Israel at 59
By Dore Gold, former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations
The striking aspect of Israel's Independence Day is that it is immediately preceded a day earlier by Israel's Memorial Day. The two days are in complete contrast to one another. Memorial Day is somber with the radio broadcasting the saddest Hebrew songs from past wars. Yet within 24 hours it is replaced with fireworks and late night parties. Most Israeli cable channels have only a picture of a flickering flame on Memorial Day. The main Israeli networks, however, feature interviews with bereaved parents that have lost a child. There are discussions with war widows who now must raise their children alone, without a father. These film clips also tell one incredible story of heroism after another.
This year the stories from the recent 2006 Second Lebanon War stood out in a unique way. Those who follow events in Israel closely are keenly aware how in the last number of months the country's political leadership has been mired in repeated legal scandals. Israel's president, its prime minister, its former minister of justice, and its outgoing finance minister are all under investigation. To make matters worse, for many observers, Israel has lost much of its original idealism. It appears to have no direction. Its leadership still talks of more territorial withdrawals, it is willing to consider "the Saudi Plan," but it cannot offer the hope of any permanent peace. Occasionally this depressing state of affairs seems to permeate news items. For example it was disclosed that for the first time the number of people leaving Israel is greater than the number of new immigrants. There are also reports of Israelis seeking to obtain foreign passports from Eastern European countries. To make matters worse, Israelis sense that they lost the Second Lebanon War; they had thought they would quickly crush Hizballah, but its Katyusha rockets rained down on northern Israel until the very last day of the war. A national inquiry is underway to find out the cause of this military fiasco. Nonetheless, there is nothing like a sense of military defeat to injure or even dissolve national morale. Smelling blood, Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah are building up for a second round.
What the television clips on Memorial Day show is that the real Israel is not its present political leadership that seems to have lost its national moral compass. It is not the aging generals who fought this war with the mistaken belief that air power alone can be decisive in a counter-insurgency campaign. The real Israel is made up of an incredible young generation who are still ready to sacrifice themselves for their people; they have not lost faith in their nation or in the ideal of re-building the Jewish state.
They fought on the ground under the most difficult conditions. There was the story of Staff Seargent Michael Levin, who left the safety of his home in Mangold, Pennsylvania and volunteered to fight in the Israel Defense Forces. He rushed back from the US when Hizballah attacked Israel and the Second Lebanon War began in order to join his fellow paratroopers in Southern Lebanon, where he was killed.
Thousands came to his funeral to honor his memory (Photo above is taken of grieving soldiers at Levin's funeral). Major Ro'i Klein, the deputy commander of a Golani battalion, was another hero of this war. The story has spread of how he protected his troops from a grenade while praying out loud, "Here Oh Israel the Lord Our G-d, the Lord is One" just seconds before he died.
The stories of heroism kept coming on. Staff Seargent Itai Steinberger was a paramedic operating in completely exposed terrain in Southern Lebanon, where he was killed trying to save wounded Israelis. Lt. Colonel Emmanuel Moreno came from a deeply religious Moshav where he and his community were enmeshed in the study of Torah and many Jewish religious texts.
Yet Moreno was also a commander in the elite Sayyeret Matkal reconnaissance unit which Israel normally used for special operations like the 1976 raid on the Entebbe airport, in Uganda. Moreno was killed deep in Lebanese territory, but the television could not show his picture because it is still classified. Before he died he apparently told his brothers, who appeared on television that the old leadership of Israel had lost its direction but a new generation would soon rise to lead the nation.
Thousands of Israelis watched these Memorial Day film clips this year and must have contrasted in their minds these young giants of their nation with the corruption they read about daily concerning the current Israeli leadership.
In the last year, friends abroad have asked themselves whether Israel, stripped of ideals and sinking in spreading corruption, can survive in the long term. They wonder if Israel has become too materialistic precisely at a time when it faces a radical Islamic enemy driven by a sense of deep inner conviction. Some have quietly given up on Israel. Israel has real problems but the skeptics are dead wrong.
This Independence Day it is clear that Israel will continue and will be victorious. The flame of its idealism still burns strong, though you would never know that from the headlines in the regular Israeli press. The key to understanding Israel's independence and ongoing survival against all odds--this year in particular-- is to remember the incredible faith of the fallen on Memorial Day, that Israelis as a collective witness together just one day before they celebrate their national independence.