When terrorists from Gaza attempted to attack Kibbutz Nahal Oz on July 28, as the war between Israel and Hamas raged, they probably had no idea that by picking that location they would awaken Israeli memories and rekindle the determination of Israel’s youngest adults. Almost 60 years have passed since then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan delivered a eulogy at Nahal Oz; until this month, many young Israelis had never read it, but now they have.
In April 1956, Roi Rotberg, the security coordinator for the Kibbutz, was 21 years old; Israel was but eight years old. That day, four couples from the kibbutz were scheduled to be married, and Rotberg was patrolling the area between the kibbutz and Arab villages in Gaza. That narrow strip was a no-man’s-land, with no weapons permitted. Rotberg, unarmed, thought he saw someone in the bushes and went to investigate what he apparently thought was a lone person crossing the line. But Rotberg was seized by a group of armed terrorists, captured alive and taken back to Gaza. Only United Nations intervention got his body returned; it showed clear signs that he had been brutally tortured to death.
The similarity to the death of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, also dragged back into Gaza, has escaped few Israelis.
Dayan, who had met Rotberg not long before, chose to deliver the eulogy himself. In a brief, 238 word address, he drew two seemingly mutually exclusive conclusions that many Israelis today continue to hold. First, he said, Israelis had to understand Gazan’s frustrations: “Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we decry their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.”
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At the time, Israel -- a mere fledgling state -- did not control Gaza. Those refugee camps were not of Israel’s making, but still, Israelis recognized and were pained by the suffering on the Arab side, caused by Arab losses in the first Arab-Israeli war, a war Israel did not seek. Today, no less, Israelis understand Gazan anger at the siege and are anguished by the civilian losses in Gaza.
But Dayan had sought to prepare us for that, as well. “Without the steel helmet and the cannon's fire we will not be able to plant a tree or build a home,” Dayan said. “Let us not delude ourselves from seeing the hatred that inflames and fills the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes, lest our arms weaken.”
In recent years, many Israelis on the political left had “forgotten” the loathing that surrounds them. It is Hamas that has reminded them, Hamas that has rekindled Israeli resilience, with the deaths. Young Israelis who read the many references in the Israeli press to Dayan's eulogy in recent weeks could not help but be reminded how little has changed, and how they, too, must be willing to sacrifice to preserve what their grandparents' generation built.
The four weddings at Nahal Oz still took place that tear-soaked day in 1956. And I attended a wedding last Thursday evening high up in the hills overlooking Jericho. The white wedding canopy, fluttering in the breeze, was brightly lit from all directions. The young couple, also wearing white, appeared aloft in a cloud of light. Behind them were the lights of Jericho, no longer as thriving as it had been when Israelis spent money (and gambled) there before Yassir Arafat unleashed the Second Intifada. And further in the distance were the lights of Jordan, a country desperately struggling to hold on as Syria implodes and the Islamic State continues its march across the region.
Before the groom broke the glass, his father noted that the ritual is usually designed to ensure that Jews do not celebrate excessively; even at our greatest joy, we remember the tragedies of our past. However, that night, the father continued, remembering tragedy was no challenge; dozens of soldiers had fallen in recent days. That night, he said, the challenge was to find it in ourselves to celebrate, to dance, to recommit ourselves to building the future that has always exacted such a high price from us and that always will.
People nodded, some wept quietly. Long-married couples suddenly held hands again. Then the groom broke the glass, the band started to play, and the crowd sang and danced late into the night.
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