“To be a free people in our land,” the crowd sings HaTikvah (the Israeli anthem) and waves flags in the air. I’m in Independence Park in Jerusalem, attending one of the many festivities to mark 70 years of Israeli independence. I’m joined by both secular and religious Israelis, young and old, families and friends. Some are wrapped in Israeli flags; even more are wearing blue and white. I also notice who isn’t there: Arab-Israelis and Palestinians.
It’s been a year of anniversaries and announcements in the Middle East, especially regarding events in what used to be the British Mandate for Palestine and is now Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and Jordan. From the one-hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration to U.S. embassy relocation to the seventieth anniversary of Israeli independence, each occasion sparks new discussions, conversations, and reflections. In my year between Amman and Jerusalem, I’ve been reminded time and time again of the variety of narratives and viewpoints. Of all things, Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) and the holidays surrounding it show that.
While the Declaration of Independence was signed on the Gregorian calendar date of May 14, 1948, the Hebrew date was the fifth of Iyar, 5708. Since Yom HaAtzmaut is observed according to the Hebrew calendar, the date changes each year. This year, it was April 18 and 19. If Yom HaAtzmaut is a celebration of all that has been achieved, the two holidays preceding it are a remembrance of the sacrifices of statehood. Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) serves as a day to remember the 6 million who died, as well as the "Righteous Among the Nations" and partisans who sought to fight the Nazis and their allies. Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), meanwhile, is a remembrance of those who have died fighting for the modern State of Israel as well as victims of terror. It’s a reminder of the cost of freedom and statehood.
Just as I noticed who wasn’t at the Jerusalem celebrations, you’ve probably noticed who isn’t remembered in these holidays: Palestinians. They commemorate the Nakba on May 15. This year, however, remembering began early. Border protests have occurred in Gaza each Friday since March 30, 2018. Rallies and marches have begun throughout the region as a counterpart to Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. Though connected, both groups tend to mourn and remember separately; the politics of life here quasi-dictates it. Only occasionally do people come together in grief, like the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony held in Tel Aviv this past Tuesday, and those occasions are considered controversial by many.
Yet in a twist of linguistic fate, both call their remembrance days terms that equate to disaster (Shoah) and catastrophe (Nakba). It’s a similarity I pointed out to my colloquial Arabic professor last semester. The day after the Jerusalem announcement, we talked about the U.S. embassy’s relocation and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made refugees from refugees; how individuals get lost in the need to create a collective identity; and how people use Israel-Palestine to stir hatred, extremism, and fanaticism—on both sides.
Some might say coexistence begins with trust; I’d say trust is a precondition for truthfulness. It’s hard to have a substantial conversation when you can’t be truthful. Yet it's also hard to continue to think of “everyone” as an enemy when you can call a few friends. In the past year, the moments when I’ve learned the most have been those of pushing past group boundaries. It’s when a friend from Arrabeh (an majority-Arab town in Israel) wished me a “Happy Passover!” when I had to leave a frisbee tournament early. It’s listening to a Jordanian-Palestinian friend only half-joke about not wanting to become a refugee before finishing his degree. It’s talking about experiences as a minority with a secular Jordanian-Palestinian friend who studied in England and was still “othered” by virtue of birthplace and name. It’s hearing an Israeli teacher talk about his experience in Lebanon and his current coexistence work.
These are a fraction of the moments I thought of on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. And these are the liminal moments I’ll take back to Georgetown. As I’ve reflected, I keep returning to the story of Jacob being renamed Israel after wrestling with an angel representing God. “Israel” means “to struggle with God” and is a process—not an event. I’m reminded that struggling can be necessary to make sense of reality while also serving as a reminder to do better. So I chose to be hopeful for the future. Israel has struggled for over 70 years to be a modern nation-state and even longer as a people. The Palestinians, too, have struggled and continue to struggle. As is said in Hebrew, here is to 120 years, and beyond. And may the future bring peace upon upon both peoples.