In the summer of 1973, while I was still living in England, before making Aliyah, I came to visit my relatives in Israel. I stayed with my aunt and uncle in Tel Aviv, and one honeysuckle-scented evening, I accompanied my cousin Ronit and her friend, Levana, to an army camp in the vicinity of the Yarkon Park, to visit Levana’s brother, Na’aman, who was stationed there. I wasn’t used to being around so many young men, especially not soldiers and I remember feeling very shy. I also remember that this was my introduction to Israeli Army coffee – thick and bitter-sweet. Bitter because of the coffee grounds and sweet because of the amount of sugar used to allay the bitterness. Another thing I remember was the way the soldiers stirred and stirred and stirred a very small amount of coffee with a few drops of water to make it froth, before adding the rest of the water. Curious, the things that stick in one’s memory.
Shortly after that, I returned to England, where the academic year was about to start. My cousin and her brother Rami joined me. It was Ronit’s first trip abroad, a last fling, as it were, before beginning her military service. For Rami too, who had recently finished his own army service, this was his first journey beyond the confines of Israel. But their visit was cut short, cruelly and unexpectedly, by the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. All the other airlines had cancelled flights to what had become a war zone and only El Al was flying to Tel Aviv. I remember how, despite the danger, my cousins, together with hundreds of other Israelis, insisted on returning home, where Rami immediately joined his artillery unit. He fought in the Golan Heights and, thankfully, returned to his family, safe and sound, at the end of the war. But I heard afterwards that Na’aman, Levana’s brother, had not been so lucky. He was killed at the very start of the war.
Why am I writing about this now? This evening marks the start of Remembrance Day for the fallen in all of Israel’s wars and for the victims of terrorist activities against Israel. I’ve just been watching the central memorial ceremony, the lighting of the memorial torch at the Western Wall, by Preident Shimon Peres. I don’t know why that evening by the Yarkon River suddenly came into my head. I’m listening to the radio, which is broadcasting – as they do every year at this time – mournful songs, songs from Israel’s wars, from the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the First Lebanon War, the Second Lebanon War …
Sixty four years of war, forced on us by the surrounding Arab countries who tried to extinguish the State of Israel at birth (nay, even before her birth), most of whom still refuse to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland.
And yet, the most beautiful songs to come out of those years of war are not the kind of martial sounds that you hear on Arab radio stations, but songs of peace, many of which were originally performed by Israeli army entertainment troupes, such as this one, from the Northern Command Troupe: “We shall yet see other days, beyond the smoking, burning hills...Laughing about the spring, about love, about youth, and things the sight of which we’ve already forgotten…”
Or this one, by Naomi Shemer: “Tomorrow, maybe we’ll sail on boats, from Eilat to the Ivory Coast, And on the old destroyers, they’ll be loading oranges. All this is no dream, It’s as true as the light at noon. All this will come to pass tomorrow, if not today – and if not tomorrow, then the day after…”
And perhaps the most famous of all, originally performed by the Nachal Troupe:
“Raise your eyes in hope, not through gunsights, Sing a song to Love, and not to war… Sing, sing to Peace. Don’t whisper a prayer. Sing, sing to Peace, With a great shout.”
Less than a year after the Yom Kippur War, my family and I made Aliyah. For thirty-eight years, we have been living in Jerusalem, and Peace seems further away than ever. I can only echo the words of yet another song by Naomi Shemer, written at the time of that war: “In a small, shady neighbourhood, Is a little house with a red roof. All we ask for, let it be. It’s the end of summer, the end of the road. Let them return hither. All we ask for, let it be. Let it Be, let it be, Please let it be. All we ask for – Let it be.