By Emily Gian
Recently, my five-year-old son started asking me about soldiers.
It all began when we were visiting my husband’s family in Israel last year. He saw a soldier walking to the bus stop early one morning and grabbed my hand and moved to hide behind me: living in Australia he is certainly not used to seeing someone in uniform with a gun around his back.
The conversation began “he’s a soldier in the Israeli army, he’s a good guy. He’s here to protect you.”
“Why is he a soldier mummy?”
“Well, when Israelis turn 18, they need to do army service for 3 years.”
He asks, “was Saba a Chayal [soldier]?” Yes.
“Was Aba a Chayal?” Yes.
“Weren’t they scared?”
The innocence of children. “Maybe.”
“Will I be a Chayal one day?”
And I was stumped. I have written before about this sort of a conversation – it is one I had with my mother-in-law before my son was born.
She asked if we moved to Israel, would he serve in the IDF. My answer to her was that I hoped that by the time he grows up, there will be peace and therefore the idea of watching your child go off to serve in the army would not be as daunting.
With despair in her eyes she replied, “that is what I thought when my boys were born”.
I can only imagine the sleepless nights she would have had in the early 2000s when one son was serving on Israel’s border with Lebanon and another – my husband – was serving in a combat unit in Gaza. And they were the lucky ones – they came home.
Every time I think back to these two conversations – the one with my son and the one with my mother-in-law – I start to think about similar conversations that took place in homes all over Israel with soldiers who went off to the army and paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country with their lives.
And as a mother now, I feel I can sympathise even more with these mothers, who had to tell their sons that one day there will be peace, and to this day, that peace has not come.
But the conversation with my son led to another interesting conversation about the State of Israel and its 70th Independence Day, which always falls the day after Yom Hazikaron.
It is no coincidence that the two days are marked one after the other – we cannot celebrate the country’s ongoing independence without first paying tribute to those who gave their lives along the way.
But for all of the sadness that surrounds Yom Hazikaron, there is so much about this amazing country to be celebrated.
And while discussions about army service and Yom Hazikaron are not easy ones to have, the conversation about the story of Israel – of the little country that has been able to achieve so much in 70 years – is far easier.
In past few years, Jewish communities in the United States and also here in Australia, have started to have difficult conversations about Israel – about the way the communities should support Israel and what, if anything at all, Israel “owes” to the Diaspora. I have read and had conversations with people who talk about this sometimes fractured relationship with Israel, and it makes me uncomfortable. Having a conversation with a five-year-old about Israel proved to me to be the most meaningful and the deepest.
For all of the challenges Israel has faced – from living in an unfriendly area bordering on neighbours hell-bent on their destruction – to having to deal with the United Nations and a hostile media – there is so much of which to be proud.
One day he will understand the true significance of the journey from foreign lands such as Morocco, Libya and Poland that members of his family went on at different moments in history, to make their home in the land of Israel. And I loved to be able to tell the beautiful story of the establishment of the modern State of Israel and all of its continued success, and to see it as if for the first time, through the eyes of a child – in all of his wonderment and all of its glory.
From scientific and medical achievements, to environmental, and everything in between. I know that making the desert bloom or finding ways to cure obscure diseases does not automatically mean that we cannot be critical about treatment of refugees or other social issues, but at times, people lose sight of the bigger picture in amongst all of the noise.
Even the healthiest human does not get to age seventy without some hiccups on the way.
It is how you deal with those hiccups, learn and move forward.
For 2,000 years Jews prayed towards Jerusalem in the hope that they would one day return to their homeland.
So on this Yom Hazikaron I will pay my deepest respect to all of the soldiers and victims of terror, who gave their lives for the State of Israel, so that this Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s 70th birthday – we can celebrate the reason why those sacrifices were not made in vain.
Emily Gian is the Media & Advocacy Director for the Zionist Federation of Australia.