The legacies of the wars and the heroes who fought to bring us victory have passed through the hands of many who have sought to twist the meaning of the past to comport with their own desires and convenience. The fact that this has occurred should not blind us to the true gifts that the wars themselves and the heroic sacrifices of those who have fought them have bequeathed to us, who live today in freedom because of what they did.
This week we witness again attempts to co-opt our memories – with the commemoration of V-E Day and our commemoration of our fallen soldiers on Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars), which begins tonight.
Speaking ahead of V-E Day, Germany's ambassador to Britain, Thomas Matussek, reportedly said, "The British behave as if they had conquered Hitler's hordes singlehandedly. And they continue to see us as Nazis, as if they have to refight the battles every evening. They are enchanted by this Nazi dimension. It's not anti-German sentiment precisely, but it's because we know too little about each other. Ignorance can breed xenophobia, which can breed hatred. That's what we've learned in Germany."
So, 60 years after the fall of Nazi Germany, the German ambassador to London can conjure up no greater meaning for the Allied defeat of Germany than to say that it's all about getting to know one another better.
In a speech on V-E day at the US military cemetery at Margraten, Holland, US President George W. Bush took a different view of the lessons of the war. Bush said, "We come to this ground to recall the evil these Americans fought against. For Holland, the war began with the bombing of Rotterdam. The destruction of Rotterdam would be a signpost to the terror and inhumanity that the Nazi lie would impose on this continent. Like so much of Europe, over the next years of occupation, Holland would come to know curfews, and oppression, and armbands with yellow stars, and deportation for its Jewish citizens."
In determining the national calendar for the infant State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion understood the importance of embracing symbolism and symbols that would instill and uphold the meaning of the rebirth of Jewish freedom in the Land of Israel so that the nation, once free, would neither forget the costs of powerlessness nor take its liberty for granted.
And so it was that he fixed the 4th of Iyar as the date on which we remember the men and women who have died defending the country, coming as it does both a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the day before he declared Israel's independence 57 years ago.
The message, of course, couldn't be clearer. The Holocaust was able to occur because the Jews were powerless to stop it. Our freedom today is the direct consequence of our soldiers' heroic willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.
The disparity of views between the Germans and the Americans regarding the lessons of World War II does not mean that the truth lies somewhere in between. The Germans, perhaps stunned by their barbarity, saw an embrace of pacifism as an antidote to their embrace of Hitler. But pacifism isn't the opposite of evil, good is. Militarism in and of itself is a tool, not a value system, and therefore one cannot understand and thus prevent the recurrence of what the German people did by simply attributing it to the tool that was used to advance the pure evil they embraced and advanced as a people.
In Israel we also have a problem of divergent interpretations of the symbols of our collective identity. Particularly since the inauguration of the Oslo process with the PLO in 1993, leaders on the political and cultural Left have often claimed that our soldiers who have died in the defense of our country made their sacrifice in order to advance the peace process. "In their death," so the slogan goes, "they bequeathed us peace."
But is that really what they did? Or were our honored dead, through their self-sacrifice that has enabled us to live in our land, doing something else?
In his eulogy to Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed commanding the raid to rescue the hostages at Entebbe on July 4, 1976, Yoni's comrade and commander Ehud Barak placed his sacrifice in the context of the true meaning of our continuous struggle for our freedom:
"In the generation that saw with its own eyes the Holocaust of Israel, the rebirth of Israel and the wars of Israel – the crowded nature of the chronology of events — of our disasters and our victories, assaults the faculties and makes it difficult for the faint-spirited among us to discern that through all time – from Yonatan, the son of Shaul, through the various Yonatans of the Maccabees and up through our Yoni – the rebirths of Israel and the sovereignty of Israel were dependent on the Sword of Israel held in the hands of a few of her sons, and on the willingness of the sons to grasp the sword and raise the heavy burden.
"Because more than armaments, people, and the foundations of training and experience; more than the delicate balance between the planning, operational and decision-making levels – between bravery, and sound judgment; between imagination and responsibility – beyond all of these, the indomitable spirit of Israel is what stood for a test at Entebbe. It was the spirit that propelled him – at great cost, but with an undaunted will.
"We will never be able to restore Yoni, the man, to life, but Yoni the legacy and the symbol – this spirit that was pure, this warm heart, thirsting for knowledge, this belief in the justness and value of the cause and in the willingness to place yourself in the balance, until the end – all these we can, if we wish, adopt and uphold for ourselves, and teach them to those who come after us. If we do not do these things, we will be egregiously sinning against the commitments that his death bequeaths us."
The legacy of heroism of those who fought for freedom – whether of the entire world or just our tiny nation – is one of constant vigilance in the defense of our liberty, and not the embrace of childish, self-indulgent and naive dreams.
Freedom is our greatest gift. Our dead gave it to us as a trust to protect for those who come after us.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.