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Israel’s Memorial Day

The ritual of mourning Israel’s war dead is becoming part of Jewish tradition, and has a thing or two to teach Americans

by
Gil Troy
May 03, 2022
Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

On Tuesday night, when air raid sirens blare nationwide at 8 p.m., Israel’s loud, hyperactive population will go silent and stiff. From superhighways to ancient alleyways, cars will stop as the drivers and passengers exit to stand at attention. Frozen in longing for loved ones lost, Israelis will begin their Memorial Day for soldiers and terror victims, Yom HaZikaron.

Few holidays observed so broadly are this new. Jews have long preserved ancient rituals that often ensure the forgettable remain memorable; Israelis are now creating new rituals to keep the memorable unforgettable. Besides theologians who might be fascinated to observe how quickly Israel’s Memorial Day has gained traction, Americans from left to right should note how effectively this improvised, nation-building holiday unites an often-fractious society.

If those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, those who forget to link present actions to the past will never remember it. Judaism shows that holidays without rituals are like houses without doors—they’re hard to access. Assigning present actions to past stories sharpens our memories. Staged readings can convey ideas, but they cannot outdo plays with sets and props. Imagine Thanksgiving without turkeys, Christmas without trees, Hanukkah without candle-lighting. The lessons wouldn’t change. But the food, the special items, the orchestrated actions turn history into memory.

One legend claims that Napoleon seethed when he saw a French Jewish soldier keening and fasting after a victory by the Grande Armée. Told that the Jew was observing the annual Tisha B’Av fast mourning the destruction of the Jews’ Holy Temple some 1,700 years earlier, Napoleon softened. “A people that remembers for so many centuries,” he supposedly said, “is a people that will last forever—and see their Temple rebuilt.”

The Temple’s destruction was a turning point in Jewish history; the assassination of a Judaean governor, Gedaliah, in 582 BCE, wasn’t. Nevertheless, both events remain embedded in Jewish consciousness, thanks to the Jewish calendar marking them annually with fast days.

By restoring Jewish sovereignty in Israel, Zionism sought to change history while preserving it. As the original aboriginal people, Jews understood the significance of returning to their homeland, resurrecting their ancient language, and continuing their 3,500-year-old civilization where it began.

While constantly updating the narrative, the founding Zionists knew the new Israeli Jews must understand their history, too. They restored Jewish pride in the Jewish past on Jewish soil, knowing that the Jews’ long history justified the Zionist intention to build the future in their “Altneuland,” Old-New Land.

A popular Zionist yarn claims that in 1954, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles dismissed Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, asking, “After 2,000 years of exile, can you honestly speak about a single nation, a single culture?” Noting that the Mayflower landed in America merely 300 years earlier, Ben-Gurion invited Dulles to find any “10 American children” and ask them, “What was the name of the Captain of the Mayflower? How long did the voyage take? What did the people who were on the ship eat?”

Yet, Ben-Gurion noted, even though the Jews left Egypt 3,000 years earlier, thanks to the Passover holiday, which emphasizes educating one’s children about what happened—and ritualizing the teaching and learning—most Jewish kids know that Moses led the Jews, that they wandered 40 years before reaching Israel, and that they ate unleavened matzo on the run.

Jews kept Judaism and Jewish memory alive by reliving history through ritual.

On May 14, 1948, even as Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence in Tel Aviv, Jews had spent the previous day mourning the fall of Kfar Etzion, just outside Jerusalem, where 129 were killed, including 15 slaughtered after surrendering. The tears of joy mingling with tears of pain paralleled the Passover Seder’s juxtaposition of the bitter herbs of slavery with the spring greens of liberation.

By 1949, though victorious, 600,000 Israelis were left mourning the 6,000 dead. Reeling but resilient, they marked the first two Independence Days with heart-wrenching memorials.

It was too jarring for just one day.

Seeking solutions, Ben-Gurion struck up a committee. The army’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, had explored linking a new Memorial Day to ancient fasts. But most fast days evoked Jews’ once-perpetual victimhood, not this new experience of Jewish statehood. In his memoirs, Goren describes proposing that a national Memorial Day should precede Independence Day on a one-time basis. But it stuck.

