This week, Jews in Israel and across the world celebrate Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. These holidays fall on Wednesday, April 14 and Thursday, April 15, respectively.
Yom HaZikaron, on this Wednesday, April 14, commemorates the legions of Israel’s fallen heroes who have sacrificed their lives to preserve its freedom and independence. It is a solemn day that can be traced back to 1948, the year that Israel became an independent Jewish state. The Knesset formally adopted the holiday as an official day of remembrance in 1963. In 1980, the law was renamed to honor all of Israel’s heroes who died in wars and conflicts that are part of Israel’s indelible history.
Those honored include men and women who have given their lives while serving in Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF), its police forces, the Mossad and other covert services.
Twice during Yom HaZikaron an air raid siren is sounded for two-minute blasts. During these tocsins, citizens across Israel cease their activities and stand silently, showing respect for those who sacrificed their lives in the nation’s service. The first siren marks the beginning of Memorial Day. The second blast is heard at the hour of memorial services in military cemeteries across the land.
In Israel, Yom HaZikaron is experienced as a secular holiday. While there are special prayers for fallen IDF members, all of the nation’s heroes are honored. Kaddish is recited in memory of the fallen. Military services include lowering Israel’s flag to half-mast, speeches by important leaders and the singing of “El Maleh Rachamin” by an IDF cantor. Wreaths grace memorials and graves of those who perished serving Israel.
Those who have died and whose final resting places are unknown are honored in a special ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. A national service is held at 1 p.m. and culminates with formal military honors marked with a military gun salute. The day’s events end with a torch-lit observance on Mount Herzl. As the sun sets and closes out Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day, begins. Within minutes, the national mood shifts from reverence and commemoration to joyous celebration of Israel’s independence. Such a transformation is remarkable.
Let us never forget that Israel’s independence was created and has been preserved by tens of thousands of its citizen-soldiers who have selflessly sacrificed their lives so that a free Jewish state may endure as a haven for Jews all over the world. Without their sacrifice, Israel would have been relegated to just another sad chapter of Jewish history decades ago.
How easy it would be to forget what they did after Israel’s independence was declared on May 14, 1948. The day after the new nation declared its independence, on May 15, 1948, a coalition of Arab forces from Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq invaded Israel.
Arab soldiers zealously attacked Jewish settlements, while their radio programs promised that Israelis would drown in the Mediterranean Sea.
To repel the attackers, Holocaust survivors, IDF soldiers and Irgun and Haganah forces combined to form a new armed force for the new nation.
The battle for Israel’s independence came at a steep price. More than 6,000 Israelis fell in the war. IDF fighters performed heroically and were victorious over their opponents. Israel signed separate armistice agreements in 1949 with Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The IDF and Israel’s covert forces have fought valiantly in the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the Six-Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Lebanon War of 1982, the intifadas, the Gaza War in 2008 between Israel and Hamas and other battles.
That Israel has endured and flourished while confronting seismic hostilities is worthy of the festivals and celebrations that will mark Yom HaAtzmaut. We need only look to Israel’s wonderful success in battling the coronavirus to be reminded that a vibrant and dynamic society has sprung from its meager origins just 73 years ago.
As American Jews, let us remember Israel’s fallen and its Independence Day in solidarity with our fellow Jews who live and work there. The Diaspora is a source of strength and support for the State of Israel. We honor the brave Israeli men and women who have laid down their lives in battle. And, we celebrate Israel’s 73 years of freedom.
History teaches us that in every age the Jewish people have faced existential challenges. Despots and strongmen have arisen throughout our history dedicated to our extinction. By celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, we thank Hashem for the miracle of modern Israel, a land that offers all Jews refuge in times of woe.
A version of this editorial appeared in the April 15, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston. Reprinted with permission.