Tag Archives: memorial day

Gush Etzion, South of Jerusalem

The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the aea after it was regained by Israel in 1967
The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the area after it was regained by Israel in 1967

When I was in Israel for the summer in 1962 with a group of other American high school juniors, we were taken to a hilltop a little south of Jerusalem. The guide waved his hand at the desolate hills before us and told us the history of Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc. The Gush was group of four kibbutzim that had been attacked by the Arabs several months before the end of the British Mandate. In April 1948 they were short of ammunition and other supplies to defend themselves. They called on the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Jewish underground army, for help. The Palmach sent thirty-five young men from Jerusalem to take supplies and armaments to the besieged settlements. They were ambushed by the Arabs, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

The kibbutz of Kfar Etzion was captured on Iyar 4 and all the defenders killed by the local Arab fighters. The defenders of the remaining three communities in the Gush held out another day, until the British Mandate ended. At that time, the Jordanian Legion took over the attack. The Jews, surrounded and out of ammunition, surrendered to the Legion, knowing that the Jordanian soldiers would not murder them. They spent the whole War for Independence in prisoner of war camps in Jordan.

The story of the fighters of Gush Etzion made a strong impression on me. As a teenager, I and my friends were sure that Israel had no hope of ever regaining these areas. Jews would never live there again.

Five years later the Gush was in Israeli hands.

I’ve been to the historical museum at Kfar Etzion twice. A few years ago it was located in a small nondescript building. Photos of the area during the mandate period and the reestablishment of the Kibbutz after 1967 hung on the walls. A short documentary film, mostly in black and white was screened. It reviewed of the history of the area. The land had originally been bought by a European Jew to be used for agricultural settlements. The first Kibbutz established on the site in 1935 failed because Arab attacks. The second settlement, Kibbutz Etzion, was established in 1943, and was starting to grow by 1948. Three other settlements were also established in the area before statehood was declared. All facts, lots of maps, no emotion. I came away knowing more about the Etzion Bloc, but not feeling more connected to it.

Last year a new historical museum opened. The same photos hang on walls throughout the modern multimedia center. But a new video features actors portraying some of the early residents and defenders of the kibbutz. We see them struggling to build the kibbutz, deciding to evacuate mothers and children, fighting until the last day. I knew what was going to happen in the last video—the kibbutz would fall to the Arabs. Even so, I sat there watching it with tears in my eyes, hoping for a different ending.

History doesn’t change just because you want it to. The film ends with the fall of Kfar Etzion. When the lights go on, the screen rises, and visitors are invited into the next room, where a large hole in the floor

Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. "And I said to you, In your blood you shall live." (Ezekiel 16:6)
Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. “And I said to you, In your blood you shall live.” (Ezekiel 16:6)

allows you to look into the bunker where the last defenders had held out. Yizkor plaques on the wall list the names of the residents of the kibbutz who had been murdered after they surrendered to the Arabs.

For nineteen years the area of Gush Etzion was part of Jordan. For nineteen years, every spring on the date the settlement fell to the Arabs, the survivors gathered on the hilltop just south of Jerusalem on which I had stood. The mothers and children who had been evacuated, all the widows and orphans, stood where they could see the top of the oak tree of Gush Etzion. They said the memorial prayers, many of them yearning to return to their former homes.

In June 1967, the Jordanians again attacked Israel. Israel had spent the previous weeks begging King Hussein not to attack if (when) war between Egypt and Israel broke out. The King had agreed. But on the first day of the war, Egyptian President Nasser called King Hussein. He reported they were already winning. If Hussein didn’t attack Israel, Jordan would lose out when it came time to divide the spoils. So the Jordanian army attacked Jerusalem, and within a few days lost all of Judea and the Shomron.

The orphans of Kfar Etzion, led by 24-year old Hanan Porat, wanted to return to their homes south of Jerusalem as quickly as possible. The government had not yet decided how much of the territory to retain. But Hanan and his friends told Prime Minister Levi Eshkol they wanted to live in their old homes and pray where their parents had prayed. The Prime Minister gave them his blessing. Two days later the group of exiles from the Judean mountains returned to their home.

