We have just closed another week of powerful, somber Holocaust remembrance ceremonies and programs around the globe. For those who may not know, Israel marks every Yom HaShoah with an early morning siren—a sound that jolts the body and demands all attention. Cars halt in their tracks on highways, people in busy grocery stores stop what they are doing, every person at a desk in every office stands and gives a contemplative and sorrowful two minutes of silence. This is for the six million murdered in the Holocaust. Every Yom HaShoah, that number remains, but for the following week’s day of remembrance—Yom HaZikaron, for Israel’s fallen soldiers—that number does not stay the same. Every year, with a gut-punch, it grows.
Last year news came out that Gilad Shalit, “Israel’s son,” was engaged to be married. It moved me deeply to hear this wonderful news at the time—brought me tears to think that he was living a happy and healthy life after the horrors of being a Hamas captive for five years. Shalit’s story is important to so many, but it is a story particularly close to me because I have a brother who, like Shalit, served in the tank unit during the Lebanon War, also at 18 years old, in 2006. Reflecting on that time period all these years later, I ask myself, how can it be that we are still fighting for the safety of the Jewish people in the land of Israel? How can it be that each year we mourn more Israeli soldiers killed in the line of duty?
Yom HaZikaron is the hardest day for the people of Israel. I can say that confidently as both an American and an Israeli. Every Israeli knows someone killed in the line of duty from the early days to today. I think of Shalit and how many young soldiers died in that war, and each war before and after it, who could have also married and lived long lives, but did not get the chance. And I think, how can it be Israeli soldiers under 20 years old and reserves, men in their mid-20s-30s who are just starting their lives with young families, are still at risk every day of being called to war?
In the summer of 2006, I was 21 and enjoying the summer off from college visiting my family in Netanya, Israel. We had made Aaliyah from the United States in 1999, a whole month before the start of the second intifada. I lived through those years as a teenager, stunned by the sounds of suicide bombings throughout my city, constantly checking my first-generation Nokia phone to hear from my family any time a passerby on the street or the news mentioned there may have been a “pigua” or attack. That period marked way too many close calls, like the time I said goodbye to my father as he turned to make a stop at the bank and moments later heard a bomb go off in the bank’s direction—I still thank G-d for the moment I saw him walking back toward us safely. Or the time my older brother was on the way to the Dolphanerium night club in Tel Aviv moments before 21 Israelis were massacred there, 16 of whom were teenagers. Those years were marked by sheer terror on an almost daily basis, but nothing will compare to the 10 days during the summer of 2006 when I did not know if my brother would make it home to us.
My younger brother, David, was 11 when we moved to Israel. Not knowing Hebrew at the time, he was your average American kid who loved to play Nintendo and skateboard. Cut to seven years later and he was sent into a mismanaged war that the army and politicians are still debating. A young 18-years-old, tall, skinny David had just finished an eight-month training course in the IDF tank unit and was sent directly into Lebanon when the war broke out. He was sent to fight a conventional war against a guerilla army on its own territory. Many of my best friends and other family members were in some of Israel’s most elite units as commanders and combatants during that war. Collectively, so many Israelis remember this time like it was yesterday, because every person knew someone in harm’s way.
Growing up in a place like Long Island, New York, my four brothers and I never imagined that we’d be facing an actual war. Perhaps we should have, but the days of full-scale war were supposed to be a thing for the history books. My father served 14 years in the IDF, mainly as a major. At 19-years-old in the Yom Kippur War, he served in the legendary Golani Brigade. His unit, Unit 17, lost 23 out of 60 comrades on Mt. Hermon that horrific day. My father is still haunted by survivor’s guilt, that only he and a few others survived the Syrian’s surprise brutal attack. He later continued to work undercover in Lebanon for years through the first Lebanon War, my mother and grandmother never quite sure he’d return each weekend; there were no cell phones then to let loved ones know you were on the way home. His brothers, my uncles, retired as well-respected generals, both of them having served in most of Israel’s wars’ detrimental battles. They are all heroes; some went on into politics.
