It has become a tradition for me to celebrate Israeli Independence Day with my friends in Neve Monosson, not far from Ben-Gurion Airport. Neve Monosson was founded in 1953 by a group of airport employees supported by Efraim “Fred” Monosson, a wealthy raincoat manufacturer and a leading Zionist from Boston. It later became popular with the families of airline pilots and information-technology engineers and managers.
Every year around this time, the community of Neve Monosson gathers in the local basketball hall to sing along and salute the unsung heroes of Israel. This year, after an ice-breaker by the local amateur choir, a representative of the local school told a story about Yosef Amzaleg.
Amzaleg was a young Moroccan Jew who in 1948, upon hearing that the young Jewish state had been attacked, left his family and went to fight for Israel. After a fierce battle in which all his comrades had been killed, he disappeared.
His family arrived in Israel after the war and started looking for him. Only after years of searching was he was found — in a mental home in France, of all places, where he had been mysteriously hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown from which he had never recovered.
The family fought and succeeded in bringing him back to Israel, and secured for him a decent, well-deserved pension. He died last year, but he was not forgotten. The pupils of the local school heard about him and decided to make him their hero. They commemorated him by planting a tree in his name in the school’s yard and by vowing to keep his story alive.
Then we listened to the soft voices of the local citizens-singers, who revived for us the beautiful melodies of our country. All this celebration is the product of many volunteers working hard for months, with none of the participants getting a shekel — not so common a thing in today’s materialistic Israel.
And then we watched on a large screen the events of last year’s war in Lebanon, a war that left a lot of doubts and bitter questions unanswered. Neve Monosson, however, is not a place for whining.
We watched a military doctor, who saved so many lives during the war, rush to treat Captain Tomer Bohadana, a company commander who had been severely wounded in his neck. The military doctor took one look at the rugged soldier’s face and declared, “He will survive.”
And we watched as Bohadana was rushed on a stretcher from a helicopter to Rambam Hospital in Haifa, the doctor holding his hand against Bohadana’s wound so he wouldn’t lose any more blood. Seeing the crowd of journalists and photographers waiting outside the hospital, the severely wounded Bohadana raised his hand and made a “V for victory” sign with his fingers.
Hardly had we in Neve Monosson digested that when Bohadana himself appeared on stage. He received a standing ovation, and as the clapping mixed with yet more singing, we could all feel our batteries being recharged.
Afterward, during a break for falafel, I bumped into Gur Yisraeli, my student at the Air Force Academy some four decades ago. He came here to tell his story, and what a story it was.
He shared with us, in a casual way, his memories as a prisoner of war. On the third day of the Yom Kippur War, as a navigator in an F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft, he was hit by a surface–to-air missile over Damascus and was taken prisoner by the Syrians. Gur skipped the grim details of his interrogations, and focused instead on the weeks he was confined to his cell, alone and struggling to maintain his sanity.
Before the war Gur was a basketball player on his kibbutz, so in solitary confinement he played imaginary games of hoops in his head. “Michael Jordan could have taken lessons from me,” he said.
With all the miserable conditions in the Syrian winter of 1973, he was never sick. “This was a luxury you just couldn’t afford,” he told us.
The most dangerous part of his ordeal, Gur concluded with a dry smile, was that moment back in Ben-Gurion Airport, when a mob of anxious aunts nearly crushed the frail, liberated POWs with their mighty hugs. We laughed wholeheartedly, but as I looked around, I saw quite a few wet eyes.
Finally, we rose to sing our national anthem. It’s slow in rhythm and a bit gloomy, maybe to reflect the Jewish predicament, but at that proud gathering in Neve Monosson the singing was unusually vigorous — as if “Hatikva” had regained its meaning: hope.
Uri Dromi, director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, was chief spokesman for the Israeli government under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.