There wasn’t much to return to—the Jordanians had destroyed the buildings and uprooted most of the trees. But they rebuilt and replanted. More people joined them, and additional towns were established. Today, there are eighteen Jewish communities in the Gush.

I love driving through the area, looking at the towns and the lush farms. The soil and climate are perfect for wine grapes, and the neat rows of grape vines seem to stretch for miles. The quality of the grapes is reflected by the wines produced by several wineries.

Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut
Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut

The climate seems perfect for education as well. Numerous yeshivot have been established in the area. The oldest is Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, established in 1968. About 500 students in the Hesder program combine advanced religious studies with military service. Most of the larger communities in the Gush have a yeshiva– Beitar Illit, the largest town has 25 yeshivas of varying size.

Since the Oslo accords, the land in Judea, which includes Gush Etzion,  and the Shomron has been designated as Area A, B, and C. The Jews all live on land classified as Area C, which is under Israeli civilian administration and security. A sizable Arab population in Gush Etzion lives in Areas A and B. In Area A, civilian administration and all security are provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Area B, the PA provides civil administration and Israel is responsible for security.

These areas are like pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle. Even with a good map the only way to tell which area you are driving through is by looking for subtle clues. For example, black water cisterns are seen on the roofs in Arab communities; the roofs of houses in Jewish communities have white solar water heaters instead. Cars with white or turquoise PA license plates can travel all the roads. Cars with yellow Israeli license plates can only drive in Areas B and C. Roads in Area A have big red signs notifying Israeli drivers that entrance is both illegal and dangerous to their lives.

In 1950, the Israeli government established a memorial day for those who had died in the struggle for the State. David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister, insisted that Memorial Day be on Iyar 4, the day Kibbutz Etzion fell. Today the day before Independence Day is still observed as a memorial to those who fell in all of Israel’s wars, as well as for victims of terror.

Almost fifty years after I first heard the story of Gush Etzion, I can sit under the 700 year old oak tree in Alon Shvut, and hear the story again. Today it is a better story because it no longer ends with defeat and longing for return. Sitting under the tree, I can remember my feelings as a teenager, my wish that the defenders of the Gush had been successful. As I look around, at the stone houses, the large Yeshiva and Herzog College on the hill, the playground, the vineyards and fruit orchards on the once barren hills, I still cry. It feels incredible that so much life has developed in area that was once forbidden to us.

Where exactly is the Gush?

Remembering 23,447: Yom Hazikaron

Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.May 10 2016.
Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.

The white-haired man walking in front of me put down his briefcase and stood at attention. The soldier at the bus stop across the street removed his overstuffed backpack and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring towards the sky. One of the clerks came out of the health food store and walked to the curb, where he stood saying quietly saying Psalms. Two people who had just entered their parked cars got out and stood next to the open car doors.

The siren blared.

The bus stopped a few feet past the bus stop it had just left. All the traffic stopped—nothing moved. Some drivers got out of their cars and stood in the middle of the street. The light rail halted between stations. At the military cemetery on Har Herzl, Allen reported, everyone stopped in their place; no one continued walking to the grave of their loved one.

On and on the siren blared, for two long minutes. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, enveloping us.

Each of us stood alone in our thoughts, yet united in sorrow.

It was Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. This year we remember 23,447 dead soldiers and civilian victims of terror. In a country as small as Israel, each one of those who died is known. We know their stories. We know their grieving parents, wives, husbands, children. We remember meeting them on Shabbat or working with them. We remember seeing their names in the newspaper, and reacting, “Oh no!”

Although this is our fourth year here, it is the first time I witnessed everything come to a halt in a public space. In ulpan, the siren sounded during our break time. We stopped chatting, put down our containers of yogurt or bags of Bamba, and stood in silence. In a friend’s kitchen, we put our cups of tea on the counter and stood looking towards the Temple Mount. At home, I pushed my chair away from the computer to stand next to the desk by myself.

