Four new holidays, all in the span of a month, have smacked the Jewish calendar in the past two generations. One of them applies universally but has monumental impact on Israelis: Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Shoah). Commemorating those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, it is a somber day in Israel and a day to be marked in Jewish communities around the world. It rests adjacent to Israel’s national holidays on the calendar, preceding them by a week.
This week marks the next two. Their are fundamentals for the modern Israeli: Memorial Day and Independence Day. Growing up in the United States, not only are the two days separated but they are treated the same way. Neither has as much emotional significance anymore, both are barbecue festivals and both are days you’ll get good deals on furniture. This is wear religion has played a nuanced role even for secular Israelis. Judaism, as I’m sure is very true about many religions, is careful to play to the themes of the subjects its holidays commemorate. While the Israeli Rabbinate is a thorn in the side of even many religious Israelis because of its bureaucracy and political patronage, it has played a significant role in the regulation and scheduling of Israeli national holidays.
For these two days, the oft-cited theme in religion of going from darkness to light is overt. The day before Independence Day, Israelis remember their fallen soldiers and officially the civilian victims of terrorism. Jewish consciousness extends that memorial to Jewish victims of terror who never carried Israeli citizenship, recognizing the intertwined fates of Jews and Israelis who have been targeted over Middle Eastern politics. Additionally, it reflects a true timeline. The day before Israel issued its Declaration of Independence, 38 civilians were killed defending Gush Etzion, a small group of towns south of Jerusalem. The Jordanians, who had already invaded the territory of the former British Mandate for Palestine before Israel declared independence, massacred those men in an incident that the Jordanians have never denied was an indecent act. It resonated throughout the Jewish population and was fresh news in the minds of everyone the next morning when the State of Israel was declared. Today, Gush Etzion has been rebuilt, but only after its land was recaptured in the 1967 Six Day War.
Reading that headline, Israelis went with heavy hearts through the light at the end of the tunnel to declare independence within 24 hours of the tragedy. But perhaps more symbolic is placement of Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah, a week before both holidays. In 1945, after the Allied Powers had conquered Germany, the full scale of the disaster for Jews was still unimaginable. Survivors faced humiliating or impossible decisions, to move back to homes surrounded by anti-Semitic neighbors or to leave for greener pastures. Many chose the idealized guilded journey to the Land of Israel, facing three years of British actions against new immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Local Jews picked up the pace smuggling survivors into the country by boat and from the harbor. Thousands were jailed on British military bases on Cyprus. Eventually, the Jewish population doubled from about 300,000 before WWII to 600,000 on the eve of independence.
That week can symbolize those three years of adjustment. With no clear end to the plight in sight, Yom HaZikaron hits the Jewish mindset – intentionally – at a time when the community is still coping with the anxieties, humiliation and ruins of the Holocaust. But Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, has a very different atmosphere. While it seems to be an additional day of mourning and despair, the tone includes one of work left to be done and accomplishments yet to be achieved. The soldiers memorialized, many of them Holocaust survivors who picked up the pieces and settled in Israel after the War, died fighting. Israelis visit cemeteries even if they have no loved ones buried there. Many Jewish seminaries, Yeshivas, take the day off from classes and bring students to see the throngs of people visit memorial parks, events and loved ones’ final resting places. The most popular sight is Mount Herzl, Jerusalem’s local military cemetery which has taken on a de facto status as the national cemetery similar to the American one in Arlington, Virginia.
That’s the atmosphere that precedes Independence Day for Israelis. It is a truly religious experience in one of the most nationalist, patriotic countries in the world. In a mentality of utter darkness, there is suddenly a burst of light. Fireworks and barbecues light up the country. Schools empty across the country like the day before with kids streaming into the streets of cities and even small towns dressed in blue & white. The narrative of the country’s survival is ever present and effervescent when you walk down the streets. Teenagers, soldiers and Yeshiva students wrap the Israeli flag around themselves like a cape screaming and hollering in euphoria.
But it’s not Israel’s only Independence Day. Three weeks later, Israel celebrates a second. It isn’t celebrated by everyone because of the political implications people read into it, but Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, has had a much larger significance for modern Judaism than any other newly marked day on the calendar. The reasons have to do with, on the one hand, the city’s vitality to Judaism itself. The second, though, has to do with the emotional rollercoaster I described above. The day incorporates all the feelings the other three exemplify and project.
Jerusalem Day & Preventing another Holocaust
Jerusalem Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the third day of the Six Day War when the city was captured. It’s intent was to be a day to celebrate winning that war without any other meaning attached to it, but the gravity of that war was too immense not to take on further meaning. In the three weeks preceding it, Arab radio made waves of it threats to do away with Israel and literally throw the Jews into the Mediterranean. The implication was there would be mass massacres and total annihilation of the institutions the Jews had created in Israel. Quite literally, some grim newspapers urged the last Jew standing to “turn out the light.”
So when at 8AM on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force caught the Egyptians on guard duty lazily making a shift change, it combined the ingenuity of the military, preparedness and incredible faith to reverse the situation and mentality completely. In one swoop, a funeral turned into a birthday. Egypt’s and Jordan’s air forces were decimated on the ground, and the most incredible preemptive strike in modern military history re-declared Israeli independence. The sweeping UN condemnations of the Israeli action have enshrined Israeli distrust of the organization, considering it was the UN’s monitors who abandoned guarding a buffer zone between Israel and the advancing Egyptian army. Gamel Abdul Nasser never recovered, dying of a heart-attack three years later. Syria saw another coup before the Yom Kippur War six years later. Jordan never again went to war with Israel.
Religious communities, even going beyond the pro-Zionist ones, have had difficulty playing down the miracle that Jerusalem Day celebrates for Jews worldwide. Anyone with Jewish parents who were living in communities at the time – Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey, California, etc. – can learn from them that the jubilation of Israel’s survival combined with such an epic return to the capital city of Judaism has been unmatched in the younger generation’s lifetime. Not even the panic that gripped Jews worldwide when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, just six years later, could match the ecstatic electricity that channeled through the Diaspora when it was reported Israel had conquered Jerusalem on the third day of the war.
For these reasons, Jews in Israel and in many Modern Orthodox & Conservative communities today celebrate Israeli Independence Day as a religious holiday, fulfilling a religious obligation to thank God whenever surviving a threatening situation or obtaining something wonderful. In this case, both. More so in Israel but also abroad, Jerusalem Day gets its religious share more emphatically. Even Haredim, that is Israeli Ultra Orthodox Jews usually standoffish of Israeli national holidays, celebrate the redemption of the day and are overwhelmed by significance of recapturing Jerusalem. The title might seem controversial if you see the world through politics, but its significance for Jews and Judaism is much broader than even the threat Israel’s conquests might be given away to another, non-Jewish country.
Israeli newspapers are littered with religious ideas about Israeli independence, linking the event to the week’s Torah and Haftarah readings (recent example: here).