Har Herzl is Not Enough: Between Yom haAtzmaut and Shavuot

by Rabbi Mishael Zion

One. The Mountain of Memory

Jerusalem has not one, but two holy mountains: The Temple Mount in the east, and Har Herzl in the west. Har Herzl, or Har haZikaron, “the Mountain of Memory” has a very deliberate architecture:

On its highest point rests Herzl’s grave. It is surrounded by the graves of Israel’s presidents, prime ministers and leaders. On the slopes of the mountain is the national graveyard for fallen soldiers. Follow the path down the mountain to the west, and you’ve arrived at Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Take the winding road down from the Yad VaShem museum, and you are at the bottom of the mountain in the “Valley of the Communities,” representing the exilic communities of the Diaspora that were destroyed in the Holocaust.

Topography is used to tell a story, embedding an ideology in the mountainside. When you hike this mountain, you are climbing the contours of an argument: from the depths of exilic reality, doomed to destruction, through the flames of anti-Semitic hatred, up past the sons and daughters of the nation who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and onwards to the top, where a visionary’s dream is enshrined in black marble: an autonomous Jewish state.

Two. Israel’s Holy Week

Herzl's grave at the top of Mt. Herzl

There are moments when the Jewish calendar opens the faceless ticking of time to reveal a beating heart at its center. Secular life barely uses time in such a way – this approach is normally left to the religious and their holy times. But in Israel, the secular state created a “civil religion” with its own High Holy Days. Israel’s “Yamim Noraim” fell last week, the seven days between Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day, and Yom haZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s eerie pair of Memorial for Fallen soldiers, which at nightfall becomes the Day of Independence, celebrated this past Thursday.

While the way these days flow into each other was a kind of fluke of history, they create a powerful statement. There are seven days between Yom haShoah and Yom haAtzmaut, as if the entire country sits shiva, mourning the loss of the Holocaust, and then arises to be comforted by the existence of the State of Israel. Add Passover to the mix two weeks before, and you have a full ideology, as Prof. Don Handelman has shown, one that is often evoked in the speeches given by Israel’s President and Prime Minister on these days. As Israel’s Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, put it in 1964:

“Holocaust memorial day falls between the ancient Festival of Freedom and the modern day of Israel’s Independence. The annals of our people are enfolded between these two events. With our exodus from the Egyptian bondage, we own our ancient freedom; now, with our ascent from the depths of the Holocaust, we live once again as an independent nation.” (Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Holocaust day Address, 1964)

Yom haZikaron begins with a blaring siren which is sounded across Israel at exactly 8pm, piercing walls and hearts, and a nation stands still to commemorate those who fell in its honor. It is the most powerful time to be in Israel’s public space: stores close, communities come together, and the radio plays the saddest Israeli songs. The nation turns from a collection of citizens into a family that together remembers their fallen.

Like the mountain, the chronology makes a powerful argument: the tragedy of the Holocaust has taught us that Jews need their own state in order to be free and to be safe. In order to achieve that independence we must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – our sons and daughters in exchange for independence. Only after that lesson has been engrained, can we celebrate our independence.

Three. Fissures

Yom haZikaron opening ceremony at the Kotel, 2012

Of course, in reality, this clean narrative is riddled with question marks:

Is the Holocaust really to be owned and subsumed by the State of Israel? Zionism existed before the Holocaust and is more than simply a response to anti-Semitism. Perhaps the Shoah should not become a point in an ideological argument, but a historical memory that belongs to humanity as much as to one group of victims.

Yom haZikaron claims to turn the nation into a family, but soldiers of minorities struggle with the Jewish face of this day, and the country is increasingly facing the fact that a diminishing demographic is doing the work while Ultra Orthodox and Secular elites skip out.

Yom haAtzmaut is challenged both on the left, by anti-Zionist Israelis who seek to release Israel from its ethnocentric bias, and on the right, by religious groups, betrayed by the evacuation from Gaza, who see not the 1948 secular declaration of independence, but the 1967 unification of Jerusalem and greater Israel, as the high point of the narrative. This ideology subsumes Herzl’s mountain back under the Temple Mount.

Some feel threatened by these dissenting voices, which find issue with the argument put forward by the Memorial Mountain. I’d rather see in this the natural and healthy debates of a country that is trying to do many things at once. These voices should not be pushed out, but rather seriously engaged. We need to have this debate together, and the calendar and topography must be used to further this discourse.

Four. 50 Days

The timeline of Passover-Yom haShoah-Yom haZikaron-Yom haAtzamut needs to be extended to include one other holiday: Shavuot, the anniversary of the Jewish people coming together to become part of a covenant. The secular Zionist calendar loved Passover, renaming it the Festival of Freedom, but had no patience for the rabbinic Shavuot, the festival of Torah and its exilic progeny, Halakha. In the early days of the State, Shavuot was returned to its Biblical agricultural roots as a celebration of first fruits. Now that agriculture got sidelined in Israel all that is left for most Israelis is a consumerist celebration of dairy products.

But to me, Shavuot represents the day in which we get to discuss and decide what we want to do with our previously achieved freedom and independence. Sefirat haOmer, the quirky ritual of counting 50 days from Passover to Shavuot, represents exactly that process: the move from Freedom to Covenant, from childhood dreams to mature decision making.

Israeli independence, and the celebration of its achievement, is important. But it is not sufficient. We need to continue the process, counting up the days to the time where we discuss, agree and sign a covenant of what we – Israel’s stakeholders: citizens and diaspora Jews – want Israel’s existence to be about. Har Herzl is not enough, we must find Israel’s new Mt. Sinai so that this exciting project can take flight.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is Co-Director, Director of Education, The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.