On my mother’s side, her father grew up a Gur Hasid in Poland and in the 1930s, at age eight, moved to Palestine after his father was nearly beaten to death by anti-Semitic Poles. Uncommon then, my zayde’s father’s rabbi told him to take the family to Palestine to escape the rampant anti-Semitism, and miraculously, he did. As a teenager, my zayde joined the underground Jabotinsky movement, the Irgun. He would leave Palestine in the mid-1940s with a price on his head, his friends hung in Akko. He would tell us the stories of working missions for Eitan Livni (former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s father), smuggling notes in cigarette boxes and enduring interrogations by the British. In his early twenties he traveled around the United States to meet famed celebrities like Marlon Brando, at exclusive night clubs to try to convince them to support Israel’s cause both financially and for public morale. At 21-years-old, he ran a warehouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan smuggling weapons to Palestine. When the FBI raided, he slept in a movie theatre for three nights hiding out.
My great-uncle Arthur, working for the then Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, would go undercover to KKK rallies in the deep south during the 1950s and report back with significant intel. The stories go on, and each could fill a novel. To say that Zionism is in my blood would be an understatement, yet nothing could truly prepare me for what the cost of Zionism might be—and when faced with that cost, was I prepared to make it?
The more-or-less 10 days we were unable to make contact with my brother David during the 2006 Lebanon War were the worst days of my life. It is mainly a blur when I try to recall that time period because the shock and devastation we endured as a family still lingers through my body like it happened yesterday. I recall my mother and I crying in the living room—It had been a few days since we last heard from him and we sat with my older brother, Ari, brainstorming ways to get David home. Ari said, “We have to get him to somehow break his leg and then as a wounded soldier, he will be brought back into Israel.” Or we thought, “Could we get him to refuse to obey?” We much preferred he sit in a jail cell—but oh, how silly these ideas were, because what we didn’t know, but later found out, was David was stuck inside a tank for 10 days surrounded by Hezbollah on their territory. He was fighting for his life and the life of his comrades. Yes, 10 days in a tank with almost no combat experience.
In Israel, when you lose a son in battle, the army arrives at your door to tell you in person. Any time someone rang our doorbell those days, my heart would sink to my knees, paralyzing me. Any time someone called the house and I did not understand the person’s fast-paced Hebrew I would panic and plead with them to slow down so I could better understand. Each night on the radio we would hear the names of the most recent fallen soldiers. I will not get into the sobering details of the stress that our house endured, but I will say that it was in that time that I vowed, for the memory of every single soldier who perished, to devote my life to make sure they did not die in vain. That the world will know the type of enemies the State of Israel has, and that I will fight alongside those who strive to get to a day where no Israeli citizen will again die of Palestinian or any enemy terror.
My beautiful brother David, now 33, is married, like Shalit, and happily living his life. I will never be able to express the gratitude I have that those dark days are part of a bad memory now. But how many families do not get to say that? Who will remember those young soldiers who did not get to come home? Can we ever truly be prepared to give the ultimate sacrifice for our Zionism? A question I still can’t answer. But I do know we must continue to work to fight Israel’s enemies both in combat and through advocacy, diplomacy, the law and every channel there is.
We just marked 76 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and the Jewish people of Israel are still fighting for their claim to live peacefully, surrounded by enemies on all borders and a genocidal Iran nearby. To think that my zayde was fighting for Israel in the 1930s and 1940s, my father and uncles throughout the 1970s and 1980s and my brother in the 2000s, is beyond comprehension. This Yom HaZikaron there will be new names added to the list of heroes and for that, we cannot rest. Despite all the sacrifice, the pain, the sorrow, 73 years in, Israel has no choice but to continue the fight.
Rebecca Rose is Associate Director of Development & Special Projects at B’nai B’rith International. She holds an M.A. in Political Science in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.
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