This July 4, Israelis and Americans should celebrate our past

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-2-09

This July 4, we remember the shared interests, values, ideals, experiences and enemies uniting Israel and the US. These bonds are particularly important as a new American administration picks on Israel while wooing America’s foes. President Barack Obama himself has deemed the American-Israeli friendship “unbreakable.” Yet his zeal for criticizing Israel, and his initial hesitation even to criticize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, has unnerved Israelis. Celebrating national holidays and learning national histories help nations understand themselves better, clarifying values and priorities, sifting friend from foe. America and Israel could each learn from the other how to “do” holidays and history better.

The Statue of Liberty holds a...

The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet inscribed with the date of United States independence. Americans can teach Israelis about celebrating historical anniversaries – and appreciating history more generally.
Photo: Bloomberg

As an American Jew born in New York and bred in a Zionist family, my most exhilarating Fourth of July was in 1976. For months we had been building toward celebrating America’s 200th birthday, especially with Bicentennial Minutes. Every night on CBS television, a celebrity – Ed Asner or Lucille Ball, Walter Cronkite or Betty Ford, Nelson Rockefeller or Gerald Ford – described a moment from the American Revolution. That summer I went to Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehudah ambivalently, not wanting to miss the tall ships from around the world that would sail around the Statue of Liberty on July 4.

All doubts disappeared in camp as history-in-the-making overrode history to commemorate. Terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139 and held all the Jews (and the brave flight crew) hostage at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. After havdala on July 3, when we heard that Israeli commandos had rescued the hostages, we all went crazy – singing and dancing and high-fiving. Pride in Israel and pride in America reinforced one another that day: The Bicentennial healed an America reeling from Watergate and Vietnam as Entebbe healed an Israel still reeling from the Yom Kippur War.

WHEN IT comes to celebrating national holidays, Americans could learn from Israelis. Israel’s national calendar revolves around the traditional Jewish calendar. The major Jewish holidays unite so-called “secular” and religious Israeli Jews in a delightful symphony, mixing the old with the new. Silly shticks like cheesecake on Shavuot and masks on Purim emphasize sacred values like the joys of learning and the joys of giving.

Nationally, the most powerful holidays are Remembrance Day and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s memorial day followed immediately by Independence Day. The doleful siren’s wail that stops traffic as the nation mourns its fallen soldiers and terror victims reinforces the glee that sweeps the country the day after. The historical experiences of founding the state – as well as the repeated sacrifices imposed on thousands to preserve it – remain immediate, vivid, emotionally raw.

By contrast, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, like most American holidays, are too frequently divorced from any meaningful rituals or deeper meanings. Some families mourn on Memorial Day, and some communities celebrate July 4 with reverence and appreciation. Alas, for most Americans, these holidays are more days off – or sale days – than days of reflection.

YET AMERICANS can teach Israelis about celebrating historical anniversaries – and appreciating history more generally. Israelis should seek out more “teachable moments,” fostering historical awareness and national pride. This spring, Americans could not avoid Lincoln’s 200th birthday celebrations – will Israelis even notice Herzl’s 150th birthday next May 2, or his 105th yahrzeit today? Recently, the World Zionist Organization helped pass a law in the Knesset launching Herzl Memorial Day, first held in 2005. We need more such initiatives.

Too many Israelis are losing touch with the heroic history that explains what the country is all about. I recently entered my local bookstore on Rehov Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, seeking basic Hebrew texts about Israeli history for school-age kids. There were slim pickings. I asked the sales clerk why there were so few choices, saying that American bookstores feature shelves filled with creative history books for kids. “We are not patriots here,” she shrugged in reply.

Those Bicentennial Minutes, the 60-second snippets celebrating 1776 in 1976, boosted national pride when Americans were demoralized. The CRB (Charles R. Bronfman) Foundation in Canada funds the Heritage Project and Historica “to raise greater interest and awareness of Canada’s past” by “linking what children see at home, on television and on computer screens to their studies at school.” CRB developed the Bicentennial Minute Canadian style, telling stories of Canada’s past while developing various curricula and popular materials.

In Israel, the schools in general need fixing, the history curriculum in particular needs modernizing. Creative initiatives, like “Toldot Yisrael” started by Aryeh Halivni, need funding and support. Halivni wants to record the testimonies of 5,000 people from the founding generation recalling the struggle to establish the state. We need more books, movies, documentaries and computer games explaining the Zionist idea and Israel’s historical fulfillment of it.

Nationalism, patriotism, history itself are not the exclusive preserve of the Right. Since the 1960s, too many conservatives have sought to dominate their national narratives, and too many leftists have ceded the field to them, in both Israel and America. Barack Obama, among others, has spoken eloquently about the need for a bipartisan patriotism that is not the preserve of the Right or the Left.

All democracies, but particularly America and Israel, need a strong civic sensibility, rooted in history. Americans need it because of their diversity; Israelis need it because of the continuing adversity this unique country endures.

In movies, when someone gets knocked on the head and loses his memory, his first question when he wakes up is “Who am I?” Without memory we have no identity; without history we do not know who we are or who we should become. History helps provide the glue that keeps nations together – and fosters the idealism necessary for nations to survive and thrive, especially amid today’s challenges.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Jerusalem and Montreal.

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