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In memory of my beloved brothers Efrayim and Dedy (David) Yisraeli
The last rays of light fall on the hills of Jerusalem. A clear evening filled with sweet smells descends upon Ein Kerem, on the charming stone house, on the blue windows, on the roof balcony overlooking the landscape, touching the tops of the fig and date trees surrounded by flowering geraniums. Stars glimmer above the pine trees. Remembrance Day passes, making way for Israel’s fifty-fifth Independence Day. I observe the tranquil scene from the rented room that was my home during those two days, and I know that today I have taken one small step: I have overcome the tyrannous monster that dwells within me and for a brief moment I have torn free of its long, suffocating tentacles. For the first time in thirty years. I have refused to yield to its power. Today, I have turned my back on the monster, disdained its charm, stepped back from its abyss. I have triumphed over the national monster of bereavement.
Thirty years ago, when I was a young woman of sixteen, a cruel war was fought here; it was dubbed the Yom Kippur War. When it was over, two of my brothers lay dead. Two very young brothers, only twenty-something, at the beginning of their lives, two brothers whom I admired with an innocent heart, and one day they vanished. But today it seems everyone knows of them, everyone has heard the horrible story of their death, everyone is afflicted by the enormity of the disaster. My brothers are no longer with us but the myth that was born with their death continues to grow, to gather momentum and to thrive. The Zionist myth, heroic and tragic, a myth that justifies our being here, that gives meaning and purpose to our lives and our deeds, a myth that unites me with all the people around me, which raises me ever higher on an invisible social ladder, a myth that ushered my brothers into the eternal pantheon of secular Zionism, the Holy of Holies of the State of Israel, and elevated me to the lofty rung of member of a “bereaved family”.
“Bereaved family” is an exclusively Israeli concept that is woven into an outspread web of ideas, ceremonies and values. The bereaved family is part of the specific Israeli ethos, a young but potent credo.
In this ethos, the bereaved family is rewarded very highly indeed. In return, it unwittingly sustains and guards the myth: the myth of the young soldiers who died, who were without exception perfect beings, larger than life, who willingly sacrificed their lives for the homeland – and, above all, whose deaths were necessary and unavoidable, part and parcel of the Jewish-Zionist fate, a requisite for our continued existence in this land.
The myth of the fallen of the Israeli Defense Force is so powerful and alluring that it seduces more and more young men who long for the exalted status it bestows, who volunteer to fight on the front lines, knowing that if they perish they will reap this reward. Most importantly, they innocently believe in the unquestionable axiom that eternal war and the endless accumulation of victims must be borne to enable us to live here.
For many years I persevered, with all my heart and soul, in nurturing and sustaining my own private family myth. Tending the myth gave my life meaning and surreptitiously shaped its course in almost every area. Without realizing it, I was fulfilling an unwritten contract with the State of Israel, and I dutifully observed all its terms and conditions: for my part, I preserved my family myth, which constituted a small but attractive artefact in the national mythological museum; and in return Israeli society granted me recognition, honour and worth as the bearer and representative of a familiar local legend.
This unwritten agreement between me and the State was permanent and would exert its force at various times and places. But once a year it was placed on display before the entire nation. That day is devoted especially to it: Remembrance Day for the fallen in Israel’s wars.
Every year on Remembrance Day, a large and diverse crowd gathers at the small cemetery of the kibbutz where I was born: members of the kibbutz, my relatives, members of other bereaved families, former comrades in arms and classmates loyally paying tribute to their deceased friends, representatives of the army in the guise of self-conscious young officers, and others. All of them assemble for the annual ceremony, keeping up their end of the secret contract.
The military pomp, the prayers and the stirring songs remind us of the unspoken axioms by which we have lived here for fifty years and inculcate them in our children: that all of us, our young people, our men and our women too, our children and our elderly, are involuntary soldiers in an unending war for existence. The dead soldiers are proof absolute of how true this is and always will be. They gave their lives in the cause and they call out to us always to remember their noble sacrifice, if not to follow their example and join the select ranks of the fallen. The fallen are the sublime miracle and ideal of Zionism, the essence of Israeliness, its justification and enabling agent. The dead soldiers are our new saints.
Their deaths are also both a continuation of the deaths of the Holocaust, which are commemorated one week earlier, and their negation. Together, they provide an absolute and sublime rationale and justification for our life here.
The wars in which they fell stemmed from the existential necessity that will forever be our lot.
In the annual ceremony at the small kibbutz cemetery, the fallen and their families are given royal honours and rewarded for the national role that has been placed upon their shoulders. In return, the families do their part and demonstrate by their presence their willingness to make the sacrifice and pay the price, confirming the correctness of the sanctified axioms: the fallen, death and war are the essence of our experience and the rock of our existence.
Night descends on the mountains of Jerusalem and a great calm has come over me. Today I was not present at the annual ceremony that took place at the small cemetery of my kibbutz. After thirty years I dared to stay away. For one moment I dared to extricate myself from the hard mesh of my values and beliefs, to look at it from the outside and try to describe it, puzzle over its parts and place a small hesitant question mark over every one of its axioms. For a moment I vanquished the monster of national bereavement that lives within me.
Translated by Edeet Ravel
ANAT YISRAELI can be reached at email@example.com