Suzanne Fields / May 13, 2011

Memory and Celebration in Israel

The line between life and death is always a thin one, and never more, literally and symbolically, than in the tiny state of Israel, which celebrates its 63rd birthday this week. (That’s a lot of bar mitzvahs.) No sooner had the sirens sounded across the promised land of milk and honey, marking Memorial Day for the soldiers who have died fighting for Israel’s survival, than fireworks splashed across the heavens recalling that moment in 1948 when Israel declared its independence. The two commemorations are not unrelated.

President Harry S. Truman, after days of bitter argument with his own State Department, announced just minutes after the declaration of Israeli independence that the United States would be the first to recognize the new state. As Israel took its first steps as a state, armies from four Arab countries marched in with guns ablaze, opening the first of several Arab-Israeli wars. This year’s Israeli Memorial Day honors the 23,000 men and women who have died in those wars, and the 2,500 Jews slain by Palestinian terrorists.

The line between life and death is always a thin one, and never more, literally and symbolically, than in the tiny state of Israel, which celebrates its 63rd birthday this week. (That’s a lot of bar mitzvahs.) No sooner had the sirens sounded across the promised land of milk and honey, marking Memorial Day for the soldiers who have died fighting for Israel’s survival, than fireworks splashed across the heavens recalling that moment in 1948 when Israel declared its independence. The two commemorations are not unrelated.

President Harry S. Truman, after days of bitter argument with his own State Department, announced just minutes after the declaration of Israeli independence that the United States would be the first to recognize the new state. As Israel took its first steps as a state, armies from four Arab countries marched in with guns ablaze, opening the first of several Arab-Israeli wars. This year’s Israeli Memorial Day honors the 23,000 men and women who have died in those wars, and the 2,500 Jews slain by Palestinian terrorists.

At a ceremony at the Wailing Wall (as it is usually called) in Jerusalem, Israeli President Shimon Perez spoke of the thrill of recovering access to the wall after the Six Day War in 1967. Jews had been denied access to it for the two decades of Israel’s existence.

“To this holy place, a remnant of our Temple, our fighting sons the first paratroopers came, and touched the stones of the Western Wall in the midst of the Six-Day War,” he said, bringing attention again to Israel’s insistence on keeping a united Jerusalem as its capital.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered congratulations on the anniversary on behalf of the president, recalling an “unshakeable friendship” and saying that Israel’s security remains “a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.”

How different it was on that first independence day, when George C. Marshall, the secretary of state, was so bitter at Truman that many thought he would resign to protest. Friendships fray and cornerstones chip, unsettling the strongest diplomatic ties. Security, like the Talmud, is subject to different interpretations.

Straining the friendship and chipping away now is the controversy over naming on his passport the birthplace of Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky, a 9-year-old American boy who was born in Jerusalem. His parents are suing Hillary Clinton on his behalf to compel the State Department to issue a passport naming Israel as his place of birth. The Supreme Court has accepted the case, to be argued later this year.

The constitutional controversy is complicated. A law enacted by Congress in 2002 sets out that “for purposes of the registration of birth, certifications of nationality, or issuance of a passport of a United States citizen born in the city of Jerusalem, the Secretary (of State) upon the request of the citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian (can) record the place of birth as Israel.”

Hillary was a senator when the Senate voted unanimously for the legislation, and George W. Bush signed it into law, despite his reservations that it infringed on a president’s authority to conduct foreign policy. He said he wouldn’t enforce it.

The constitutional issue is fascinating, as such issues always are, but in a week of Israeli memorials and celebrations, it focuses attention once more on whether the United States should honor Israel’s choice of a unified Jerusalem as its capital, and move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Americans wouldn’t like it if the British or the French insisted on putting their embassies in Kansas City, Mo.

When the Israelis united Jerusalem, they solemnly pledged full religious freedom and rights to all, Christian and Muslim alike, with no ceremonies and public rituals hindered – a pledge that no Muslim country has yet done. Now the leaders of Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization, and rival Fatah have brokered a deal of reconciliation, and such reconciliation of Muslim, Christian and Jew seem farther away than ever.

Israelis are a toughened lot, with a history of surviving disappointment and broken promises. They’re not naive when they’re asked to give up something for something they recognize as gossamer. Israel still doesn’t exist on maps throughout the Arab world. Arab children are taught as fact wild fantasies of Jewish abuse of Arabs.

Walter Reich, a scholar of Israeli affairs and former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, addresses the “despair of Zion” in an article in the Wilson Quarterly, suggesting that if the Obama administration really wants to broker a treaty for lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it must acknowledge Israeli nightmares as well as Palestinian yearning.

This requires an understanding that Jerusalem remain an undivided capital and that young Menachem be allowed to acknowledge the fact of his birthplace.

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