Today, more than ever, Israel and the United States understand one another. These two democracies –which share profound respect for freedom, for human rights and dignity, these two nations who lead the world in science and technology, these firm allies – are united in their knowledge of terror, as well.
As Israelis were ending their Memorial Day, which saw 92 deaths in the past 12 months added to the tally of over 26,000 Israelis killed since records began, we in the United States endured our own terrorist attacks in Boston.
“My teacher told me about his aunt and cousin who were shot as they drove past an Arab village,” my daughter told me that night over dinner, describing her Jewish school’s Memorial Day observances. “My teacher described coming under fire as he patrolled a border one night,” one son told me. “Everyone in Israel knows someone who has died,” his younger brother told me.
Israelis of all backgrounds have long been united by the attacks they endure, attacks meant to terrorize and maim, to make them give up and leave their homes. Yet the more Israel’s enemies try to weaken it, the stronger the Jewish state seems to become. Facing terror that’s meant to destroy its citizens’ morale, Israel has managed to lead in international rankings of happiness. Terror meant to destroy Israel’s economy and infrastructure somehow has failed to prevent Israel from emerging as a first-world economy, recently ranked as the best place on earth to start a high-tech firm.
Clearly, Israel has learned some lessons that we in the United States need today. As we wake up to the day after our attacks, facing questions and looking for those responsible for the Boston bombings, comforting our many wounded and burying our dead, what lessons does Israel have to impart?
As Americans face the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack in Boston, Israel is observing its Independence Day. This festive occasion each year comes the day after Memorial Day. Each year, Israelis first spend a solemn day remembering their many dead. Whole families visit cemeteries to pay their respects at the graves of loved ones who were killed. The entire country comes to a standstill to observe two minutes of total, profound silence the length and breadth of the country.
Then, as the day ends, Independence Day begins. This is a happy occasion, but coming as it does on the heels of intense mourning, its happiness is tempered. Amidst this juxtaposition, Israelis have a unique view of Independence Day and the freedoms having their own country grants. It’s a freedom that is heavily purchased; it’s a happiness that is mindful of the heavy price the country has paid, and continues to pay, as its enemies try to weaken and destroy it. Remembering the many sacrifices that have been made to create and maintain the Jewish state seems to make Israelis more determined to infuse their lives – both personally and nationally – with purpose.
Israelis know that freedom has come at high cost, and they’re determined not to waste a drop of it.
Other nations, including the United States, have been the beneficiaries of Israelis’ desire to channel their national tragedies into productive, positive ways to help others. In fact, the emergency doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital who are treating the wounded from the Boston Marathon were trained by Israeli doctors a few years ago in setting up a disaster relief team for just this scenario. Other innovations that have come out of Israel as a result of challenges facing the Jewish state include drip irrigation, water desalinization, emergency bandages that stop hemorrhaging, cutting-edge surgical techniques, advanced medical training programs for foreign doctors from poor countries, and the use of clowns in hospitals to help calm children.
Perhaps that’s the source of their high happiness rankings, of their world-class economy and research sector. Israelis seem to know that freedom has come at high cost, and they’re determined not to waste a drop of it, planning and using their resources instead to achieve real, valuable goals.
In the midst of our own tragedy, how can we learn from Israel? How can we internalize their strength in the face of horrific attack?
1. Feel the pain personally. When we empathize with other people’s pain, it helps us feel more connected with others, more human.
I saw this in my own reaction to the bombings. I went to college in Boston, and it will always be “my” city. When I heard of the bombings, I thought of a college friend who was running in the marathon. It made the connection seem so immediate, and I thought of Israel – where everyone knows someone in the area each time there’s an attack. This sort of connectivity binds us together and helps ensure we’re sensitive to other people’s pain.
2. Find ways to help. Reaching out to others with aid is another way to help and also to feel connected with our fellows who are in pain. This can take the form of personal aid – an example from inside Israel is the practice in recent years of citizens from all over Israel to drive down to the besieged town of Sderot, which has been bombed incessantly in recent years, to do their shopping.
Another way to aid others experiencing tragedy is to pray on their behalf. One common practice is to recite Psalms in aid of a sick or injured person. Not only does this lend strength to the victims, it helps empower us and our families too, as we cast about for ways to help.
3. Do good in memory of the victims. What can we do for the victims who died in the Boston attacks? Again, the example of Israel can help. There, it’s common to take on a specific obligation – for instance deciding to study a Jewish text in the memory of one who has died, taking on the performance of a new Jewish ritual, or pledging charity. Doing so elevates the memory of those who have died, and helps us spread goodness in their names.
4. Answer despair with hope. The Jewish prayer that’s commonly said when disasters strike is brief: “Blessed is the faithful Judge.” It reminds us that God is in charge of the world, that He has designed it with a purpose. Even horrific events – even occasions that baffle us and leave us wounded – have an ultimate purpose. Like the Jewish mourner’s prayer, which praises God and doesn’t mention death, Jewish responses to tragedy contain a seed of hope.
They remind us that even our darkest moments can lead us to become better people. Like the citizens of Israel who tie their Independence Day celebrations to their solemn Memorial Day events, we too can ask ourselves what we can do in the face of tragedy. We too can think deeply about our response: we too can try to live better – to build a better community, to lead more deeply-considered lives – as a way to honor those who died.
5. Don’t take life for granted. In the aftermath of the Boston attacks, take some time to sit and consider your own life: realize for a moment how precious it is. Take some time to plan what your goals are, and how you might reach them. For, as Americans, we’ve only just realized what Israelis already know: each second in our lives is precious, and it’s up to us to use them well.