Standing on the sidewalk, in the company of strangers, and watching traffic stop carries the experience to a different level. Kanfei Nesharim, four lanes wide, is a busy street, used by eight bus routes. I’m used to seeing it empty of all traffic on Shabbat. The rare car can be heard many blocks away. But to see the usual weekday heavy traffic– all the cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles– come to a stop and sit motionless for two minutes impresses the gravity of the moment on the memory.

23,447. So many killed. Too many.

I thought of the ceremony I had attended the night before, in the Jerusalem forest south of the city. Noam school takes its fifth and sixth graders on a hike the day before Yom Hazikaron. They end at a monument to fallen soldiers where they hold memorial ceremony in the evening. The principal said in his opening remarks that every year the school goes to a different monument, one that is not visited often. This year the ceremony was held at the monument to the soldiers who died in Operation Lulav against Kfar Husan in September 1956. Kfar Husan, at the time on the Jordanian side of the armistice line, had been a base for the fedayeen who carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. Operation Lulav was triggered by a Jordanian attack on an archaeological conference at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, in which four archaeologists were killed and sixteen others wounded. During the action, the IDF destroyed the fedayeen headquarters, killing several of their leaders. Terrorist attacks in the area ceased. But nine members of the IDF were killed.

Most of the memorial ceremony was carried out by the sixth grade boys. They started by lighting flames, one flame in memory of each of Israel’s wars, plus one for victims of terror.

One of the speakers had been a member of the IDF squad which attacked Kfar Husan. He described the action. Six soldiers had been killed because they were too close to the building when it blew up; the fedayeen killed three soldiers. Their names are on the small monument near the clearing where the ceremony took place.

The school rabbi spoke about Shia, his best friend from childhood–how they grew up together, went to Yeshiva together, and were hevrutot (study partners). They enlisted into different units in the army. After the 1973 war, he discovered Shia had been killed. He talked about our duty to remember, not to forget, those who died.

The ceremony was timed so that the 8 PM memorial siren would be heard about halfway through. I noticed the principal checking his watch several times to make sure the siren would not interrupt any of the prayers or poems.

At exactly 8 PM, the siren sounded. I was amazed at how loud it was out here in the middle of nowhere. We heard the sirens from both the city of Beitar to the south and from the town of Tsur Hadassah to the north. Everyone stood in absolute silence. No moved for a moment after the siren ended, until we heard the echoes of sirens from distant towns die away.

This is the second time I’ve attended a memorial ceremony held by the boys’ school. Both times, during the two minutes of silence, my mind drifts from thinking of those who gave their lives to protect the country to the boys in front of me. In a few years, they will all be in the army. I say a small prayer, asking G-d to protect them, and to protect us and the land of Israel.

May we know no more wars

Yom HaZikaron 2015: 23,230

Flag at thalf staff on Yom HaZikaron at the Kotel
Yom HaZikaron at the Kotel Photo: © Moshé Anielewicz pour Europe Israël News

I was sitting alone at my computer when the siren sounded, signaling the start of Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for Soldiers and Those Killed in Acts of Terror. The siren blasts for one minute at 8 PM on the eve Yom HaZikaron and for two minutes at 11 AM on the day of the observance. Our first year here I thought, if I’m alone in a room at home, it doesn’t matter whether I stand or not. That night, I realized, it does matter. The siren pulled me to my feet within seconds.

Like just about everyone else in the country, I stop what I am doing, and stand in reflection, listening to the siren. The siren is loud–ear splittingly, wake the dead, painfully screamingly loud. It seems to go on for forever. Two minutes, even one minute, is a long time to stand, thinking of those who have given their lives. Today the total is 23,320.

