Mourning for the destruction of past Jewish commonwealths, a fresh-faced Israeli citizen wrote in this space only a year ago, is ever more complex once one has tied oneself to the modern Jewish state. As my first Fast of Tisha B'Av (literally, the ninth of the Jewish month of Av) in uniform approached, I expected another level of poignancy. After all, Israeli soldiers are sworn to defend the country, to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the calamities commemorated on the Ninth of Av, like the annihilation of Bar Kochba's forces at Betar or the destruction of the first and second Temple, are never repeated. For Israeli soldiers the necessity, if not the message, of the fast day should be clear.
Ignorance prevents most non-religious Israeli soldiers from appreciating the significance of Tisha B'Av. And so it was most unfortunate when my commander frustrated my attempt to share some of the day's meaning with my secular peers. I had no intention of explaining why we refrain from greeting friends and swearing off food, water and comfortable shoes for twenty-five hours. My only interest was in reminding the non-religious guys that the communal tragedies of our shared past are not the exclusive memory of the religious community.
Events like Tisha B'Av highlight a glaring flaw in how the Israeli army (and Israeli society at large) relates to Jewish heritage. Despite highlighting the importance of Jewish heritage in its charter, the IDF in practice takes a hands-off approach. Tisha B'Av passes without a murmur; religious soldiers are given the day off to fast and reflect while their secular peers run off with no inkling of the communal import of the day. Only on Zionist holidays, like Memorial or Independence Day, does the army bring everyone together to reflect. Jewish history, apparently, was born the day the British left Palestine in 1948.
One may argue that the army and state are correct in keeping Jewish heritage at a distance. After all, Israel is an avowedly pluralistic democracy. Even if few Israeli Arabs serve in the army, the military force still must represent the ethos of the country as a whole. What business does the military have in inscribing Jewish memory into the hearts and minds of its soldiers?
At issue is the basic question of what place Judaism should play in the modern state of Israel. I can only answer this question for myself. The Israel I believe in, the army whose colors I wear with pride on my few weekends off, was not created in 1948 merely to be a pluralistic democracy with an open door policy to Jewish immigration. Israel was created to be a modern state inspired by Jewish heritage. A state for all its citizens and yet a country unapologetically orientated toward the cultural mores of a Jewish majority.
Modern Zionism, for all its heroes and dramas, cannot be the sole source of ideology for the army of the Jewish state. Even with Hanna Senesh and Uri Ilan, Yoni Netaynahu and Ilan Ramon, we must also look to our more distant past for guidance and inspiration. Public events like Tisha B'Av, whatever private customs one chooses to attach to the day, are crucial in ensuring that our national memory remains available to all communities in modern Israel.
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