Yom Hazikaron and Memorial Day: How We Remember

Remembering those brave men and women who have fallen in battle in defense of their homeland is any country’s solemn responsibility. A commitment to remember their ultimate sacrifice is the most effective guarantee that their lives will not have been lost in vain. Those who survive them, and live free because of them, owe them at least this much, and of course so much more…

Though I was born after the Second World War, I am unfailingly moved by the sight of seemingly endless rows of graves in Normandy, France, where the courageous troops of D-Day found their eternal rest, and closer to home, the military cemetery in Pinelawn, Long Island, right down the road from where so many Jewish cemeteries are located. For as far as the eye can see- literally– neatly manicured rows of identical stones with countless crosses punctuated by the occasional Star of David mark the graves of the hundreds of thousands who have served our country, so many of whom laid down their lives.

Many have commented on the sorry state of Memorial Day here in the United States, and in truth, we are all complicit in making of it what it has become. What should be a solemn day of remembrance has, by and large, deteriorated into an occasion for department store sales and barbecues marking the ceremonial beginning of the summer season. There are the occasional parades down the main streets of villages and towns, but they are sparsely attended, and most of the people who do come out are older, survivors of the wars whose victims are being remembered. It is rare to see younger people at these events. They are largely disconnected from the public acts of memory.

In Israel, Yom Hazikaron (Literally, the “Day of Memory) immediately precedes Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. The day is famously ushered in by the sounding of a siren throughout the country that literally brings it to a standstill. Cars stop on the highway, and drivers get out and stand at attention. People of all ages stop dead in their tracks and stand at attention in the street, in stores, and even at home. The same siren is sounded again the next morning. It is considered a particularly egregious sacrilege to disrespect this practice, as some ultra-Orthodox Jews invariably do because they don’t recognize the State of Israel’s legitimacy. In Israel, not only do individuals remember, but the country as a whole remembers as well. It is a Memorial Day done the way it should be done.

In fairness, one cannot truly compare the experience of remembering fallen heroes In a sixty-five-year-old country of some six or seven million citizens to that of a country of more than three hundred million that is two hundred and thirty-seven years old.

In Israel, the compulsory draft at age 18, coupled with the continued reserve service of men well into their middle age, means that virtually every family (excluding the Haredi sector) has had an intimate connection to the military. Because Israel is so tiny, this essentially insures that at least one person in every family will know someone who fell during one of Israel’s wars, or at least someone who was injured. I remember all too well the words of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin during the opening days of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s losses were staggering. Paraphrasing the Book of Exodus, what he said was Ki ein bayit asher ein sham met; there is no house where a dead body is not to be found (referring the plague of the first-born). The loss of a son or father in a war or terror incident is all too familiar in Israel.

Here in America, within the Jewish community but not exclusively so, military service in our all-volunteer armed forces is relatively rare. I say that carefully because my own son-in-law is a Lieutenant on active duty as a Navy chaplain in Okinawa, and I am obliged to admit that prior to his service, of which I am very proud, the closest connection I had to America’s military was participating in protest marches against the Viet Nam war. And even outside of the Jewish community, our volunteer armed forces are disproportionately made up of young men and women for whom college is not always a viable option– relatively rare in our little slice of the world. This is not at all to minimize the importance of their work, but rather simply to say that most middle class Jews of draft age have relatively little in common with a great many of the men and women who volunteer for service in our military.

I have no empirical evidence with which to back up what I am about to write, but I nonetheless would suggest that the number of middle class families- Jewish and other- who know someone personally who died in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan is very small. And if that is indeed true, and one factors in that the number of living veterans of World War II is growing ever smaller, one can begin to understand why it is that Memorial Day is such a relative “non event” here in America. Most people of my generation and younger are disconnected from the military experience because we never served in the armed forces, and we don’t have friends or relatives in them now.

Our country is a different place than it was during my college years. The September 11 attack on America brought us all face to face with a vicious enemy and a crucial challenge. We are not collectively as queasy about the use of military force as we were in the years following Viet Nam, and I think it fair to say- and I am more than grateful about this- that we appreciate our uniformed service men and women more maturely and more genuinely that we did during the awful years of Viet Nam.

But we are still a long way from creating the kind of Memorial Day experience that will reach our citizens young and old, and truly honor those who fell in our wars. We are significantly better in honoring those who return from battle than those who do not. Being committed to wounded warriors and to those who served is of course vitally important. But finding the right way to remember those who made the greatest sacrifice is arguably even more important. We should be able to get this right.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.