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May 4, 2017 11:50 am

For Israelis, Memorial Day is Personal

avatar by Alex Traiman /JNS.org

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Current Israeli soldiers stand by the graves of fallen soldiers at the Kiryat Anavim military cemetery on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), May 1, 2017. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90.

JNS.org Israel and the US share many values and traditions, including holding national days of commemoration for fallen soldiers. Yet there are sharp cultural differences marking the Memorial Day observances in each nation.

“Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) is so meaningful to Israelis, because everyone is directly connected to it. You’re never more than one person away from someone who was killed in battle, or someone who was killed by a terrorist. No one’s removed from it,” said Ari Kalker, director of housing and special projects at Israel’s Lone Soldier Center, an organization “dedicated to meeting all of the physical and social needs” of soldiers without relatives in Israel.

A somber day

Yom HaZikaron is one of the most somber days on the Israeli calendar, along with Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) that takes place just a week earlier. Yom Hazikaron is marked by nationwide sirens at 8 p.m. the preceding evening, and then at 11 a.m., moments of silence where the entire country grinds to a halt. Even drivers pull over to the side of the road and stand next to their vehicles.

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In nearly every community and public school, ceremonies recall the memories of those who died fighting for Israel or at the hands of terrorists seeking to destroy the country. Tens of thousands of Israeli flags — a symbol of tremendous national pride — are displayed on homes, businesses and roads across the country, while children go to school and to ceremonies wearing blue and white.

Many restaurants and other entertainment centers are closed, and Israeli radio and television play somber, nationalistic programming.

Then, immediately as Yom HaZikaron departs, Yom HaAtzmaut — Israeli Independence Day — begins. Kalker calls it a “palpable juxtaposition.”

“You go from Israel’s saddest day, to our happiest day,” he said. “It gives relevance to both. It makes Yom HaZikaron that much more inspirational because we understand what all those sacrifices are for.”

Connecting soldiers to liberties

In America, by contrast, Memorial Day traditionally marks the start of the summer season. While there are Memorial Day parades in many towns, the day does not take on a somber tone nationwide.

Beachgoers often go to the nearest shore, while baseball and barbecues are standard fare. As with most every national holiday in America — including Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving — Memorial Day is commercialized with retail sales.

While America has one of the world’s largest armies, with hundreds of thousands of troops serving overseas, there is not always a direct national connection between the efforts and sacrifices made by the small percentage of Americans who volunteer for military service, and the civil liberties Americans enjoy at home. Ceremonially, the US president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, the country’s largest burial grounds for service men and women, on both Memorial and Veterans Day.

According to Eve Harow, an Israeli tour guide and host of the weekly podcast “Rejuvenation,” compared to Israelis, Americans simply “don’t appreciate the sacrifices that other Americans made for the freedoms that they take for granted, and to some degree even feel entitled to.”

“Today you do still have soldiers fighting overseas, for democracy, for the values that America stands for, but it is not the same thing,” Harow told JNS.org.

“It is very hard for most Americans to relate a Marine dying in Iraq to American freedom of speech in Chicago,” added Kalker. “It is much easier to relate to a soldier falling while defending the land of Israel, and link it to a Jew’s ability to pray at the Western Wall.”

Israel’s fight for independence continues

Harow, who lives in the Efrat settlement of the Gush Etzion region in Judea, notes that Yom HaZikaron is commemorated on the day the Kfar Etzion Kibbutz fell in battle during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, just a day before Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared Israel as an independent state.

“Part of the reason that I live and feel connected to Gush Etzion is to make sure that their sacrifice was not made in vain,” she said. “We fought for independence so that today Jews could once again live in Judea. In appreciation, I raise my children where these brave soldiers battled.”

Five of Harow’s children have served in the military, including one son who is currently a sergeant in a combat unit.

Military service and reserve duty are mandatory for native Israelis, yet Kalker, a master sergeant in one of Israel’s elite combat units, views the “privilege of putting on our army uniforms not as a burden, but as a tremendous honor.”

“My grandparents survived Nazi Germany,” he said. “And I get to fight our enemies with a uniform with the Star of David on it, and giving commands to my soldiers in Hebrew. It is something that we have not been able to do for millennia.”

With that privilege, however, may often come the harshest of all responsibilities. Kalker has buried four close friends, including Michael Levin, an American who voluntarily came to Israel to serve in the military, and for whom the Lone Soldier Center is named.

Knowing that your friends, children, spouses or other loved ones have fallen makes Yom HaZikaron particularly difficult for soldiers who currently serve, either in the standing army or in the reserves.

“Part of you is thinking the entire time, ‘This may be me they are memorializing next year,'” Kalker said. “It becomes a very scary thing to think about.”

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