Col. (ret) Miri Eisin, like many Israelis, is ready to party. That’s because this month, Israel will celebrate 70 years of the modern state. For Miri, it’s a time of joy and reflection. We discuss the significance of the upcoming anniversary, the incredible 48-hour period between Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) and Miri’s hope for the next 70 years of the Jewish state. (Also beer, beach workouts and hair dye for certain sitting prime ministers.)
Listen to the JewishBoston/israel360 podcast and read the highlights below.
israel360: Seventy years is obviously a pretty brief period of time but I think it’s pretty safe to say Israel continues to be the most covered story in the world. Why do you think that is?
Miri Eisin: I think that we’re still unique in the world. And we don’t like thinking of ourselves as being different. We wanna be part of the world. We wanna be like everybody else. So there are some ways that we are. But if you look at it in day-to-day life, we’re the only Jewish country. We’re the only country where, at the end, our calendar is the Jewish calendar. We’re the only country where Hebrew is the spoken language. And we’re the only country that really did something that has not been done in modern times. We reinvented ourselves in the 20th century, 3,000-year-old people, modern state, that still is quite unique.
israel360: As a person of a certain age, I would say that when you hit a year that ends in a 5 or a year that ends in a 0, those are the ones where you do a little bit of self-reflection. And if you look at the arc of Israeli history, how do you characterize the period that we’re in now? Is this peacetime Israel?
Miri Eisin: I don’t really think so, and I say it in its own way, sadly. I don’t think that right now when you walk through the streets of Israel, you talk about peace, because when you’re talking peacetime, you’re usually alluding to our relationships with our close neighbors, immediate neighbors. It doesn’t matter if it’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, or the closer one, the Palestinians. I can’t call this a time of peace. Now, one of the odd things that happens here is it’s also not a time of war. I think that domestically inside Israel, we are in a very good time, we’re in a strong economy, we’re in a strong domestic front. But I can’t really characterize it as being peacetime.
israel360: Nonetheless, it seems like an exciting time for Israeli diplomacy. We just saw in the last week a commercial flight from India to Israel fly over Saudi Arabia, which has never happened before. Things appear to be changing for Israel and its place in the world. How would you characterize what’s going on right now?
Miri Eisin: Remember that we’re Israeli. So first, of course, for all of our listeners, remember [in Hebrew] “Good things happen.” Let’s not say something that’ll make it change, right? But one of the things that we do see right now is that both locally, the Israeli-Egyptian relationship, the Israeli-Jordanian relationship, but even if you look a little bit broader than that, we suddenly realized that we’re in the Middle East and we have a position in the Middle East which is not only connected to being against Israel or looking at Israel only through the eyes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s something broader. Both because there are other threats and challenges in the Middle East that are difficult, and because of changes that have happened in the Middle East, totally not connected to us. What happened in Egypt has nothing to do with us. What’s happening in Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with us, but it is having enormous impact on Israel in the arena. Saudi Arabia is going through amazing changes. We don’t have diplomatic ties. We don’t have direct relations. But as you said, a plane flew over Saudi airspace. That’s enormous. That’s big. And again, I don’t like calling it in the terms of peace, but on our being a regular accepted neighbor within the Middle Eastern arena. We live in the Middle East. Our neighbors are Middle Eastern. Half of our population is Middle Eastern, but we’ve never felt part of the neighborhood. And I think that what’s changing is that we’re becoming part of the neighborhood, and not in a negative way.
What’s happening in Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with us, but it is having enormous impact on Israel in the arena. Saudi Arabia is going through amazing changes. We don’t have diplomatic ties. We don’t have direct relations. But as you said, a plane flew over Saudi airspace. That’s enormous.
israel360: This is also evident with the recent recognition, finally, of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In the next three to six months, maybe even a lot sooner, Israel’s forever capital will be home of at least three embassies. What does that feel like to an Israeli to have this kind of recognition of Jerusalem at long last?
Miri Eisin: Isn’t it funny? On the one hand, it’s like, “Oh my God, thank you. It’s about time.” And on the other side for the average Israeli, it doesn’t make a difference. I wanna remind us all, all of us, our capital has been Jerusalem from 1949. Our united capital has been our capital from 1967. That’s already over 50 years ago, old news. What’s different is that it’s not just for us. For me, I always had to go to Jerusalem for the legislator, for the executive, for the judicial. You always went there. The president resides there, the prime minister, the offices, they’re all there and they’ve been there from 1949. But the fact that we have, for the first time, recognition, where the embassies will not be out of Jerusalem, but in the city of Jerusalem. The United States of America, the other countries following, will fully recognize it as such. It’s a feeling, again, of our being part of the world and not estranged from the world.
israel360: Speaking of this era of good feeling, let’s talk about what’s going to happen in Israel later this month. A lot of people don’t know or understand exactly what happens during this extraordinary 20- to 30-hour period between Yom Hazikaron followed by Yom Ha’atzmaut. Can you talk about these two holidays and what it’s like to feel that transition?
