Israel at 75 – A Reflection On Sacrifice

July 29, 2023
Israeli Flag, Memorial Day
Memorial flag in front of graves on Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers of Israel and victims of terrorism.

Australian visitors returning from Israel often remark on the energy and vibrancy they experienced during their stay. In our conversations, they share a common impression of their Israeli experience with me – bustling cities characterized by relentless activity and vigor, whether it be the ultra-modern metropolis of Tel Aviv, or the ancient limestone streets of Jerusalem. As a nation, we are proud of our industrious and exuberant character. It is a hallmark of our economy, politics and our people, and it has underpinned Israel’s remarkable success since achieving independence in 1948.

It would therefore come as surprise to some that once every year, for precisely two minutes, Israel comes to a standstill.

Every year on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, at exactly 11am, sirens sound across the country – and life comes to a standstill. Literally. Pedestrians will freeze on the sidewalks. Cars will come to a halt on busy freeways. For those two minutes, Israelis will share the sorrow of parents and grandparents who have lost those they loved most, and the family members and friends who have died in defence of a free and independent homeland. Every year, I grieve for Jacob Maimon, an uncle that I never knew, who was killed in action on 9 January 1948. He was 20 years old.  The remainder of the day is devoted to solemn tribute, and grief, at cemeteries and memorials across the country.

As is customary, the following day Israel celebrates its Day of Independence, known as Yom HaAtzmaut – this year for a landmark seventy-fifth time. Every year, the consecutive commemoration of these national days, Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, remind Israelis of the very dear price that has been paid to re-establish our home in the land of our ancestors. It is a painful reminder that there are those who still seek to do us harm. It is an affirmation of our duty, and our unwavering resolve, to defend our people and our country.

This year, in a rare concurrence, Yom HaZikaron in Israel coincided with the commemoration of Anzac Day in Australia. 

I have a deep and abiding admiration for the Anzac spirit, which began well before my posting as Ambassador in Canberra. My formative years were spent in the city of Be’er-Sheva – a place that holds deep significance in Australian history. As a boy, many years before the construction of the Memorial to Australian Soldiers that stands at Be’er-Sheva today, I remember hearing stories of the daring and courage of the Light Horsemen, charging Ottoman positions on their Walers with bayonets thrust toward the enemy. Some years later, after serving almost two decades in the Israel Defence Forces, my diplomatic career would take me to Turkey. There, I visited the Ari Burnu Memorial at Gallipoli, where Ataturk’s moving message to the mothers of Australians and New Zealanders stands carved into stone. Long before I set foot in Australia for the first time, I learnt about the proud history and resilient character of its people through the legacy of the Anzacs.

Memorial at Gallipolli, Turkey
Gallipoli, Canakkale, Turkey: The Ari Burnu Memorial with words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first leader of the Republic of Turkey. A special place for many from NZ and Australia. Photo by Salena Stinchcombe|

Like Israel, Australia’s modern nationhood was formed in the crucible of conflict, with the Anzacs marching under the banner of a Commonwealth, instead of the various colonies that preceded it. And like Israel, Australia has only ever placed her sons and daughters in harm’s way to pursue and defend the cause of freedom.

Every year, Israelis come to a standstill, sharing the sorrow of those who sacrificed their lives in defense of a free and independent homeland.

Since assuming my duties in this wonderful country, I have developed a personal passion to explore the historic links between Israel and Australia. Recently, I came across a digitised copy of faded yellow newsprint from the Israel State Archives. An excerpt that immediately captured my imagination, translated from Hebrew, reads as follows:

“They are energetic, cheerful young men with their wide smiles, showing their white, healthy teeth. Upright and brave, their joie de vivre was in full force, as was their love for other people, patience for their neighbours, compassion for frail old people, and children.”

The clipping is dated 11 February 1940, and reports on the arrival of Australian troops in Haifa. At that stage, diggers could be found in cities across the Land of Israel, as the Second Australian Imperial Force was preparing for campaigns in North Africa and the Middle East. Within a few months, Australian exploits in these theatres of war would be known to the world. To this day, names such as Tobruk, Bardia, and El Alamein hold deep significance in Australia’s rich military history. 

The newspaper article’s description of the young Australian soldiers struck a particular chord with me. It resonates with the many personal encounters I have been so privileged to share with Australians from all walks of life during my time here. What the journalist so perceptively captured about the Australian character in 1940, remains true to this day, more than eighty years later.

But it also stirs deep emotions within me. Because, when I think of those friends and comrades who I served with, and who sacrificed their lives in defence of Israel, I too remember them as young people, with wide smiles, upright and brave. Lost to their loved ones the flower of their youth. And I share in the profound collective sorrow for lives that were never fully lived.

This past Anzac Day, as the dark retreated before dawn, we were once again forced to contemplate the cost of freedom – that fundamental value which unites our countries, despite the distance that separates us. As the echo of the Last Post pierced Canberra’s chill autumn air, I honoured the Australian men and women who have served their country, and who have sacrificed so much in answering the call of duty. At the same time, I grieved for my Israeli brothers and sisters in arms, who have laid down their lives in defence of my homeland.



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