Notes from the field
This week's portion: you shall be holy


I've never been in Israel on Yom ha-Zikaron. (The day's full name is "Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Victims of Terror" -- what a name for a holiday.) I can only imagine what it's like when the air-raid siren sounds and everyone stops where they are for two minutes of silence. I imagine people standing on the sidewalk motionless, cars pausing in the streets. Babies fussing. Dogs barking, or taking a cue from their humans and holding still, too, even if they don't understand why.

Remembrance Day leads right into Independence Day, a gearshift from mourning into celebration. It's easy for me, an American who spent most of the Bush years feeling suckerpunched by the ideas that the federal government held dear, to regard Independence Days (my own, and anybody else's) with a skeptical eye. And as for Memorial Day -- sure, we have one of those here in the States, too; I know it's meaningful to veterans and their families. But there hasn't been military in my family since my grandfather, of blessed memory, retired from doing lung surgery at the VA hospital. I don't know anyone who serves in that capacity. It's distant from me, always at a remove.

Not so in Israel. With the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, everyone serves. Everyone has lost colleagues, fellow soldiers, friends. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents. And since the day is designed too for mourning those who died in terror attacks, it becomes doubly-universal. Everyone knows someone who was wounded or killed when a bus blew up or a café exploded.

I recently read an essay by Gershom Gorenberg of South Jerusalem called Refusing a Single Narrative, which begins:

Spring is national trauma season in the land between the River and the Sea. The wildflowers that blossom briefly after the Mediterranean winter wilt, and Jews and Palestinians relive their agonizing memories, symbiotically, backs turned to each other.

Their memories negate each other. Nonetheless, they are tellings of the same story. Because there is now an American administration interested in diplomacy, because the public debate in America about Israel and Palestine may be opening up, this small truth bears mention: Deciding that one side's telling is valid, and the other's is false, is not an act of peacemaking. The trauma itself is a strategic fact, as important as topography, borders, and water.

April and May is the the time of year to pay attention, because this is when Israeli and Palestinian holidays are celebrated as national passion plays. The holidays don't just commemorate the historical events that formed each nation. They teach that the sacrifices of the past are constantly being repeated, that all present-day events are re-enactments of primal cataclysms. Examine the holidays, and you understand why we who live here seem trapped by history.

(It's one hell of an essay; I recommend it.) It's easy for American Jews to forget that a fortnight after Israelis observe Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzma'ut, Palestinians commemorate the Naqba, "The Catastrophe." That the "other side" grieves their losses too, with their own heartbreak and fury.

Gershom argues cogently and powerfully that the traumas of the past are still alive in both the Israeli and the Palestinian consciousness. For many of us, one story resonates and the other does not. But until we collectively learn to recognize the painful truths in each side's narrative, how can peace be possible?

I'm thinking of my Israeli friends today, those in Israel and those outside the land. And I'm thinking of the All Nations Café crowd, the Palestinians and Israelis and internationals who insist with their actions that real connection between "enemies" is possible. I want to believe that some day, one of these years, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will spend this season mourning scores of the recently-fallen. May the Source of Peace send peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.

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