Yom Ha’azmaut – Perspectives from those living in Israel and those not living in Israel

Jewish culture By Joel Weiner and Amos Schonfield 26th Apr 2016

I think one of the main reasons for making Aliya for me was the way it says “Chag Sameach” on the buses during the festivals. And the way they used to change the clock from Daylight Saving Time based on the date of Yom Kippur, not a fixed day of the year. And countless other such shenanigans that mark Israel out as being, beyond all doubt, a Jewish State. I liked the idea of a Home with a capital ‘H’ – a place where I could be fully understood wherever I went, where my Jewish sensitivities would be respected, not just because they were in line with some kind of multicultural protocol, but out of a sense of shared experience and destiny. Today, that desire is still there, but it goes a lot deeper: being Israeli is more than Channuka being a substitute for Christmas and Pesach for Easter. It is about being part of a story, one that is being written right here, all the time. As a Jew living in England I was a part of that story too, but I didn’t feel I could affect the plot in the same way I can from here. I feel that difference in almost everything that happens here; one example that comes to mind is that decisions made by the Government here have a real effect on the future of my People, and therefore my vote in Israeli elections carries much more emotional weight than it would in any other place in the world (as interested and involved as I might have felt in British politics).

In Israel I feel a much greater sense of purpose. Sixty-eight years into the State’s existence, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve obtained the original objective: namely, to create a safe-haven for the Jewish people enduring whatever persecution they may face abroad. Today we are in a position where we can focus our efforts on the next stage of Zionism, which is to create a different kind of security for Israel’s citizens and residents, in accordance with our Jewish values: one where people need not worry about how they will feed their families the next day, where jobs are available and wages are in line with the cost of living, and where all children can be guaranteed a proper, well-rounded education, no matter which background they come from. Zionism 2.0 is no less of a challenge than its predecessor, and by living here and investing my life in the State of Israel, I believe I have both a greater duty and a greater ability to make it happen.

Joel Weiner grew up in London and made Aliya in 2011. He studied at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa and served until recently as an officer in the IDF. Next year he will begin studying political science and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

950 years ago, someone called Norman came and conquered our cluster of islands. Since then, we Jews were invited in, expelled, and allowed back in again. Our Queen has two birthdays and we have a handful of Patron Saints to honour, but we’ve never noted down our date of independence. All this is one way of saying that as someone who has spent the vast majority of his time living in the UK, I don’t really know what an Independence Day should look like.

This doesn’t – and shouldn’t – stop us from trying. Every year, Jews and Israelis gather in schools, synagogues, youth groups and community centres to celebrate Israeli independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut. As an Israeli in the UK I try to get myself involved. I eat the right dishes, sing the right songs, dance the right steps, and it still feels somehow wrong.

At first I blamed others: there’s something inauthentic about us Brits trying to do some classic, non-cynical celebration. Then I blamed myself: my innate Britishness is stunting me, like a gag reflex of the stiff upper lip. Ultimately, I came to different answers. Independence days look a certain way because they are expressions of nationalism. In the UK at least, nationalism is synonymous with the National Front, the BNP, and Britain First, and with Islamophobic and Antisemitic groups such as the Jobbiks and Golden Dawn across Europe.

Zionism, from my perspective, feels distinct from that. It’s not an exclusionary nationalist trend, more like a refugee liberation movement in need of a facelift. It speaks less to the exceptionalism of the country (Israel), and instead memorialise persecution and pogroms. The way in which Yom Ha’atzmaut does little more than nod to that, in lieu of bombastic concerts, does the legacy of Chalutzim and visionaries a disservice.

The unimaginative flag waving and hora-dancing of Yom Ha’atzmaut troubles me further. Our Jewish tradition demonstrates a different model of practice. Sitting Shiva after the death of a relative allows people to publicly and privately fondly remember the deceased. The Passover Seder tells a story of death and desolation while we sit in luxury. Purim is one part Halloween with institutionalised alcoholism, one part retelling of attempted genocide. We have cultivated these practices over time, creating complex rituals and multi-layered narratives that make them continuously compelling.

Incorporating this custom into Yom Ha’atzmaut would create space for different emotional palettes. On top of the joy, we could reflect on the past and look at how we succeed and what we can do better. Instead, across Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, we settle for rehashing the 4th of July on the back of a siddur and hoping that it will suffice.

Amos Schonfield is Mazkir of Noam Masorti Youth and the community worker for New North London Synagogue.

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