Unity was a noted theme for this year’s Yom Hazikaron.
“If we aren’t together, we won’t be at all,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said during the state ceremony at Mount Herzl. “We have no existence as feuding tribes, but only as a diverse and united nation.”
This echoed the words of President Yitzhak Herzog at the Western Wall the night before, imploring unity with the reminder that “our sons and daughters, who fell in defense of our state, fought together and fell together.” It is poignant that this reminder came in the powerful observation that no arguments are to be found among the graves of Israel’s fallen. “In cemeteries, arguments fall silent; between the headstones, not a sound.” This remark is significant in another, less obvious way.
At 11:00 on Yom Hazikaron, at the time of the siren, I found myself shopping in a supermarket in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Romema, a stone’s throw away from my place of work near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. I must admit, I was there out of a sense of curiosity. Fully aware that hostility or indifference to the Zionist project reigns among the ultra-Orthodox, and that most lack any personal connection to military losses, I wanted to see for myself their response to the halting siren that demands a two-minute silence from Israel’s citizens. I set out to do so with much hesitation, fearing that this excursion might very well distract me from the thoughts I wanted to dedicate to Israel’s fallen and wounded.
I was proven right in my trepidation, for there was no unity for the People of Israel or gratitude for its safety in that Romema supermarket.
In my line of sight, there were just four of us observing the silence, only one of whom was (possibly, judging by her clothes from the back, and quite some distance away) ultra-Orthodox. Shoppers and staff alike in the supermarket, numbering around 60 and almost exclusively ultra-Orthodox with a smattering of Arab workers, exhibited a callous disregard for the siren, busying around doing their shopping or stacking the shelves as usual. The beeps of bar codes being scanned continued relentlessly at the front of the shop. Bags rustled, trolleys clanged, loud conversations continued unmuted. On three occasions, shoppers tried to squeeze their trollies through the aisle between me and another unmoving shopper observing the silence, before giving up and turning around. One woman persevered and succeeded in pushing through, shoving me slightly as she did so.
This was all the more shocking considering the fact that Romema isn’t by any means the most sheltered of the ultra-Orthodox communities, and is a far cry from more insular neighborhoods such as Mea Shearim or Bnei Brak. These shoppers were Hebrew, not Yiddish, speakers, some men were clean-shaven, and the modest dress generally wasn’t strictly the most traditional. Among the Hebrew, I heard American accents shouting down phones during the silence. Born, bred and raised exclusively in a tiny, inward shtetl, these people were not. Yet, there was a conscious effort to ignore the siren to which the majority of Israel’s citizenry had stopped everything else to devote their attention. As the incidences with the trolleys showed, there was likewise no concern to respect those observing the silence. It wasn’t a show of ignorance as much as a display of disregard and disrespect.
It is in this sense that Herzog’s comments about the silence of the military cemeteries carries such a sombre message, for they are almost empty of ultra-Orthodox graves. The vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox enjoy exemptions from military service, and instead enroll in Jewish learning. The contention that full-time Torah study is a valid substitution to national service or a reasonable contribution to the State in and of itself is not one that is held by the vast majority of Israel. More than that, though, what went on in that supermarket as the siren blared exposes the fact it is a sham argument. If the shoppers in Romema cannot stop for just two minutes to honor the fallen or acknowledge that the People of Israel is an entity that is greater than themselves, then their Torah learning is not done for the good of the People or State of Israel either. There is an absence of contribution, and it is both symptom and cause of the absence of unity.
The message of unity is important, but if we want to be serious about it, we have to acknowledge that the actions of huge swathes of the Jewish people and of Israel’s citizenry show how far off we are. Without acting swiftly and effectively to break down the barriers that separate the ultra-Orthodox from the rest of the country, and integrate them into the military and the workforce, our leaders’ messages will be mere platitudes without substance. Until everyone sees the importance in marking that two-minute silence, we have failed in our mission. We owe it to the fallen that their sacrifices be acknowledged, for their sake and for ours.