Friday, July 11, 2008

Yom Hazikaron in Melbourne

7th May 2008

When it comes to sticky issues, you either straddle the apathy line or you make a choice. I've made my choice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am a Zionist. I am for the following two reasons;

1. It's a Biblically sound choice
2. It's a historically and geographically sound choice.

You can take away the first one and it's still a sound choice.

Sadly I don't know any Jews personally. I don't want to seem like George Costanza from Seinfeld, in the episode where he went out of his way to "make friends" with a black person- just because someone accused him of being racist. However, with Israel's 60 years of independence celebrations taking place this week I was determined to at least observe a Jewish gathering.

Yom Hazikaron is the "Day of Rememberance", a commemoration for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror, traditionally held the night before the official day of independence celebrations. Yom Hazikaron Melbourne was held at Monash University's Clayton campus on the evening of May 6th, and I was able to attend.

Sitting in the car waiting for the hall to open open, there was no escaping the significance of the event whilst listening to ABC News Radio, on a summary of the headlines-in-brief; "...and, Israel celebrates it's 60th anniversary since independence. How many others would celebrate with them if the occupation ended?..."

"Occupation"?? Even in a headline soundbite, someone has to editorialize.

I probably don't look in the least bit Jewish, if there is such a thing, so the door security officer pulled me up and politely asked me some questions. I was happy to oblige, as it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that a mass gathering of Jews would be an ideal target for protests (especially at a University)...or worse. The problem was I stumbled over my own tongue trying to explain to this friendly security guard (who could have been Mossad for all I knew) that I was not Jewish but I cared about Israel. He smiled politely at my attempt and showed me in. Ah! I can hear them all now...The racism of Zionists! Stopping anyone who doesn't appear Jewish! Racial profiling!'s called efficient security.

The tone of the evening was set by the instruction in the program: In keeping with the solemnity of the occasion there should be no applause. In the main hall, I was all alone, people-watching. There were young and old, ultra-orthodox and liberal. To me, demographically, it looked no different to a church gathering, but with yarmulkes, and even so not everybody was wearing them. There was no boisterousness, bad language, lack of manners...just a community of people, behaving pleasantly. They looked solemn, but with a mischievously gleeful glimmer of hope.

The young Jewish man beside me was deep in conversation with a young female friend. It was heavy stuff- relationships, disagreements between friends, some kind of crisis, but it was handled pragmatically by both. I heard the young lady say "You know what Jews are like...word gets around". It all sounded so normal. They wound it up pleasantly and she left.

The presentations were mostly done in Hebrew, and it flowed so much I almost developed an ear for it. I could pick up words like barach (blessing) and Ruach (wind/ spirit) and boker (dawn). They picked specific soldiers and victims of terror with links to Australia, and told their stories, and the relatives/ loved ones lit candles for them in a progressive sequence through the night.

Visiting Israeli paramedic Steven Friedland spoke of how he treated dozens on a battlefield in the second Lebanon war. His friend Itay Steinberger carried his medical equipment uphill so he could get to the injured faster. Steinberger then shielded him from a Hezbollah shell and died right there. It was only this which saved Steven and enabled him to tend to the wounded.

The incomparably Aussie-sounding Joe Salfas, who served in both the IDF and the RAAF, spoke of his cousin Ruth Moritz, who died in the first war of independence in 1948. Following evacuation orders she ran back up the minaret of an old mosque to fetch a missing comrade and was overrun by Jordanian troops. She was 18.

A video montage of images from the second Lebanon war was run. The pictures showed only funerals, grieving Israeli soldiers, embracing, united by loss. You couldn't watch it without crying, if you have a heart. Perhaps it's because we are conditioned to seeing death and murder in that region being cheered and celebrated. Yes there is grief and anguish from Palestinian Arab mothers. But I confess- I struggle to cry for them when, away from the western TV cameras, so many of those same mothers teach their children to desire and crave martyrdom through killing Jews. This is the same culture who sent their Persian children to clear Iraqi minefields, with the "keys to Paradise" hanging around their little necks. I'll cry for them-for entirely different reasons.

Scan the Israeli media and try to find bloodthirsty Zionist indoctrination of their schoolchildren, or ecstasy, celebration and cheering at the death of Palestinian terrorists. You won't. The terrorist boast is we love death more than you love life. How wrong they are. They underestimate how much Israelis love life.

Here was the revelation of the evening for me; we "celebrate" ANZAC day and remembrance day, the 11th hour, 11th day, 11th month. We proudly honour our war heroes as heroes. To do this, by inference we are asserting moral standing. It's simple. They were wrong, we were right. We defeated them. We fought them. We killed them, and we lost our own in the process. We have WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam. Our defence forces were, and are, heroes.

Israel have to do this remembrance every day. They have been at war every decade they have existed. While we obediently and willingly sent people overseas to assist the world, occasionally without a choice, sometimes with, Israel have fought for their own survival out of sheer necessity. These heroic, tragic, heart-wrenching stories are a part of their daily life, etched into their being and culture. Yet our mainstream media and cultural elite deny Israel the same moral standing which we afford ourselves.

I was caught out as prayers were offered and "will the gentlemen please cover their heads". Oops. Not only was I unaware of this practice, I had nothing to put on my head. Still, I wasn't the only one. As we sat down, the young Jewish man beside me quips "five minutes with your hand on your head....just doesn't work!". It's refreshing. He seemed to be there only because he felt he had to. Perhaps he is a non-religious Jew. Perhaps he wishes he wasn't identified with this estranged, harangued, libelled and endangered species. But he's there anyway, still being indentified, once and always, a Jew. A living, breathing, walking miracle.

His Excellency Yuval Rotem, Israel's ambassador to Australia made a speech, entirely in Hebrew. it included the following notable snippets;

Israel is not perfect. We have sinned. We have even been discriminatory. Sometimes our actions have been excessive and perhaps our reprisals too harsh. But in the final analysis it must be said that Israel have always tried to extend the hand of peace.

and this

We have two large hands and a very large heart. One hand is to protect our people, and the other is to offer to our enemies, for peace, if they so desire it, or a fight, if they desire that.

Looking at history his words were, if anything, understated. I was caught out yet again as they sung the Hatikva (The Hope), the Israeli National Anthem.

Afterwards there was little or no socialising. I had no opportunity to chat to anyone. It was probably a barach in disguise. What on earth would I say? I'm a Christian Zionist...sorry about the 1,800 years of church-based anti-semitism? I blew my opportunity with the young man who chuckled about by non-head-covering during prayer time, where I could have explained that my excuse was "I'm not Jewish"! Perhaps I needed the opportunity to claim my Christian position, and graciously accept whatever the response- rejection, disdain, a warm welcome. I wondered if I was really capable of graciously accepting any response, had I been faced with it.

Way ahead of me however there are worldwide alliances of solidarity between Christians and Jews, albeit with Australian chapters slow to get going. If you were going to find only one commonality between us it would be this; Israel has a glorious future.

Even though the invitation to this evening was to "The Community" I got the feeling I was possibly the only Gentile there.

But what a privilege.

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