In defense of all of us
Jews are a people who have been dispersed across the world through thousands of years of war and expulsion. But despite the often vast distances between communities, we have a commonality between us – a bond that binds us together, so that even when a Jew from South Africa meets a Jew from Argentina or a Jew from Israel – we have an immediate connection.
This may sound fanciful, even idealistic – and yet it is something I have experienced first-hand on many occasions. But the most powerful affirmation of this feeling took place on Kibbutz Sdot Yam in the spring of 1995 – on the day of Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.
I had only been in Israel a few days on my first visit and was doing volunteer work on the Kibbutz when the eve of Yom Hazikaron arrived. So I headed to the main dining hall alone, not quite knowing what to expect.
Throughout my life, my community back in South Africa had commemorated this event as Jewish communities around the world did, but this was the first time I’d be experiencing it in Israel itself. So I stood in the hall standing a little way back, waiting and watching everyone – I was a stranger which no one knew.
And then at 8pm, as it does every year, the sirens wailed. It was a piercing noise. A slow, loud boom that bellowed from the heart of the Jewish people. I closed my eyes, and in an instant, I was transported across the history of the Jewish nation. As the sound of the siren wailed mournfully in the background, it took me back not just to the history of the State of Israel, but of the Land of Israel itself.
I thought not just of the soldiers of Israel who died bravely defending their families and their country.
I thought not just of the victims of terror who had their ordinary lives ripped away by explosions of hatred and bullets of intolerance.
I thought also of the many Jews who had fought back against tyranny.
I thought of Judah Maccabee who led the revolt against the Seleucid Empire.
I thought of Simon Bar Kokhba who led a rebellion of Jews against the mighty Roman Empire.
And I thought of Elazar ben Yair, leader of a group of Jewish rebels, who held out against the Tenth Legion of the Roman army, atop the lonely desert fortress of Masada.
What they all had in common was their love for this small patch of land in a tiny corner of the world – the same patch I was standing on. As the siren that cried tears of sadness for those lost continued around me, it also proclaimed with pride the determination of the Jewish people to be free in its own land.
After two minutes the siren faded away, and the rest of the ceremony continued, and I watched and listened as the names of those who had grown up in this Kibbutz were called. Those who had gone off to defend their homes and their loved ones – but did not return. The tears were real and painful and heart wrenching.
And although I did not understand everything that was said, I did not need to. Because the bond of my people was strong. And those soldiers who fought to defend the people of Israel were not only defending the citizens of Israel - they were also defending the Children of Israel – no matter where they are in the world.
And because without the State of Israel, Jews around the world are vulnerable – just as we have been throughout the last 3000 years.
As the sadness of Yom Hazikaron passes and the joy of Yom Ha’atzmauot rises, we can never forget that the reason we stand tall today is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us.
I entered that hall as a stranger, but left as a proud and confident member of the Jewish people.
Never before did the words Am Yisrael Chai mean so much.
Justin Amler is a South African born, Melbourne based columnist who has lived in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia and is currently working in the Information Technology industry. He is a regular contributor to international publications, including the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel. Justin is also a valued Israel Forever blogger, writing about his connection to the Jewish state. You can reach Justin on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.