Thirty-five years ago, on May 5, 1985, President Ronald Reagan visited the German war cemetery in Bitburg, hoping “to heal once and for all many of the lingering wounds” of World War II. Millions denounced Reagan’s insensitivity — because 49 Nazi Storm Troopers were buried among the 2000 German soldiers. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the leaders of the Moral Majority and the NAACP, the Catholic War Veterans and the AFL-CIO, signed a letter saying the president “dishonors the sacrifices of millions of American and Allied soldiers who fought and died to liberate Europe.” Three weeks earlier, while being honored at the White House, Elie Wiesel elegantly, graciously, and heroically proclaimed: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
I know this will infuriate many, but all those American Jews who only marked Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut by zooming into the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day Ceremony – and the organizations that publicized that ceremony but not Israel’s ceremonies and celebrations – replicated Reagan’s well-intentioned but inexcusable Bitburg sin.
I’m not addressing the bereaved families; I wouldn’t presume to judge their mourning process.
But I won’t pull punches regarding the others. Think about it: would these people have attended a joint ceremony honoring Confederate War dead and Union losses during the Civil War? I can’t even imagine mourning England’s 24,000 Revolutionary War casualties this Memorial Day or July Fourth, despite Great Britain’s special relationship with America. A joint mourning might work other days; not on sacred national days.
Beyond the moral qualms about potentially mourning unrepentant terrorists and their apologists, there’s a lack of proportionality, of humility, what Wiesel called “place.” Too many Jews grant Yasir Arafat the propaganda victory he didn’t deserve. They accept his poisoning of our blue-and-white well, only seeing Israel through a Palestinian lens. Making this joint memorial, no matter how tasteful, your only expression of Israel-connectedness during Israel’s holiest national days, makes the conflict too central to our story, our lives, our souls.
Many right-wingers are equally obsessed: they’re so busy defending Israel, every Israel-interaction becomes “us” versus “them,” rather than celebrating, engaging, and occasionally critiquing “us,” regardless of them.
Let’s reject this toxic theory of relativity. We don’t only exist in relation to them.
Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, has its own non-partisan unifying sanctity – by concentrating on honoring soldiers and terror victims killed in this extended war against our very existence. Our martyrs deserve their own day. And that’s the day most Israelis can least appreciate American Jewish moralizing and virtue-signaling. What might normally be tolerated, even welcomed, as a well-intentioned intervention, feels insensitive, even arrogant, to most Israelis on that trying day – like trash-talking someone during their shiva.
Similarly, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, celebrates the Israeli miracle. If you couldn’t bother to eat ice cream for breakfast or listen to your favorite Israeli singer or read a Zionist text and instead obsessed about Palestinians that day too – you reduced Israel to a political problem, ignoring its three-dimensionality. Such shortsightedness confuses nationalism with neurosis.
One student recently defined herself to me as “an Israel critic.” She’d never call herself an “America critic.” But Israel-bashing has become an international pastime – and a popular identity. We hear it on some pulpits when the only Israel-sermons bash Bibi or the Hareidim. We read it from too many professors. Hyper-critics cannot enjoy anything about Israel, thinking Zionism means constantly reading media hit jobs targeting Israel to maintain your perpetual state of outrage.
We need a balance. A nationalism that never focuses on the self, loses itself; a nationalism that only focuses on the self is too selfish. Similarly, while it’s myopic to only see Israel through the Palestinian lens, you cannot be blind to the problem either.
Israel’s hyper-critics should contrast most American Jews’ Corona-trauma with Israel’s impressive functionality. Maybe Israel has something to teach about community, continuity, connectedness. Meanwhile, hyper-patriotic hypo-critics must guard against arrogance. Just as Yom Hazikaron is no time to disrespect most Israeli mourners, Yom Ha’atzmaut is no time for Israelis to insult Diaspora Jews – as the International Bible Contest’s moderator did with potshots that “in the exile everything is slower” and there’s no reason to “smile” there.
At least he apologized.
“Israel-Diaspora relations” shouldn’t mean “boost me, bash you.” Instead of weaponizing differences, learn from them. Let’s be countercultural, accept complexity. “Israel critics” should be patriotic, while “Israeli patriots” should be critical. Patriotic critics and critical patriots can find common ground, teaching not demeaning each other.
Alas, the unpatriotic critics and the uncritical patriots grab today’s headlines. They upstage those moving Yom Hazikaron-type moments on Birthright trips when Diaspora students and Israeli soldiers mourn together in their respective “uniforms” on Har Herzl. They upstage the millions of Jews worldwide who toasted Israel’s 72nd with an Israeli wine, an Israeli binge-watch-athon, or simply an extra spring in their step and a smile on their lips last week.
While ending our negativity-addiction, let’s embrace Ecclesiastes: there are times to mourn and times to celebrate; times to focus on yourself and times to reach out; times to criticize and times to praise. No formula gets it right; but the extremists – the hyper-critics and the hypo-critics — keep getting it wrong. Stop amplifying the small loud destructive Bitburgian minority. Let’s start listening to the too-silent yet blessedly-moderate majority that seeks balance, and has a sense of “place” – in Israel and abroad.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .