Reflections on the Israeli National Days

A Message from HSB Communication’s Chair Aaron Schorr ’24 


Dearest Slifka Community,

I wanted to share some thoughts for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, which fall today and tomorrow, respectively.
There’s a particularly profound Israeli poem by Tzur Ehrlich that gets recirculated on my Instagram feed around this time of year (English translation my own):

שְׁנֵי יְמֵי זִכָּרוֹן סְמוּכִים כָּל שָׁנָה   Two adjacent remembrance days each year
לְטוֹבַת הַחִשּׁוּב הַכְּלָלִי                 For the general calculation
כַּמָּה עוֹלָה לָנוּ עִם מְדִינָה           How much it costs us with a state
וְכַמָּה עוֹלָה לָנוּ בְּלִי                     And how much it costs us without.

As a kid in Israel, the two weeks after Passover vacation – the local version of spring break – assume a very familiar rhythm each year as school enters its final phase before the summer: Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – in the first week, followed by Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Memorial Day and Independence Day, respectively) on subsequent days the following week. It’s a series of national moments of reflection unlike any other country with which I am familiar: first, the memorialization of a historical tragedy of epic proportions, and next the observance of another, more personal and more recent national tragedy, instantly followed by the great celebration of the realization of millennia of yearning for Jewish sovereignty.

Every year, we’d get the same speeches from our teachers, following roughly the same line of thought as Ehrlich’s poem: first, we remind ourselves of the price of not being able to defend ourselves; then, we remind ourselves how costly it is to defend ourselves; finally, we allow ourselves to celebrate the achievement that is the State of Israel. For many, it is a transition that takes time to unpack amid a whirlwind of emotions. As a teenager, there was a particular narrative I kept hearing: The transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day is so difficult for me. At the time, I didn’t understand why this was. Memorial Day was somber, but it was a national tragedy that was detached from me. My memories of going to street parties with my friends and barbecuing with my family far on Independence Day outweighed the melancholy of the previous day; the transition I experienced was equivalent to flipping a switch.

Around this time of year, my ninth-grade literature teacher Tamar brought in some poems relating to Yom Hazikaron and talked about how difficult this transition was for her. I distinctly remember being skeptical of her feelings, which I contrasted with my own; at that point, at the height of my teenage cynicism, it almost felt like talking about this perceived struggle was an aesthetic to which my teachers were trying to conform. Tamar had a son, Avshalom, a couple grades ahead of me. Like everyone else, he was drafted to the Israeli military, and served as an artillery officer. In September 2017, during a training exercise in the Golan Heights, Avshalom’s artillery piece rolled over and killed him and one of his soldiers. When I got the news of his death, I was a soldier myself, but what I vividly going through my head was a flashback to that ninth-grade classroom.

Both the Israeli concepts of memorial and independence are entirely foreign to Americans. When I tell my friends back home that Memorial Day in the U.S. is a long weekend for people to have barbecues with their families in state parks, they experience cognitive dissonance. The contrast to Israel, where, at times, statehood seems like an exercise in collective trauma, could not be starker. For us, Memorial Day means a true day of national mourning, a day on which the entire country takes pause to honor its fallen. This happens in a very tangible way: at 8:00 pm on the eve of Memorial Day and again at 11:00 the next morning, air raid sirens sound throughout the country and everyone takes a moment to reflect to themselves. Cars and buses stop on the highway, pedestrians freeze where they are, office workers stand up at their desks, and every radio station plays the same horrible wail that sends chills up everyone’s spines. The entire country stops what it’s doing and remembers what it means to be independent. After two minutes which feel like an eternity, the sirens gradually fade out and you can literally feel the tension dissipating. It is a moment of shared identity so terrible it needs to be experienced to be comprehended (for a taste, watch this video; a notable exception to this story is a small minority of ultra-Orthodox communities who reject the secular Zionist state and refuse to observe both days).

In my school, Memorial Day meant an assembly where our headmaster would recite a prayer for the souls of fallen soldiers and read out the names of the several dozen alumni who had lost their lives in uniform, often collapsing in tears before reaching the end. It isn’t just Tamar or just my high school; everyone in Israel has skin in the game. While I am fortunate enough to not have lost anyone close to me, I knew Avshalom personally, as well as Barkai Shor, another alumnus of my high school, who was killed in action during the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2014. Ari Fuld, a childhood friend of my mother’s, was stabbed to death outside his settlement in the West Bank in 2018. Memorial Day isn’t commemorating a historical event with a known ending like Holocaust Remembrance Day; it is an opportunity to reflect on a process that is very much ongoing. I served in the military, as did all my peers and as will all of my younger siblings. My younger brother, in fact, started the same artillery officer training program Avshalom had gone through just last week. For this reason, Memorial Day can often feel like the Israeli trauma Olympics, in which everyone loses.

Only with this background can anybody understand the much-discussed transition to statehood. The State of Israel is a relatively new concept: until his death last week, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth had been married for longer than the country, which had been granted independence by the latter’s father, had existed. Like many other young countries created by postwar decolonization, Israel was born in fire and brimstone, which continued raining down sporadically for decades. Like the plethora of articles on the Internet explaining why we need to experience pain to truly experience pleasure, there can be no celebration of Israeli independence without commemorating the terrible personal price at which it came, both in the extermination camps of Poland and on the battlefields of the Sinai and the Golan Heights. In Israel, Independence Day is not just an opportunity to bask in the glow of patriotic sentiment, it is a moment of deep reckoning, the culmination of a process of national evolution that really begins twenty days earlier with the observation of Passover, the holiday commemorating our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land, and inextricably linked to the two memorial days preceding it. This year, adjusting to life away from my home country, I will be reflecting upon the transition from memorial to celebration I have finally come to understand. Regardless of your attitude towards the Jewish state, I hope you will be able to understand this, too.

If you want to dedicate a few minutes from your day to Yom Hazikaron, I would be touched if you read the stories of Avshalom and Barkai. You can read a news article about Avshalom here and Barkai has a brief memorial page here on a site listing the biographies of most fallen IDF soldiers.
Fittingly, Yom Hazikaron is also the inspiration for some of the most haunting and beautiful music to ever come out of Israel. I’ve created a Spotify playlist with some of these which you can find here; they’re beautiful even if you don’t understand Hebrew.