Sixty seven soldiers died in the last year, killed in action in Tzuk Eitan. An additional 35 veterans died from the effects of wounds received in earlier service. Most of the dead were Sabras, born and raised in Israel. Three were lone soldiers, who came from the US as volunteers in the Israeli army. Some were young, out of high school less than a year, doing their compulsory military service. Some were veteran soldiers, called away from wives, children, and jobs, as members of the reserves.  

But we add to that number Gilad, Ayal, and Naphtali, teenagers killed by the terrorists who kidnapped them when they were hitchhiking home from school. We also include 3 month old Chaya Zissel Braun, killed by a man who deliberately drove his car through a group of people at a light rail station, and 4 year old Daniel Turgeman, killed by a Hamas mortar while playing outside his home. We add 4 year old Adele Biton, who was critically injured when terrorists threw rocks at her mother’s car, and who was almost completely unresponsive for the last two years of her too short life. And the dead include four men, brutally slaughtered by Arab workers while praying in a synagogue not far from where I live. I use the word slaughter deliberately, for what else can you call it when men peacefully praying are shot or have their heads split open with a meat cleaver?

Two of this year’s victims of terror were Arabs. Zidan Sayif was a

Memorial to victims of terror, Har Herzl
Memorial to victims of terror, Har Herzl

Druze policeman, who was killed while trying to stop the slaughter in the Har Nof synagogue. Mohammed Abu Khudair was kidnapped and burned alive by three young Israelis. He, and was originally included in the list as one of this year’s victims of terror. However, his family objected to his name being added to the monument to Victims of Terror in the cemetery on Har Herzl, and his name is being removed at their request.

On the morning of Yom HaZikaron, I attended the memorial ceremony at my grandsons’ school. As a fourth grader, Yakov was one of the participants.

The assembly for the boys in first through fourth grade. I watched them sit down, and fidget. They stood briefly while the school flag was lowered to half staff. Sitting back down, they fidgeted through the principal’s speech. He spoke about the commandment to remember–that we have both a duty and the privilege to remember. He also said that every soldier, in every war Israel has fought, has known that the war was justified. That he was doing the right thing. The principal has an excellent sense of timing. He finished at exactly 10:59:59. As the siren started to sound, the boys were on their feet even before he told them to rise.

I stared at them—200 boys, aged 6 to 10, standing still for two minutes. A few rocked at the waist, as they do when praying. But for the most part, I could been have watching statues for those two minutes. I wondered how many of them were thinking about an older brother or a neighbor who died last summer, or perhaps a cousin, father, or even grandfather, lost in an earlier war.

© Moshé Anielewicz pour Europe Israël News
Remembering at Har Herzl Military Cemetery. photo: Marc Israel Sellem, Jerusalem Post

Ten years from now, most of them will probably be wearing khaki uniforms on Yom HaZikaron. I prayed that we would not be mourning any of them at that time. And I prayed that they will not be mourning friends or family members.

The students lit memorial flames, one flame for each war: the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, Peace in the Galil I, Peace in the Galil II, Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge), and Victims of Terror. 

When the school’s Rabbi came up to speak, he first stood in front of the flames and read the names on each one. He then said, “So many wars. So many wars.”

He walked around the table holding the memorial flames. When he got to the microphone, he continued, “But we are still here.”

He didn’t speak very long–these were young boys he was talking to. His vocabulary and imagery were fitting to the audience, which was good for me as well. The simpler vocabulary enabled me to understand his message. He spoke about how in the siege of Jerusalem in 1948, children had to stay in the house all the time because it was too dangerous to go outside. The children were hungry and thirsty, and had to stand in line to get water. They could not even dream about snacks like Bamba and Bisli. The soldiers fight for us so we can be safe. So that we can walk outside, and play, and go to school, and even eat Bamba and Bisli and candy.

The fourth grade boys read some poems and Psalms, and the choir sang a few songs. The program ended with all of us singing “Ani ma’amin”–I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and with the singing of Hatikvah.

May the number of those we mourn today as victims of terror or war not increase. 23,320 is already too many.

May we know no more war.