Yom HaZikaron and Memorial Day: Remembering the Fallen (give me just two minutes of your time)

Every spring, as Israel holds its Day of Remembrance (Yom HaZikaron) and the United States its Memorial Day, I cannot help but compare the two holidays and the way the two countries mark them.

I am a member of the “Select Board”—the collective chief executive—of Amherst, Massachusetts, a small New England college town (population circa. 38,000). One of my privileges is taking part in the annual Memorial Day observance. It is a typical small-town affair: together with other town and state officials, we lead a small parade—a handful of old and young veterans, a high school marching band, and a fire truck or two—from the Town Common to the War Memorial park. There are songs, a wreath-laying, and a few short speeches. We salute the dead while raising the American flag. Some of us visit cemeteries, where the graves of veterans are marked with flags for the occasion.

Memorial Day wreath, Amherst, Massachusetts, 2014
Memorial Day wreath, Amherst, Massachusetts, 2014
"Died For His Country": grave of Frazar Stearns, son of the President of Amherst College, killed at the Battle of Newbern, March 14, 1862
“Died For His Country”: grave of Frazar Stearns, son of the President of Amherst College, killed at the Battle of Newbern, March 14, 1862

On the whole, that is it. Life returns to normal—if, indeed, it departed from it for even a few hours. Banks, schools, public buildings, and smaller stores are closed, but other than that, it is “business as usual.” It sometimes seems almost surprising that we as a nation mark the holiday at all, for it has lost much of its civic significance. Together with Labor Day (in the US, celebrated, for peculiar historical reasons, in September rather than May), it forms the bookends of the “summer” season of recreation and outdoor activities. And, like most major national holidays, it has become an excuse for an orgy of spending thanks to massive retail sales promotions. The average American probably associates Memorial Day primarily with barbecues and consumerism rather than battlefields and commemoration.

in Israel . . .  it really is not a matter of “business as usual”

Reading and watching the coverage of the holiday in Israel this year, I once again found the contrast striking. There, it really is not a matter of “business as usual.” As on Yom HaShoah, life literally comes to a standstill when the eerie wail of the air raid siren begins. Citizens on the street, whether out for a leisurely stroll or rushing to urgent business, stop in their tracks. Autos pull over to the side of the road, where drivers and passengers get out and likewise stand respectfully at attention.

But even after its sound has died away, the day is not a normal one. The broadcast media change their programming. As IDF Spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner tweeted, “On this day, the music playing on the radio is so sad.”

Obviously, most of the difference has to do with scale and situation. Despite the recent or ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, American military losses in recent years have been small. The soil of the country has not been touched by major war for a century and a half, and there has been no real foreign invasion or external threat to its existence since the War of 1812, whose bicentennial is now concluding. For better or worse, we have a “professional” army, so that not every family is even potentially touched by war in the way it was in the era of the draft. In Israel, by contrast, the territory and population are small, the army is a citizen-army based on universal service, and every death is magnified. War is an ever-present threat. Still, there is more.

In Israel, Remembrance Day immediately precedes Independence Day. In the US, by contrast, Memorial Day (formerly May 30; now: last Monday in May), which arose from the Civil War, is conceptually as well as chronologically separated from Independence Day (July 4). In a sense, to be sure, both memorials arise from similar circumstances: Israel’s War of Independence was its costliest war, which killed roughly one percent of the total population of the Yishuv. The death toll in the US Civil War—now estimated at 750,000, or nearly 2.4 percent of the US population—is higher than that of all other US wars combined. In addition, the Civil War, because it affirmed the Union and led to the abolition of slavery, is often seen as an American rebirth, a so-called “second American Revolution.” Although the specific origins of Decoration Day (as it was first called) are contested, it began, in the words of historian David Blight, “at the initiation of war widows, former slaves and grateful citizens of vastly divergent political views,” who wanted to mark the graves of the dead. One of the earliest and most poignant of such occasions occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865, when newly freed African Americans reburied Union soldiers from a former prison camp. The problem is that Memorial Day has been cut loose from these historical moorings. How much better our country might be if that original connection to what Blight has called “race and reunion” could be reintegrated into the holiday and our collective memory.

Many societies invent traditions . . . . Israel is virtually a textbook case

As a historian, thanks to my old professor, George Mosse (who taught at both the University of Wisconsin and Hebrew University), I have long been fascinated by the way that nations use rituals, myths, and symbols to shape citizenship and forge collective identities. Many societies invent traditions in the dual sense of explicitly creating new ones and of treating recent ones as if they were old, but the question is of course particularly interesting in the case of “new” nations. Israel is virtually a textbook case, from its “folk” dance to its powerful civic religion.

There are perhaps few better examples than the way the state marks historical-political time. Israel added three new holidays—Holocaust and Heroism Day, Remembrance Day, and Independence Day—to the Jewish calendar. Only the date of the latter was obvious and historically determined. The resistance fighters had wanted a Holocaust memorial day to coincide with or occur as close as possible to the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which was also the start of Passover (14-15 Nissan). This was anathema to the Orthodox, for whom both the festival and the “joyous” month of Nissan could not be tainted in this way. In the end, a compromise was reached.

The spring festival of Passover (15-21 Nissan), in the first month of the Jewish calendar, marks the liberation from Egyptian slavery and the birth of the Jewish people. (Rosh HaShanah, the “New Year,” marking the birthday of the world, actually occurs in the seventh month.) Holocaust and Heroism Day (Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah: 27 Nissan), marking the nadir of the Jewish experience, as well as resistance, occurs roughly a week later. A week after that (4 Iyar), Remembrance Day—Yom HaZikaron—honors the soldiers who fell for the State of Israel. The following day is Independence Day. The result is a powerful narrative arc stretching from slavery to redemption, with parallel tales of liberation by the hand of God and the hand of man, birth and rebirth.

Israel Remembrance Day stamp, 1968
Israel Remembrance Day stamp, 1968: The black border subtly but clearly denotes mourning. The fire in the helmet held by a tripod of rifles echoes both Jewish tradition (biblical sacrifice and the Eternal Light) as well as the European nationalist iconography of sacred flames.
Israel_Indep1968FDC copy
Israel 20th Anniversary Independence Day stamp, 1968. The military theme of this year’s issues alludes both to the history of struggle for the state and to the recent triumph of the Six Day War. The banners at lower left spell out the acronym Zahal: Israel Defense Forces.

Parallels in the stylized designs of the Remembrance and Independence Day stamps from Israel’s twentieth anniversary year (above) underscore the causal and ideological connection between the two holidays.

“Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, Judaism is a religion that sanctifies not places or things, but time itself, and hence “Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”

In an age in which conventional representational art no longer suffices and traditional talk of heroism rings hollow, in which we tend to stress the consequences of war rather than glorify what Mosse called “The Myth of the War Experience,” the sounding of the siren stands as an ideal form of commemoration. Unlike a monument, it has no specific content or political message. Rather, it is a void created in the midst of the routines of ordinary life, which each individual can fill with his or her feelings. It is a living but evanescent monument composed of time itself.

The US has imported or borrowed a great deal from Israel, from medical procedures to computer technology. Why not this ritual, as well? It would be one simple way to restore the emphasis on commemoration to Memorial Day.

It is not much to ask: taking just two minutes out of our daily lives

I wrote most of this piece on Yom HaZikaron and then decided to wait till after our Memorial Day ceremony to complete and post it. In the interim, the Times of Israel explains, I am not the only one who has come to feel that we needed to restore a common ritual to the US remembrance of the war dead. Inspired by the Israeli example, two Massachusetts brothers, Michael and Daniel Bendetson, have been driving forward bipartisan Congressional legislation mandating a national moment of silence. There is precedent for this: When I was a child, we still used to stand in school for a minute of silence at 11 a.m. on November 11 to mark Veterans’ Day, which arose as a commemoration of the Armistice in the First World War.

It is not much to ask: taking just two minutes out of our daily lives in memory of those for whom the clock stopped forever. It seems a very small sacrifice compared with the ultimate sacrifice.



About the Author
Jim Wald is a professor at Hampshire College, where he teaches modern European cultural history, including the history of antisemitism and fascism, and the history of the book.
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