Yom Hazikaron is around the corner. It’ll be my first time honoring this day here in Israel. Once a year, Israelis gather and remember their loved ones who died in battle or were murdered by terrorists. I am not sure what to expect other than a lot of sadness. Memorial Day in the U.S. often felt distant, like a day to have picnics. I think in Israel, both because of the scope of the killing here and its immediacy, it’ll feel quite different.
Soon after I made aliyah, I made friends with a young man named Adam. 18 years old, training to be a combat soldier, graduating from high school this year. His family owns a Kavkazi restaurant in Ramat Gan, where I “met” his cousin Ruslan, who was killed by a roadside bomb two decades ago- at the age of 21. I met him because I happened to be in the restaurant on the anniversary of his death. The dumplings were delicious. Welcome to Israel.
When I think of young men and women like Ruslan, it makes me sad. He’d be about 42 today, maybe married with children, working, building a life for himself. And instead he’s turning to dust in the ground. Like over 23,000 other Israelis. With more added each and every year.
The sadness is hardly limited to our borders. Just north of us in Syria, thousands upon thousands of people are being killed while the world sits in silence. Where are the mass demonstrations? Of anyone? Of Palestinians? Of Western liberals? Of Israelis? Of European activists? Of Muslims? Where? Where is everyone? People love to kick and scream about Israel, but I just don’t hear their voices when hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians are being gassed to their deaths.
Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians- everyone here has their own sadness. My own country, Israel, has sometimes caused that sadness. And our sadness has sometimes been caused by them. I mourn the loss of every life and support people’s remembrance of their loved ones.
This is our day to do it here and we deserve it.
One particular person stood out as I wrote this blog. And it was not a soldier. It was Mireille Knoll. Mireille was an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Paris. Having survived Nazi genocide, she lived a long and beautiful life in France. Until two Muslim men walked into her apartment this year and stabbed her 11 times while yelling “allahu akbar”. That’s not what I said, that’s what one of the actual suspects said. Along with neighbors. The same suspect shared that his accomplice said: “She’s a Jew. She must have money.”
I wish I could pretend this was the only anti-Semitism in France or America or any of a number of countries this year, but that’s not true. In America, we have a rise in neo-Nazism and in anti-Semitic behavior on the left. Including a large swath of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS), which encourages people to target Israel, and only Israel, for economic boycott. Not targeted boycotts, not against certain politicians or policies, but against my entire country. Some of the activists, which include some Jews, are simply trying to push my country in a more progressive direction, even if some (though maybe not all) of their tactics are misguided. And others among them are flat-out anti-Semites- and this is based not only on news reports, but on actual comments I’ve heard from them. Rothschild conspiracies and beyond. To criticize Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic- Israelis do it on a daily basis. When you single out Israel among all nations for a never-ending stream of hatred while never mentioning even more drastic human rights abuses elsewhere- you’re a bigot.
I have a friend- and I don’t use the word lightly, he’s an actual friend- who shared with me an insight lately. Eric is an American Christian and he said: “I have Jewish friends at home who’ve barely, if at all, been to Israel, but want to volunteer for the army there. I have no idea why they’d do that.” Because he loves culture and diversity, he added: “I know it’d be difficult, I just wish the Jewish Diaspora was stronger- I wish their communities could go back- to India, to Afghanistan, and beyond.”
He is well-intentioned- I know him. And I need to address these questions. First off, I think Israeli Jews whose families came from places like Morocco and Iran- whose families were kicked out of there- also wish they had a connection with those places. Due to the anti-Semitism of those governments, who stole their property and citizenship, it’s not so easy. I know Eric knows this, but nobody in Israel particularly wants to go back to a Muslim-majority country that kicked them out and where not a small number of people would still be happy to see them killed. One friend’s Syrian-Israeli family knows that their historic house has been turned into a luxury hotel. One day, God willing, if there’s peace, I’m sure Israeli Jews would love to visit and reconnect with their heritage. In the meantime, it’s the sin of the Muslim world that we can’t do that. I know Eric understands this and it was more of a wish. It’s just that he’s pining for something we’ve already had to move past. None of my relatives are left in Poland. If we could’ve lived peacefully in the Diaspora, we would’ve done it. We tried for 2,000 years and our neighbors never succeeded in securing our lives.
Now, to the second part. Why would an American Jew- even one with little or no direct connection to Israel- want to volunteer for the IDF, our military? A good question given this holiday. I personally am somewhat of a pacifist, so I don’t think I’d volunteer for any military. And I totally understand the volunteers. Jews- despite our relative economic and political success- are a small and sometimes belittled minority even in America. Jewish characters in the media are portrayed as effeminate. The women- overbearing. Few as sexy or powerful. We’re only accepted in so far as we don’t act “too Jewish” and aren’t visibly identified as such.
There are many good things about Jewish life in America and about America in general. And there is one basic thing that Jews have the right to do only in Israel: defend ourselves. Christians and Muslims alike didn’t give us this right. Only after 2,000 years can we protect ourselves and not be at the mercy of whatever people or ruler has control over us. Which gets to Eric’s comment about returning to the Diaspora. It’s certainly a cultural loss for both us and the friendlier of our former neighbors. But why would we go back?
Israel made and makes mistakes. Politically misusing soldiers and sometimes even harming innocent civilians. Kicking Arabs out of their homes. The First Lebanon War was in many ways a disaster, even in the eyes of the Israeli public. And our current quagmire in the West Bank continues to put both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian lives at risk- without an easy solution.
So why would a Diaspora Jew want to be a part of this? Why would they volunteer for my military?
That’s why. Mireille Knoll’s granddaughter Keren Brosh made aliyah from France to Israel, arriving in 1997. Incidentally, the year Ruslan was killed. Keren became an IDF intelligence officer, something her grandmother was very proud of.
Mireille Knoll survived the Holocaust only to be murdered by anti-Semites in a self-righteous country that loves to lecture my own about human rights (while taking basically no responsibility for its own colonialist past). And that bans headscarves and can’t even protect its Jewish citizens’ lives. Over and over and over again.
Mireille was defenseless. I pray for her soul’s peace in the High Heavens. She did nothing wrong, she didn’t deserve to die. And I’m tired of my people being made into sheep for the slaughter. We look great as victims, but too many Westerners don’t like to see us with a gun.
So when a Jew grabs a gun and says “enough!”- understand where it comes from. Understand what it feels like for us to see Keren Brosh strong and protecting our people here while her grandmother was butchered in France. Even thousands of miles away, we see our people suffering and we remember our history. We want to help and we want to define our own destiny. Not by being a sidekick, not by being a punchline, and not by being the overbearing caricature of a Jewish woman that is The Nanny. Not by being tolerated. But rather by being free to set our own course, even at great sacrifice.
I’m grateful for the soldiers who’ve sacrificed for me. I honor the bravery of all victims of terror. I long for a day when soldiers and security checkpoints won’t be necessary- for anyone who lives here, Israeli, Palestinian, or otherwise. When the water guns will outnumber the real ones.
In the meantime, I’m not going back to live in the Diaspora. And I’m glad I have soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect me.
I wish Mireille Knoll had had soldiers to protect her. So she wouldn’t have been a helpless grandmother stabbed to death for being a Jew.
That’s why I’m Israeli.