The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of special days in Israel – Passover was barely over before we commemorated the holocaust on Holocaust Remembrance Day, mourned our fallen soldiers on Yom Hazikaron, and celebrated Israel’s 69th birthday on Independence Day.
And the holiday season isn’t over: Schoolchildren are already learning songs about Lag Baomer (May 14th this year), and the fiftieth Yom Yerushalayim is looming ahead, complete with many public celebrations (May 24th).
But there’s another special day approaching, and it’s one that we tend to forget: May 9th, Victory Day.
Victory Day, the holiday that commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany, was marked in the USSR with great pomp and ceremony. The veterans of the war marched through the streets, and the crowds cheered, clapped, and expressed their respect – and their gratitude. For these men and women crawled and ran and shot and starved and persevered across a continent.
They bought victory with their sweat and pain and blood.
The veterans who made it to Israel continue to march every year, chests gleaming with medals, flags held high over their heads. Their descendants sometimes march as well, often carrying the medals and pictures of their heroic parents and grandparents who passed away over the years. Volunteers hand out Israeli flags and water bottles and the symbolic red carnations.
And every year, as I cheer and watch these men and women marching through Jerusalem’s center, I feel immense gratitude. For who had more to gain from their hard-won victory than us, the Jews?
But the non-Russian-speaking passersby, for the most part, stare at the parade, confused.
Who are these people in the medals, they wonder.
Why is the red flag blowing in the wind? It’s not May 1st…
Why, as I heard a woman murmur to her friend once, are all these Russian speakers blocking our main street?
I don’t blame the passersby – I really don’t. The Russian speaking community didn’t exactly exert itself to include native Israelis in its celebration (the parade is barely advertised in Hebrew, and every year I have to ask friends with better Russian to find out when it will take place).
And I don’t even really blame the Israeli founders that allowed Victory Day to remain a predominantly Russian-community affair. I understand that Zionism had its own story to tell when we were fighting to establish the state. And in this story, the Holocaust was the tragedy that showed why we needed our own state – not a World War where other nations proved their valor and their strength.
But every year, as I watch the veterans marching, I am sad to see the gap between mainstream Israeli society and the Russian-speaking community. Our society became more varied and secure over the years. Our existential crises receded and made room for a colorful civil society to emerge. Such a society, I told myself time and time again as I clapped and cheered, should be able to cherish many forms of heroism. It should be able to acknowledge the sacrifice and valor of people who fought as humans, not only those who fought as Israelis or as Jews.
And then one day about a month ago, I heard a young Israeli woman interviewed on the radio. And I learned that this year, a cluster of organizations is literally bringing the Veterans into people’s living rooms across Israel, and inviting everyone to come and hear their stories for themselves.
This coming Tuesday, May 9th, I will take a bus to downtown Jerusalem and join the participants of the parade as they’ll gather in the Bohr Shivert Square (near the old Mashbir building, at the intersection of King George and Hillel streets) from 10:00 am. I will cheer them on as they’ll start marching down Hillel street at 11:00 am, and thank them for their sacrifices.
And maybe this year, thanks to the efforts of wonderful initiatives like ‘Operation Veteran’, the passersby will join us, too.
(A list of the dates and times of other parades across Israel can be found in this article, translated with Google’s kind help)