Untangling the anguish from the joy while honoring the fallen, in 1951, the government proclaimed that Israel’s Memorial Day would begin 24 hours before Independence Day, every year.

True, flipping immediately from mourning on the first day to partying the following evening gives many a feeling of emotional whiplash. But the contrast helps reenact the bloodstained ricochet from Kfar Etzion to Tel Aviv in 1948. It also resonates religiously, enacting Jeremiah’s prophecy, “I will transform their mourning into joy.”

In his 1988 classic, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg marvels at this “remarkable statement of theological continuity.” Israel’s secular Knesset “recapitulated the classic dialectical move of Jewish tradition from sadness to celebration, from mourning to joy, from death to life, in the wink of an eye.” This “acute … experience of loss” the first day “prevents the glorification of war” the next day.

A democracy’s civil religion needs sacred moments that mute partisanship by consecrating shared memory.

Experiencing Memorial Day in Israel remains awe-inspiring, especially for Americans accustomed to associating days like “Memorial Day” with words like “Sale.” Spurred by two moments of silence—first at 8 p.m., then at 11 a.m.—the entire nation mourns together. Mourners visit gravesites. Each community runs its own memorial, often coordinated with the televised national ceremony. Most follow a surprisingly similar formula: They detail how particular individuals lived, building eventually to the predictable but painful coda: a single line mentioning how they died.

Certain songs and poems have become canonical for that day, especially “The Silver Platter.” In 1947, Natan Alterman described how two soldiers “wearing their youth like dew glistening on their head … stand immobile at attention, giving no sign of living or dying.” The two explain: “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

With theaters closed, concert halls silenced, restaurants shuttered, radios playing somber songs, and every television station broadcasting martyrs’ tales, this new holy day enshrouds the whole country in a sacred silence.

Once in Montreal, the opening of the Jewish Film Festival was mistakenly scheduled on the same day as Yom HaZikaron. The embarrassed organizers proposed rectifying the error by beginning the festivities with a moment of silence. But the Israelis involved insisted that the gesture would be insufficient—the observance is daylong, and it must be enveloping, like a fast, not fleeting, like a national anthem before a baseball game.

Most Israelis agree not only about what to do on Yom HaZikaron, but what not to do as well. Few have been able to stomach suggestions for joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial services. There may be other days on the calendar when this is perfectly appropriate, but on the country’s Memorial Day, it would disrespect the victims of the ongoing ideological war that rejects Israel’s right to exist. It would overlook the many Palestinian celebrations that still predictably follow the terrorist murders of innocent Israeli civilians.

Dedicating this day to Israel’s losses alone is not all that different from the many northerners who would refuse to honor the Confederate dead on America’s Memorial Day, regardless of individual cases of gallantry, or the Ukrainians who won’t be saluting deceased Russian soldiers anytime soon, whether or not those soldiers personally supported Vladimir Putin’s war. At Seder, Jews lament Egyptian losses by spilling 10 drops from their four cups of wine. That modest tribute is proportional, acknowledging the enemy’s humanity. But mixing Memorial Days would be an act of communal spinelessness masquerading as bigheartedness.

This, then, is the most compelling lesson that Israel’s Yom HaZikaron might be able to teach Americans. Just as individuals cannot function without some level of self-esteem, a people cannot function without communal pride. And a democracy’s civil religion needs sacred moments that mute partisanship by consecrating shared memory. The contemporary effort to deny the basic goodness of America and to denigrate its many accomplishments is self-defeating. It turns every holiday into a battlefield, every ritual into a symbol of oppression rather than an opportunity to reflect, mourn, and celebrate.

Israelis’ collective sorrow-to-joy ritual doesn’t put an end to any of the country’s political battles. But it does provide a welcome break—and much-needed patriotic perspective.

Gil Troy is an American historian. He has written nine books on the presidency, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s and Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky.

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