One of the most successful attempts I know of at creating a new Israeli ritual is the 20 year-old tradition of Yom Hazikaron - Yom Ha'atzma'ut observance that has developed at Shorashim. At approximately 2:00 pm on Yom Hazikaron, the community assembles in the parking lot and forms a caravan of cars (this year, for example, around 25). The planning committee organizes a guided tour of a site or an area in the Galilee or Golan that saw important action during one of the wars. Generally this includes some driving and some not-too-strenuous hiking, as all ages are included. And generally, the route includes an encounter either with a real veteran of the battle in question, or with moshav members playing historical roles. Then, as sundown approaches, we arrive at a picnic ground in the area, and hold a brief ceremony marking the connection - and the transition - between Memorial Day and Independence Day. This is followed by dinner (generally families organize themselves into pot-luck groups for this) and a big bonfire with singing - we have two accordionists among us (I always find the firelight too dim to read the fine print of the xeroxed song books, so the songs I don't remember from camp and Hillel are just la-la-la...) and dancing. And if the organizers have done a really good job, the park has been chosen to have a view of the fireworks display of some nearby town or kibbutz. This year, in fact, we picnicked on a ridge overlooking the Jordan valley and had an unobstructed view, from above, of about a dozen different displays; it was fantastic.
This year we learned about the bitter battles over the British police station at Tzemach, and later at nearby Kibbutz Degania, at the southern tip of the Kinneret. Our guide was a resident of Kibbutz Kinneret, who was 18 at the time, a full participant in the fighting, who could show us just where he was standing at various fateful moments - and for whom every monument represented the memory of a childhood friend cut down that day. We learned about tragic mistakes and heroic acts and miraculous turnarounds. We learned, I suppose, more than we wanted to, more than we could absorb of the details as they were replayed in our guide's memory. It was moving, and a bit awe-inspiring, but I think many of the children were counting down the minutes to sunset.
"The Arabs," of course were the enemy in that war, and inflicted a great deal of suffering on "the Jews." Some Arabs now are our neighbors and fellow citizens - and in the case of many Shorashim children who attend a mixed school, our classmates. Some Arabs are still our enemies. Part of our problem today is the difficulty of separating our memories of heroic battles from our present complex reality. Some us wondered together that afternoon by the shore of the Kinneret how our children make that separation.
As we get older our childhood heroes tend to shrink in our admiration, and what was clearly black and white becomes a troubling gray. I suspect the same is true of collectives, of nations, as they mature. That is why these war memories, and stories, for many, have lost their romance and simplicity.
Nevertheless, the classic poem of Yom Hazikaron, by Nathan Alterman, still speaks for the nation. Haim Weizman said in 1948, "A state is not handed to a people on a silver platter." Alterman responded with a poem, describing two grimy, battle-weary young people, a boy and a girl, standing amid smoking borders under a crimson sky, facing a nation in tears with these words: "We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was presented today."