Miri Eisin: Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) is really perhaps the most serious Israeli day of the year. When I say serious, serious, personal and in your face. It starts with a siren that goes off on the eve of Memorial Day in the Jewish way where the day begins the evening before. So on the eve of Memorial Day, a siren goes off and throughout Israel, everybody stops everything for two minutes. You’re standing and you’re thinking. When you’re thinking about the almost 30,000 people who have been killed from 1948 and even before that, on behalf of the state of Israel. All of the different ones from all the different branches, everybody in Israel knows somebody, that’s part of the way that it is here. So it’s very personal. It’s not something that’s happening to a certain category inside Israel. It’s in the north and in the south. It’s in the cities and on the farms. It’s in the religious and in the non-religious groups, it really is all-encompassing. On the following day, Memorial Day, people again, at 11 a.m., there’s a siren of two minutes. You’re standing, you’re listening. It doesn’t matter what the weather is. You’re out there. You can be at school. You can be at home. Everybody is thinking about it. To the degree that I know, that Israelis on airplanes wherever they are in the world, at the time of that 11 a.m. siren, they’ll stand up for those two minutes just to commemorate whoever it is that they have. Now think about that. For almost 24 hours, we’re sitting and talking about the people that were lost in wars, about heroism, about ethics, and morals, and the military, and fighting. And then, at 8 p.m., we have a ceremony at the Western Wall, which is incredible, that then transitions to the military cemetery. And from there, we go into the happiness of Independence Day. Because as an idea, as an ethos, our country was built on the fact that we have always had those who would stand up and defend for them, and we’re going to make sure that after our 24 hours of mourning, we’re not gonna stay there. We’re gonna rejoice in the meaning for which they fell, and it’s a very strong sense. A lot of people who come from the outside, it throws them off. How can you mourn and then become happy, or vice versa? And to me, that’s the essence of how we’ve built ourselves as a state.
israel360: What makes you most proud as an Israeli when you look at these two holidays?
Miri Eisin: I love the fact that we know how to both mourn and rejoice. And I don’t like the idea of sacrifices. I like the idea that we believe in what we’re doing here, that it isn’t a sacrifice, that it’s part of who we are. We’re not gonna do it just for the fun of it. I just think that the fact that we can handle both the mourning and the rejoicing is part of who we are, and the fact that everybody’s connected, both to the mourning and to the rejoicing.
I love the fact that we know how to both mourn and rejoice. And I don’t like the idea of sacrifices. I like the idea that we believe in what we’re doing here, that it isn’t a sacrifice, that it’s part of who we are.
israel360: Let’s touch on some of the challenges that we’ve been reading about quite a bit: a growing rift with the diaspora, especially over issues of religious pluralism, the peace process or lack thereof, and a sharp divide in this country between how Israelis and how U.S. Jews view the current administration. Are these issues overstated?
Miri Eisin: I don’t think it’s overstated. I think that all three of the gaps that you just talked about, both on religious pluralism, and on the way the people view the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let alone on the present administration, all three of these gaps exist. The question is, is that what our relationship is all about? And in that sense, I think that it’s a two-way street, and sometimes we have to be aware on both sides. And here I take a lot with on the Israeli side. We need to be much more aware of the different environment we live on. I say to North American Jews that at the end, being Israeli is not just about being Jewish. We’re citizens of a country. We live in a specific arena. We view our challenges in different ways. We’re a democracy. Democracies do not all have to be alike. They don’t always have to agree on everything. That’s a healthy thing, not a bad thing. On the Jewish pluralism, I look at Israelis and go, really? Only Israeli Jewish development is the way that you’re willing to look? If we’re the homeland for Jews, then we can’t define Jews in a different way than the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. That’s a challenge that I have here and these are challenges that are out there. To me, the most important part, and on this I say, everybody listening to us, let’s make sure that we continue the dialogue. Because if we don’t have the dialogue, then we’re not gonna know what each other is doing. And this isn’t about the Jews of America coming to Israel and saying, “Oh wow, you’re amazing.” or vice versa. It’s about having an open dialogue on the different ways that you can practice Judaism, open dialogue on having differences of opinion when it comes to state issues just like we look different ways at an administration, we can look at different ways at peace, we can look different ways in a lot of things, but let’s make sure that we keep talking.
israel360: I love your optimism. And that’s gonna take us right into the speed round where I’m gonna ask you ridiculous questions and you are allowed to give answers that are as ridiculous as you want. OK. The current U.S. embassy is one of the best beachfront properties in Tel Aviv; it could not be better located. Who’s gonna buy it? One of the Kardashians?
Miri Eisin: I’m not sure if it’s gonna be the Kardashians or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who every year always donates an enormous amount of money to FIDF.
israel360: OK, what color hair dye should Bibi try next? Do you think the blue was working for him?
Miri Eisin: I’m not sure. I would go with purple. It fits better with his age.
israel360: Comparing our Independence Days, on the Fourth of July people tend to take big coolers of Bud Light and go to a park and drink a lot of them. And it’s really an awful beer. What is the national alcoholic beverage of Israel for Yom Ha’atzmaut? Is it Maccabee in cans?
Miri Eisin: It’s only gonna be Goldstar. First of all, nobody drinks Maccabee. That’s only the people who come from outside. Goldstar, Goldstar, Goldstar. But, hey, we have all sorts of new brands. So next time you come, I’m gonna give you Malka, which is the best beer; it’s a queen and it’s wonderful.
It’s only gonna be Goldstar. First of all, nobody drinks Maccabee. That’s only the people who come from outside.
israel360: Thank you, Miri. We wish you a joyous Yom Haatzmaut!