pedestrians stand still, all feeling grief and pain. For 24 hours a shadow of sadness falls over the whole country. School and work are off, but the parks are absent of kids’ playful cheers, the roads only host the occasional car, and the pedestrians walk with their heads lowered.
This grief lasts until 8 p.m. the night after the initial siren, and then something extraordinary happens. At exactly 8 p.m., fireworks go off, music fills the streets, the country fills up with exuberance, and out of the deep pain felt in the past day comes an intense happiness. Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, has begun. To so quickly go from grief to happiness is intentional. Out of the sacrifice of the soldiers who have died to keep this country safe, comes the ability for the Jewish people to live in a Jewish state, after centuries of hatred and anti-Semitism.
This sudden shift is a microcosm of what the state of Israel and its citizens are all about. Living in Israel is far from simple, and is often filled with grief, pain and violence. The politics of living in this country are debated all over the world, with fierce criticism coming even from Israeli citizens. At the same time, the mere fact that Israel exists is an overwhelming celebration that Israelis live with, alongside the grief and the debates. Out of hurt and unrest, come a Jewish democracy, a Jewish homeland, and a place for the Jewish people to be free from anti-Semitism, persecution and hate. Being in Israel for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, and witnessing these wide-ranging emotions has given me a new appreciation for what Israel has been through, and the significance of its mere existence.