Reflections on Israel's Independence Day by a (Not So New) Immigrant

Gil Zohar

Reflections on Israel's Independence Day by a (Not So New) Immigrant

Israel Independence Day (Yom ha-Atzmaut) this year begins on the eve of Wednesday, April 25. It's the sixth such celebration since my wife Randi and I made aliya (immigrated to Israel) in 2005.

What's life like for a middle-aged, middle-class guy from Toronto, Canada adjusting to quotidian Jerusalem, you may wonder?

Good, mostly, I suppose.

Our first year here trying to immerse ourselves in our new-old country, Randi and I went to a series of state ceremonies in the eight days leading up to Independence Day. The first was to go to Yad Vashem to hear then-President Moshe Katsav and then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert memorialize the 6 million victims of the unremitting tragedy that we label the Holocaust.

We followed our visit to Yad Vashem with a ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall) mourning the 22,123 Jews, Druze, Bedouin and others who have fallen in defense of Israel and the pre-state Yishuv -- a figure which does not include victims of terror.

And the next day, almost without a breath in between, we switched emotionally draining gears to join the perhaps 50,000 Independence Day revellers who thronged downtown Jerusalem's Zion Square, Jaffa Road and the surrounding streets in a raucous, hyperbolic display of patriotism symbolized by concerts, stage shows, Israeli dancing in the streets and of course, the infamous Israeli barbeque. Every piece of green is taken up by people staking out their spot in the many parks that fill the country. (Of course, I would be remiss if i didn't also mention the florescent light wands sold at every corner and in some cases, people spraying shaving cream at total strangers.)

Yes, Israel is a strange and exotic place, familiar and foreign at the same time.

On Independence Day, it is traditional to review what has been accomplished.

Just released statistics boast the country now has nearly 8 million citizens, of whom three-quarters are Jews, a huge increase from the 650,000 who fought off seven Arab armies during the savage 1948-1949 War of Independence. The Jerusalem Post reports on page 1 that Israel now has the largest Jewish population in the world, and that its numbers keep increasing as the Diaspora keeps shrinking. By next year the number of Jews will reach 6,000,001 -- the ultimate life-affirming response to Hitler's villainous genocide.

The bankrupt country which was wracked by 454-percent-a-year hyperinflation in the early 1980s has now achieved a high-tech-based economy, albeit with enormous disparities of wealth. Prices are stable if high, and the shekel has become a hard currency. Futures in Israeli money now trade on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Israel is a member of the OECD -- the exclusive club of the world's most successful countries.

But I wish I could report there is ease in Zion. In 2006, on the eve of Independence Day, Tel Aviv-based journalist Robert Rosenberg observed: "It is indeed symbolic of this society's non-stop swaying between existential worries -- nowadays embodied in the person of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his vows to acquire nuclear technology, and his promises that Israel will be erased from the map..."

Post-Zionist Israel's strength, he suggested, now lies in its normalcy, its rejection of ideology in favor of a middle class resilience that stands up to terror not so much with war as with daring to get on with living.

But without ideology, secular Israel can be a daunting, graceless place.

An Australian immigrant writing on [email protected] (Jerusalem Anglo -- the virtual billboard that connects many English-speaking olim) cries from the heart:

"Hi. I am an olah who has been here now for almost 1.5 years. I am 29. Not religious. I have found the aliya experience to be devastatingly disappointing. The financial disincentive pains me. My daily contact with people be it when driving on the roads, or making appointments, at shops, in the workplace at the supermarket -- has been disappointing. I find everyone to be so rude. ... I have made only a handful of friends and am very isolated...

"I could call it a severe case of culture shock. On the other hand, maybe it's coming to terms with the fact that countries like the USA, Australia, UK have a higher standard of living. And that in spite of being Jewish, as an Anglo, Israel isn't really my home. If it weren't for my fiancé, I would have left already.

"Does anyone have any advice on how to meet new people and feel more at home in Israel? How did you come to terms with working twice as hard, for half the pay? Any advice...?!"

How does one respond? Psychologists note aliya is a three-stage process: the first is euphoria, the second frustration and anger, and the third successful adjustment. This process can take years. One just has to put in the time and effort.

But judging by the many notices on Janglo for content sales of people leaving the country, many English-speaking olim never complete the transition.

Even more disturbing are the feelings of many alienated Israelis who participated in last summer's protests for social justice and affordable housing. Many observant Jews still bear a grudge against the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria which marked the end of the post-1967 dream of Greater Israel.

Moshe Feiglin, the founder of Manhigut Yehudit, the dissident faction of Likud party, asks:

"How do Israelis feel on their Independence Day? For the past number of years, the most apt comparison would be to the feeling of a birthday party celebrated at the bedside of a terminally ill patient. You can't not attend, you can't not express your good wishes and you can't not celebrate -- at least for outward appearances."

I could add my petty gripes about the postal system which barely functions so that my mail is routinely returned to sender -- even though the house I purchased has been standing since 1889.

Notwithstanding the high cost of living as well as the hassles and troubles that come with living in Israel; the specter of terror -- in which people I know have been killed; l, we are still living lives of meaning, beauty and adventure at the tail end of the most momentous century in the history of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple nearly 2,000 years ago.

My love of Israel is neither naive nor near-sighted. I understand and regret the mistakes, corruption and arrogance that taint our accomplishments, and rue our current state of relations with our Palestinian neighbors.

I'm not the only writer to take a long-term perspective on contemporary Israel.

Novelist Naomi Ragen writes: "There has never been, in the history of the Jewish people, a more courageous and admirable generation of young people. There has never been, in the history of the Jewish people, a more amazing variety of Jewish life in the land that God gave us. The two of these things combined make me glad to be alive; glad to be a Jew; glad to be privileged to live in the land of the Jews, the land of Israel."

It is my heartfelt wish that more of my friends and family will act on the inchoate yearning for Eretz Israel, the very tickle in the heart that has kept you reading to the end of this essay. And next year in Jerusalem may it be your turn to experience Israel's Independence Day.

Gil Zohar writes regularly for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading Christian social network focused on travel to Israel. He is a licensed tour guide and lives in Jerusalem with his new wife Randi. Gil can be reached at [email protected]

Publication date: April 23, 2012