Jewish Celebration Has Multiple Narratives, and Yom Haatzmaut Should Too

Amos Schonfield

At Jewish weddings, the groom stamps on and smashes a glass.

This custom has several meanings, and you may know the most familiar of them. The argument is that even on supposedly the happiest day of one’s life, it is important to reflect on moments of sadness and loss. The breaking of the glass serves to symbolise the destruction of the Temples, and more recently has been intertwined with Holocaust symbolism by way of Kristallnacht (‘The Night of Broken Glass’). It gives us pause during the festivities, a moment of dissonance.

The practice of having multi-layered narratives in play simultaneously is fairly common in Jewish 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. Rosh Hashanah combines earnest repentance with tasting the first fruits and enjoying the company of loved ones. We have cultivated these practices over time, creating complex rituals that make them continuously compelling. This complexity reflects the layered way we construct group identities. We not only revel together, but we struggle and perhaps mourn as a community too.

However, this nuance and thoughtfulness is yet to make it into the Israeli Calendar, and in particular Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day). I have vivid memories of the binary opposite atmospheres on these sequential days. At my Jewish secondary school, Yom Hazikaron was naturally mournful, which then flips into unbridled joy on the anniversary of national independence. These national holidays were composed using Jewish holidays as a template – just as Israel’s other national symbols and structures borrow heavily from Jewish tradition – and yet seem to have summarily ignored one of their core tenets.

This singular focus is clearly designed to amplify the emotional energy of the day by uniting everyone around one emotional palette. With both remembrance of fallen soldiers and independence being such fresh topics to the conflict-ridden, relatively new country, it feels like a natural fit. I was taught about the shift as sun sets on Yom Hazikaron and the country shifts gear from sadness to joy. The pride in this tradition is considered a jewel in the Israeli Calendar, highlighting the intrinsic link between the country created and the soldiers that fell to establish and protect it.

What to make of this binary? As a committed Zionist with a complex relationship with the existing Zionist establishment, I’d say it is pretty deficient. But the question I’d rather ask is what are we missing here? In buying into the current calendar, I give myself time to mourn and then time to celebrate. However, I don’t let myself do both, or consider the ways the two are connected. The window for dissonance that we open up in our Jewish practices stays shut.

In a country seeking to welcome so many different identities, spaces for dissonant thinking is vital. People come from different religions, religious backgrounds, political persuasions, ethnic and national backgrounds; these salient divides apply to diaspora communities too. The way you behave on these national holidays becomes a litmus test for the quality of your Zionism or ‘Israeliness’. In order to be truly open, we need to confront divergent feelings and sometimes ask ourselves difficult questions.

What might this look like? Yom Hazikaron can be celebratory of soldiers’ courage and fearless in confronting issues of war and Israel’s militaristic society. Yom Haatzmaut can offer us a chance at a collective look at the ‘State of the Union’: in celebrating Israeli independence, we should ask ourselves just how successfully we are wielding the responsibility of statehood.

Sometimes this will be a chance – as with the Israel Prize – a cause for celebration. At other times, we should be having conversations on what more needs to be done. And we should also open our minds to the interconnectedness between Israel’s national holiday and the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba, which occurs the day after.

While I’m certain there are several groups and individuals doing something of this sort, I visited JCoSS for last Yom Haatzmaut, and they fully held this balance. The day was an opportunity to jump wholeheartedly into what it means to engage with Israel, inviting in expert educators while wearing blue and white and celebrating as a community. I hold this in contrast with my old school’s Yom Haatzmaut, which prepared for the day by plastering the walls with Hasbara-esque Israeli achievements – ‘did you know that Israel produces the Merkava tank, which is the best in the world’ and other such bizarre statements – and then had (single-sex) Israeli dancing wearing blue and white and waving enormous Israeli flags. Nuanced, it wasn’t.

The effect here is to lower Zionism to its lowest common denominator, to a simple form of nationalism rooted in shared myths and shakshuka pans. Zionism, for me at least, feels distinct form that. Understood perhaps more honestly, Zionism should be viewed as a refugee liberation movement in need of a facelift. Rather than speaking to the exceptionalism of the country (Israel), it rather serves as a memorial to persecution and pogroms. The way in which Yom Haatzmaut does little more than nod to that in lieu of bombastic concerts does the legacy of Chalutzim and visionaries a disservice.

Rather than expecting everyone to embody the feeling of the day, these national holidays can be opportunities to re-engage and deepen one’s engagement with Israel. This would not only help us to internalise a more realistic vision of Israel, but make these national holidays into a different kind of event. It becomes a continual conversation between the past and present, something that continues to morph as our understanding of Zionism means, and engages us in our own personal feelings in a deep way.

Over the past handful of centuries, the Jewish people have turned creating complex occasions into an art form. Just look at Purim: one part Halloween with institutionalised alcoholism, one part retelling of attempted genocide. If we are capable of that, why do we settle for rehashing the 4th of July on the back of a siddur and hoping that it will suffice?