From Yom Hashoah to Yom Ha’atzmaut: the New ‘High Holidays’ of Israel

The deepest lesson of Yom Hashoah is in the responsibility it places on all of our shoulders. As Jews, we are all survivors. As a people who survived, we did not choose the path of bitterness and despair. We chose the path of recommitment to life, its challenges, opportunities and responsibilities.

by Donniel Hartman

The Jewish national calendar of Israel is populated by new holidays that Israel has placed at the center of our national and Jewish consciousness and which define and set aside the most significant time of the year in Israeli society. These holidays – bunched together within one week – are Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day). It would not be an exaggeration to say these three days together constitute the “High Holidays” season of Israeli life.

On Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron we are commanded to remember, on Yom Haatzmaut to celebrate. What is it that we are charged to remember? Vis-a-vis Yom Hashoah, in the early Zionist narrative there was a deep rejection of the passivity and the powerlessness of European Jewry and an implied criticism of them in their complicity in their own deaths. For the Zionist, Israel was the antidote to the Holocaust, the land of the new Jew who did not go like sheep to slaughter, but who rather trained in the art of warfare and was capable of defending himself in times of danger. The move from Yom Hashoah to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut was a transition from the past which in many ways we remembered in order to forget, to the new Jewish reality which is Israel.

In recent years Yom Hashoah has undergone a rebirth in Israeli society. From the forgotten and scorned child serving as the contrasting backdrop to the new status of the Jews, it now serves as a primary vehicle for reinvigorating Zionist sentiments. It is not the passivity of the Jews but rather the potential for anti-Semitism and its ongoing dangers that serves as the focus of the memory. It’s something along the lines of, “There but for the grace of Israel go I.” If I can remember, and in a certain way re-experience the dangers of Diaspora Jewish life, I feel to a great extent the blessing that is Israel.

Gone are the days of criticizing; now there is empathy. But it is an empathy that serves the cause of re-signifying the significance of Israel. Israel is still the antidote, and now the disease is not the Diaspora Jew, but the anti-Semitic enemy, who was and who may still be lurking around, and whose existence gives perpetual meaning to the state of Israel. Consequently, instead of rejecting the memory of the Holocaust, Israelis now want to embrace it, for precisely by remembering they give urgency and meaning to their lives in Israel.

Mourning the price paid

Yom Hazikaron in Israeli consciousness has a different significance. In remembering our fallen, the country mourns the price we have had to pay to build our state. That which so many worldwide take for granted – the right to live at peace within the confines of a homeland – is something we Jews have not been able to achieve in the first 60 years of our state’s existence.

On Yom Hazikaron in Israel we do not remember the fallen in order to give thanks to those whose sacrifice made our lives possible today. That was the language of Memorial Day I heard when I lived in the United States. Here in Israel, where the experience of being a family is one of the defining features of “Israeliness,” we don’t primarily honor the dead; we mourn them. It is not “the fallen” or “the dead” as some abstract concept that applies to someone I do not know. Every family, every citizen has a direct connection to someone who was killed. We remember the people whose presence we miss. We go to graves and see the fallen soldier’s friends get older year by year, develop pot bellies and receding hairlines, while our beloved remains forever locked in his youthful existence – an existence we can no longer experience.

It is that somber mourning that serves as the foundation for Yom Haatzmaut. It gives birth to a responsible joy, of having to earn the life enabled by such a heavy price. When we turn to Yom Haatzmaut the next day, we turn with a deep sense of responsibility. Our country was not given to us on a silver platter to quote the idiom, but rather as phrased by Natan Alterman in his poem “The Silver Platter,” it was given on the platter that is the lives of our children.

Unlike the memories of Yom Hashoah, the sadness of Yom Hazikaron does not give new meaning to Yom Haatzmaut; rather it gives it gravitas. It reminds us of the price we paid and, as a result, the care, responsibility and duty we have to build a great country and to live and to give our lives special meaning.

All Jews are survivors

It is my belief that the connection between Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah must begin to redefine the way we commemorate the latter. It is time to remove Yom Hashoah from its service in the Zionist cause. Those who perished in the Holocaust were not passive sheep, but rather victims of the depravity to which humankind is capable of descending. Just as life in Israel was paid for in blood, so, too, has life as a Jew. On Yom Hashoah we must simply mourn. We must mourn the lives that were tortured and cut short. We must mourn the lives that were not lived and the potential that was never actualized. We must mourn the fact that all too often in our history we as a people were not afforded the right simply to live as Jews. Zionism is neither the symbolism of the new Jew, nor is it the antidote to anti-Semitism. Israel is the outgrowth in the same way that it is the outgrowth of Yom Hazikaron.

The deepest lesson of Yom Hashoah is in the responsibility it places on all of our shoulders. As Jews, we are all survivors. As a people who survived, we did not choose the path of bitterness and despair. We chose the path of recommitment to life, its challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. When we remember the Holocaust, we mourn those who died, and give new respect to those who survived and the ways they survived, and commit ourselves to walking in their path.

This is the real meaning of Yom Haatzmaut following both Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. It reshapes and redefines Israel as a family that mourns together, and through the memory of the price we have paid to be free Jews, it redefines the meaning of Israel. Israel must be that which remembers, and through that memory constantly commands itself to be worthy of the price we paid. It is a memory that commands us to embrace life and challenges us to live it to the fullest, to build lives individually and collectively of greatness. That is the task of Israel; that is the legacy of our past and the challenge of our future.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute.