From darkness to light: Israel’s journey of remembrance and resilience

The Jewish state pairs Memorial Day and Independence Day together because the events are closely linked in its history and national identity.

Biking and walking by jacaranda trees  on Habima Square in Tel Aviv on May 16, 2024.  Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Biking and walking by jacaranda trees on Habima Square in Tel Aviv on May 16, 2024. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Every year on Israel’s Memorial Day, national sirens sound heralding a moment of silence to honor the Israelis who lost their lives in wars past and present, or from acts of terror. Israelis stop what they are doing wherever they are and even stop their cars on highways.

On the first official day of remembrance since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, Israelis mourned the lives of those lost in Israel’s wars and terrorist attacks. The day after, Israelis immediately transitioned to a celebration of the country’s 76th anniversary. This year’s transition was much more difficult.

Dozens of hostages are still being held by Hamas, causing more than seven months of agony and heartbreak to their loved ones and the nation. Tens of thousands of residents on the border of Gaza and Lebanon are displaced. Memorial Day also was a painful reminder of the trauma suffered by those in the Gaza border communities.

Iran-backed Hamas terrorists were still firing rockets into Israel from Gaza and Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorists also were launching barrages of rockets on northern Israel—on Independence Day. The Iranian threat to the Jewish state’s very existence and the agony of the continuing war weigh heavily on everyone’s hearts.

Israelis mourn Oct. 7 victims

This year, Israel mourns the 25,040 soldiers who died during military service and the 5,100 killed in terrorist attacks in the Land of Israel dating back to the mid-1800s. Since last year, 766 soldiers and 834 civilians were added to the list. The number of fatalities in the past year represents a staggering percentage of the 30,140 who are remembered on Memorial Day.

The head of the Department of Commemoration and Heritage Families Aryeh Moalem remarked that the number of troops killed in the past year is the equivalent of 15 years of deaths: “Unfortunately, we have conducted many funerals—in some places under rocket fire and fear of terrorist infiltration—with the clear goal of bringing the fallen to their final resting place with respect.”

Torch-Lighters, Israel’s Independence Day 2024
Chosen torch-lighters for Israel’s Independence Day 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

Faces of Zionism: Torch-lighters highlight Oct. 7 heroism

For Israel’s Independence Day, the Israeli government holds official ceremonies, including a torch-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem that honors individuals who have made significant contributions to Israeli society. This year’s 12 participants were chosen for acts of heroism displayed during the Hamas onslaught against Israel.

Each torch was lit by one or more individuals representing different groups that displayed courage under fire. This includes security personnel, first responders and pro-Israel advocates. The local security team torch-lighters included Inbal Liberman, who directed the members of her kibbutz’s security team to ambush incoming terrorists; Barak Shalom, who led the fight against Hamas terrorists; and Tal Levit, whose house in northern Israel was directly hit by a rocket from Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists but has remained to protect his town.

Torch-Lighters, Israel’s Independence Day 2024
Chosen torch-lighters for Israel’s Independence Day 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

Yoseph Haddad, an Arab veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and an activist/influencer, will light another torch. He spoke about his selection: “This is a profound honor and a testament to the strength of our nation’s spirit. I see this as an opportunity to showcase the unity and shared values that define Israeli society. My mission is to show the world the true face of Israeli society—a society grounded in peace, morality and compassion.”

Unfortunately, threats by Arabs against Druze hero Nasreen Youssef and her family forced her to withdraw from the ceremony. The Druze are a non-Jewish minority with a distinguished history of service to Israel. Nasreen saved lives by deceiving two captured Hamas terrorists to obtain information to protect her Gaza border community. “This is our country, and we will continue to protect it regardless of whether we light a torch,” she stated. “What I did was out of a desire to help.”

Holidays closely linked to national identity

From grief to joy, the Jewish state uniquely pairs Memorial Day and Independence Day together (May 13 and May 14 this year) because the two events are closely linked in the country’s history and national identity. Memorial Day commemorates the sacrifices of soldiers and civilians who died defending Israel. Independence Day celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel—its sovereignty after 2,500 years of Jewish statelessness following the fall of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah—commemorating the country’s achievements while looking forward to the future.

Torch-Lighters, Israel’s Independence Day 2024
Chosen torch-lighters for Israel’s Independence Day 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

As Israel’s population nears 10 million, Israelis acknowledge the deep sense of loss and grief that accompanies the celebration of independence, underscoring the idea that freedom and national sovereignty come at a high price.

Points to consider:

  1. There is only one Jewish country.

Israel serves as a beacon of hope and resilience for Jewish communities worldwide. It is home to sacred Jewish sites, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem—the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples—that embody the collective aspirations of the Jewish people for self-determination. The rebirth of Israel fulfilled this long-held dream of a Jewish homeland, offering a vibrant center for Jewish life and culture, and providing refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. As the only Jewish country, but also home to Arabs, Druze and Christians, Israel plays a crucial role in preserving Jewish heritage; fostering connections among Jews around the world; and serving as a vibrant hub of innovation, culture and democratic values in the Middle East.

  1. Israel has never known a year of peace.

Since Jews regained sovereignty in 1948, Israel has been in a state of war. Several Arab armies immediately attacked after Israeli leaders declared independence. Additional attempts to annihilate the Jews included the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel’s enemies—Egypt, Jordan and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization—launched a series of attacks between these wars, known as the War of Attrition. Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan, as well as several other Arab nations as part of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Israelis have tried numerous times to peacefully coexist with the Palestinians. Current threats against Israel include Iran and its proxies: Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Terrorist attacks and threats to “wipe Israel off the map” have forced Israelis into a permanent war of attrition.

  1. Attempts to vilify Israel mirror the isolation of Jews in ghettos and attacks in pogroms.

The Jewish people have endured thousands of years of discrimination and persecution, including forced segregation into ghettos and violent attacks, driven by anti-Jewish hatred. Now, an international campaign echoes historical patterns of discrimination and hostility. The portrayal of Israel’s existence as illegitimate, the erasure of the Jewish people’s ancestral connection to the Land of Israel and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) are attempts to isolate Israel and vilify its supporters. Not only do boycotts target the Jewish state, they also contribute to the stigmatization and marginalization of the Jewish people. This is notably seen today on university campuses where many Jews are increasingly afraid to voice their support for Israel and to openly display their Jewish identity because of fears of mistreatment.

  1. Denials and distortions about Israel undermine history.

Attempts to deny or distort Israel’s historical and cultural significance disregard millennia of Jewish presence in the region and the legitimate aspirations of the Jewish people. Israel’s history is deeply intertwined with the narratives of countless individuals and communities who have called the land home for generations. Denying its right to exist undermines the complex tapestry of history, culture and identity woven into its fabric. Acknowledging historical truths paves the way for constructive dialogue and peaceful coexistence.

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