As an Israeli, Yom HaAtzmaut fascinates me.
Not because it is the one day that Israelis celebrate freedom, independence and bask in the sweet taste of self-determination. But rather because Yom HaAtzmaut mirrors the story of the State of Israel since its establishment, 74 years ago.
Yom HaAtzmaut begins 24 hours prior to the national celebrations with the remembrance of Yom HaZikaron. They are embedded and linked to each other; one needs the other to exist.
The Jews that experienced that day when David Ben Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel also experienced seven wars, four major operations, two intifadas and numerous terrorist attacks. They knew, and still know, that independence and freedom cannot come without sacrifice and loss.
The shift from remembering our fallen brothers and sisters at exactly 10 a.m., when the two-minute-long siren stops life as we know it, to the lighting of the Menorah that same night, locks the mourning of Yom HaZikaron and starts the celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut. This sudden pivot never made sense to me until I joined the military myself.
Today, after serving over eight years in active military service, I can attest firsthand that when speaking of Yom HaAtzmaut to the average Israeli, it has a deeply convoluted meaning. Yom HaAtzmaut stands hand in hand with Yom HaZikaron; A time where pride, courage and camaraderie are mixed with anger, sadness and painful memories. A day filled with an amalgam of emotions when we dress in our national colors throughout the day – blue and white, go to our community ceremonies where we name those who have fallen, say Yizkor (Remembrance), listen to El Male Rachamim (Merciful God) and end the day with the lighting of the national Menorah, singing Hatikva and celebrating Independence.
In Israel, loss is never more than an arm’s length away. It is inevitable that someone that you went to high school with, grew up next to, knew through friends and family, or served side by side with has perished throughout their military service. It is never a distant connection, but always one experienced through personal pain.
Amongst my fallen brothers, who are all remembered and dearly missed, I would like to share the story of Lieutenant Omri Shahar. This Yom HaZikaron/Atzmaut marks nearly ten years since his passing. I served as a ship commander when he was a young deputy and later, squadron commander when he was one of the younger ship commanders. Omri was simply put, the sweetest kid around. He was a true altruist that every officer wanted to have under his command and everyone wanted to affiliate themselves with. Always punctual, always smiling and always respectful to his commanders, peers and soldiers. He was one of the young officers you could be proud to be affiliated with – never arrogant, and always ideological and value driven both in his words and actions. Truly a kind soul of love, where his smile and passion for the open seas were nothing short of infectious. Son of Irit and Asher, who was a retired Lt. Colonel in the Navy, Omri was the pride and joy of their life, the eldest of three siblings. He died on the night of June 26, 2012, at the age of 25. I loved that kid.
In this harsh Israeli reality, this painful prematurely cut young life, I know and deeply believe that Omri’s sacrifice was not in vain. In his sacrifice, he assured us the freedom, liberty, security and future of the state of Israel and its citizens. In his life, he gave us the power and responsibility to continue and for that, we are eternally grateful to him and the many thousands of men and women who fall protecting the State of Israel.
If thriving in the Middle East for the past 74 years has taught us anything, it taught us that life continues. That we can and must go on. That after we delve into 24 hours of pain, sadness and remembrance, we force ourselves out of despair and look to the future. We look at the wonderful country that our grandparents built with their own two hands, our parents developed and it is now our responsibility to advance. We are all immigrants, from Iran, Iraq, Europe, Asia, Russia, North and South American, Africa to name a few. We come to build a Jewish life and more importantly, a future for themselves and their children, far from prosecution and free to practice their beliefs. The streets we walk in are named after ordinary men and women who found themselves in the most extraordinary circumstances and rose to the occasion. This is where we see the young soldier in uniform on public transportation and have an extreme sense of accomplishment and more importantly, pride in ourselves, our country and our values.
This Yom HaAtzmaut, let us celebrate life. Let us celebrate independence and freedom. Where in the land of our Jewish forefathers, we can today assure to every men, women and child a life safe from persecution and the ability to practice their religion without fear. Where they can be proud of their history and excited about the future- protected and made possible by those brave men and women who secure our borders, all hours of the day, 365 days a year.
Happy 74th birthday, Israel. You are looking better from year to year.
Shimon Levy is chief operating officer of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. He is a captain (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces.