Thursday, April 15, 2021

Flashback 2004: 'For us, it's saddest day of the year'

Wednesday was Memorial Day in Israel, and I thought I'd share this piece about it, from when I visited in 2004.
Soldiers at the Western Wall, 2004

     JERUSALEM— It isn't like in America. There are no picnics, no softball games, no big sales. In fact, most stores are closed, along with most restaurants and movie theaters. The nation literally comes to a halt, twice, once on Sunday night, when a siren sounds nationwide at 8 p.m. announcing the beginning of Yom Ha'Zikaron, or Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel, and again at 11 a.m. Monday. Israelis take the sirens seriously. They pull their cars over to the side of the road, even on the highways. They step out and stand, heads bowed. Lines of cars sit motionless at green traffic lights, their doors flung open, their drivers placing their hands over their hearts. A far cry from Memorial Day in the United States.
     "On Memorial Day, you guys have sales and go out barbecuing," said Zvi Harpaz, a tour guide. "For us, it's the saddest day of the year. Because every Israeli growing up knows he will have to serve in the military and risk his life and every Israeli has a friend who has made that sacrifice."
     More than 21,000 Israeli soldiers died in the five official wars fought against its hostile Arab neighbors, plus the pair of bloody intifadas conducted by Palestinians trying to create a nation of their own out of the territories seized by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967.
     Israel has paid a high price for the almost constant state of war it has faced. In the War of Independence in 1948, 6,000 Jews died out of a total of 600,000 in the fighting that followed the Arab rejection of the partition of British Palestine. That's 1 percent—the equivalent of three million Americans dying in a war today.
     Memorial Day is marked across the country, in cities, towns and schools. In Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv, some 500 people sat on white plastic chairs in Gan Haboneem, the "Garden of the Sons,'' a downtown park where palm trees stand beside stark square black granite pillars, broken off at the top to symbolize lives cut short and etched with the names of the fallen.
While heavy security ringed the park, holding machine guns and eyeing the traffic, a group of teenage Israeli Scouts sang a number of Israeli pop songs that combine sentiments of loss with generic Euro-beats.
     "Somebody up there is worried about me," sang the teenagers, in their khaki uniforms and orange and turquoise ties. "We go along different roads … and will meet again after many nights and many days."
     In addition to the scouts, the audience contained a group of elderly "Volunteers"—Jews from around the world who rushed here in 1948 to help create the new Jewish state. Maurice Fajerman, a 76-year-old Frenchman, wore a gray ponytail and his decoration from the Israeli government. He lost his brother, Baruch, in the fighting, he said, but still views the night he slipped by British patrols and waded ashore into what would become Israel as "the most important moment in my life."
     Elsewhere, TV stations broadcast solemn services, apartment buildings were decorated with long blue and white streamers, and flags were placed along desolate desert highways from the Golan Heights in the north to Eliat in the south.
     Famously casual Israelis donned dark suits and somber ties. Candles burned in hotel lobbies and people gathered in public squares to sing mournful songs, a kind of national catharsis in anticipation of the joyful celebration of Independence Day.
     While the state was actually created on May 14, 1948, the anniversary falls on Tuesday this year, as the Jewish calendar, based on the phases of the moon, doesn't usually coincide with the calendar used in most of the Western world.
     Ask any Israeli why Memorial Day is such a wrenching moment of real collective grief, and expect an answer like this:
     "Because everybody in the country knows someone buried in the military cemetery -- I have more friends in military cemeteries than I have walking the streets," said Eli Peled, 68, a deeply tanned veteran wounded four times in four of Israel's five wars. "I don't know anybody who doesn't. It's as simple as that."
      —Originally published in. the Sun-Times, April 26, 2004


  1. Terrible as they have been, America has never endured comparable military losses. The French suffered more man killed at Verdon than we did in both world wars. After the most decisive military engagement in history, when Hannibal wiped out a larger Roman army at Cannae, it was said every Roman household grieved the loss of a son or husband or brother.


    1. Reminds me of the mention in Wade Davis's Into the Silence in which he quotes an upper class woman who early in World War I, says, "I just realized that every man I had ever danced with was dead."



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