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In an urgent, vital and plaintive speech Tuesday night, delivered in front of the Western Wall at the start of Israel’s annual ceremonies for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, President Isaac Herzog reminded the watching, mourning nation that those of “our sons and daughters” who have fallen in the defense of our glorious reborn nation, “fought together and fell together.
“They did not ask, nor did anyone ask them, who was right-wing and who was left-wing; who was religious, who was secular; who was Jewish and who was not Jewish,” he went on. “They fell as Israelis, defending Israel. In cemeteries, arguments fall silent…”
Herzog’s strikingly articulated plea for national unity should not have been necessary.
As has been the case in the 74 years since Israel’s revival, the challenges to our national existence are grave and unmistakable.
A nation that survived its War of Independence against all odds in 1948 finds itself, in 2022, facing an Iran to the east promising relentlessly that our demise is nigh, as it arms terrorist armies on our borders and closes in on attaining nuclear weapons.
Russia, one of the most powerful nations on earth and hitherto largely an ally, is busy falsifying our history. It is hideously accusing the Jews of responsibility for the Holocaust in which we were killed in our millions — a vicious sacrifice of truth casually executed in the cause of Moscow’s latest aggression.
Hamas is fashioning itself as the protector of our historic capital. The Islamist terrorist group ruling Gaza to our south is vowing to attack Israel and desecrate synagogues worldwide if we dare to defend the holiest place in Judaism, the Temple Mount, where, in immensely controversial and far-reaching deference to world Muslim sensibilities, we chose not to fully realize our sovereignty when capturing it from its Jordanian occupiers 55 years ago.
Ultimately, as was always the case, Israel stands or falls on its strength, its wisdom and, crucially, the resilience and unity of its populace
Many of our overseas alliances are robust, but as the case of Ukraine underlines, partnerships and guarantees have their limits. Global public opinion is far from overwhelmingly supportive or adequately informed about Israel’s challenges. Ultimately, as was always the case, Israel stands or falls on its strength, its wisdom and, crucially, the resilience and unity of its populace.
Hence, the president’s plea.
Herzog spoke to an Israel weakened and confused by years of bitter political division — by selfish, personal politics. The cynical stirring of internal hatred increasingly threatens to obscure how little truly divides us and how overwhelming are the interests we Israelis, and all Jews worldwide, have in common — and chiefly, of course, the ongoing survival and flourishing of our one Jewish and democratic state, our refuge, our homeland.
He spoke days after bullets and death threats were sent to our prime minister; and after the police were compelled to divert considerable resources from fighting terrorism to preventing a pyromaniacal extremist legislator from leading a march into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, transparently intended to fuel the flames of conflict with the Palestinians.
Herzog spoke, too, not incidentally, to an Israel facing deepening socioeconomic divisions — the widening of the gulf between the haves and have-nots, the techies and the teachers, the housed and the homeless. The capacity to feed one’s family and ensure a roof over their heads is, too, an essential component of a nation’s resilience.
Herzog spoke out at the most poignant of national moments — at the annual event where his plea for unity was most likely to resonate, at the ceremony where Israelis, briefly, are most able to put aside their differences and come together in mourning and tribute to those who gave their lives in the defense of this country, who died to help ensure that we can live here.
Even this outpouring of grief and honor has been sullied this year, with calls from some bereaved families urging ministers in a government they have been incited to despise to stay away from the cemeteries where the bereaved gather to mourn and honor the dead — a relatively marginal protest but one that only underlines the urgency of the president’s plea. Likewise, a small number of bereaved Israelis protractedly heckled Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as a traitor and a conman at Wednesday’s Mount Herzl Memorial Day ceremony for victims of terrorism.
“… Between the headstones, not a sound,” Herzog continued in his extraordinary speech. “A silence that demands that we fulfill, together, their single dying wish: the resurrection of Israel. The building of Israel. United, consolidated, responsible for each other. For we are all sisters and brothers.”
As of this Memorial Day, according to the official tally, “28,284 men, women and children have been killed in terrorist attacks and in defense of the Land of Israel since 1860, the year that the first Jewish settlers left the secure walls of Jerusalem to build new Jewish neighborhoods.”
A divided Israel, at war with itself, is a betrayal of each and every one of them. A divided Israel is also the most potent weapon in the armory of those who seek to destroy this miracle of a country.
We should have long since learned the consequences of internal hatred. Herzog’s call should not be necessary. But it is. And as the modern State of Israel enters its 75th year tonight, our future depends on heeding his plea.
Said the president: “This is our duty to the fallen, our duty to you, and our duty to future generations: to sustain a strong and prosperous Jewish and democratic state, built of a dazzling mosaic of communities, which all together constitute, in solidarity, a proud and cohesive nation.”
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