What Are We Thinking: Yom HaZikaron 2009

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Memorial Day conjures up memories of long weekends, the beginning of summer vacation, family gatherings and seasonal sales. Yet since moving to Israel I have developed an appreciation for what I think that the day was meant to be, especially through observances here that are part of the DNA of Israeli culture.

For a day or two in advance, the public tone changes as the State and the people begin to prepare for formal commemoration of Yom HaZikaron. The country’s military cemeteries get a spring cleaning, themes of programs both on TV and radio focus on the nation’s wars and terrorist attacks, schools infuse their curriculum with lessons, memorials and ceremonies, often from a personal perspective of someone who has lost a loved one. Every year I enter the season with more or less the same mindset, and every year I am overwhelmed by the new observations, insight, and thoughts that come to mind.

As the siren heralding the start of the observation was sounded Monday night at 8:00 PM, I was tucking in my youngest son. I interrupted my bed time ritual to point out the siren to my three and a half year old. He already learned in his gan that when you hear the siren you stand at attention “for the chayalim” (soldiers). What does this mean to him, I wondered? What is he thinking?

After he went to sleep, I watched the State ceremony at the Western Wall on TV with my other kids. Virtually all stations broadcasting were showing either the State ceremony, stories about victims of war and terrorist attacks, or movies of a similar theme. Many other stations had no broadcast at all, only a photo of a memorial candle. Public entertainment is closed as religiously as it is on Yom Kippur.

I sat next to my 10 year old son whose thin arms and legs are still that of a little boy, but who will one day, too soon, grow up and mature to resemble those whose lives we heard about on TV this night. He will fill out the uniform of a soldier of Israel with the body of a young man. Yet today as a child he understands that war and defending ourselves is a fact of life. It does not upset him. He is curious about the army and military things, but that’s probably age appropriate. Unlike me, growing up in New Jersey, he is growing up knowing that in several years he’ll be well on the way to being drafted and donning a green IDF uniform. When he watches the memorial, and sees stories of others who have been killed in defense of their country, what does he think?

As for my daughters, one would think that they have it easier. The girls can choose to serve in the army or do national service. Even for those who might serve in the army, it’s unlikely that they’d be in combat or putting their own lives in harms’ way. But I couldn’t help but wonder if they are thinking they might marry a man who must put his life in danger. Is that even a factor or thought to them?

Do my older children already talk among their friends about who will be the first to die defending the Land, as if it’s something to be expected, as if it’s normal? I know it’s done, but are my kids at that age yet? Are they thinking about this, or just about the tests in school next week and summer vacation?

At the State Yom HaZikaron ceremony itself, the memorial flame was lit by a young woman whose husband died from “friendly fire” only in January. She’s barely had time to absorb her loss. Of course it makes no difference that he died due to an IDF mistake rather than at the hands of a terrorist, her husband is still gone. As she stood there, brave and stoic, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what she was thinking.

Other than dignitaries and military leadership, the participants at the State ceremony were mostly family members of people killed at the hands of those who would still like to kill us, more of us. The glazed look on many of their faces suggested that their minds had wandered to the memory of their lost sons and daughters. How long has it been? Is their memory fading? Have they been able to move on in their lives? What are they thinking about?

The Prime Minister and President spoke. Prime Minister Netanyahu no doubt remembers his brother, Yoni, who lead and fell during the 1976 Entebbe operation to free captive Jews hijacked to Uganda. Having served in an elite military unit himself, no doubt he knows others who served with him who are not here anymore.

President Shimon Peres’ long history of public service, going back to before statehood, has given him the opportunity to know tens of thousands of people personally who were intricately involved in building our country. He can close his eyes and recall scores or hundreds of heroes whom he knew personally, victims of every war and battle since the Independence War. Even earlier.

One must imagine that both these leaders stand humbly aware of the fact that their leadership today was in many ways built on the sacrifice of others, people they knew personally. Is two minutes of silence even enough for them to reflect on these losses? What could they possibly be thinking about the past, and how does this color their looking forward so that there are no more victims by this time a year from now?

My wife wondered aloud whether we are a normal people. We live without regret or fear, just bewilderment at the hope of living in peace, and the parallel ability to fight and sacrifice for our homeland as needed. The dream of a Jewish state that became a reality 61 years ago was also supposed to make us just like the other nations, accepted by the other nations, living in peace. But we have not had a day of peace since then. Sadly, peace does not seem to be on the horizon.

Traditionally, Yizkor (the memorial prayer for a dead relative) is recited on the last day of our festivals, in part, not to diminish the joy of celebrating the festivals to begin with. But in Israel, we mourn for those who have been killed defending the country the day before we celebrate our independence. It’s a stark contrast. It reminds us that the 22,570 who have been killed have given their lives so we can celebrate.

While everyone would love to celebrate with only faint memories of those who have fallen in the distant past, the reality is that our need to defend ourselves and our country will probably not diminish for some time. Maybe never. And not that I want to have reasons to commemorate the day, but there is something to be said for a somber meaningful and reflective Memorial Day rather than one that is marked by running to the mall so as not to miss the sales, or a family barbecue with no recollection at all on the reason for the extra day off work to begin with.

What are we thinking? We are raising our children to be proud Jews in the State and Land of Israel, to have meaning in their lives by building on our past and contributing to our future. We raise our children and live here ourselves, not shrinking from the threat that never seems to end, but mindful of it, and aware that sometimes when a loss is more personal, more relevant, it provides the elements to build a stronger foundation as an individual, as a Jew and as an Israeli.

Yom HaZikaron is a milestone in all our lives and whatever perspective and mindset I enter it with, I always comes away thinking something different. In the year I made aliyah, Israel mourned 21,000 dead. This year that has increased to 22,570. It’s incomprehensible. It’s as if more than 800,000 Americans were to have been killed defending their country in the corresponding time. Only with the Civil War is the US able to count anything close to 800,000 victims, but that was also a war when all the victims, on both sides, were American.

May we be privileged to commemorate Yom HaZikaron next year remembering only the 22,570, yet with the same sense of loss and grief, respect and gratitude, that gives us extra appreciation for everything we have, especially as we enter the festive celebrations of Yom Haatzmaut, our independence, as night falls on one day and dawns on the next.

Yonatan Ben-Natan has a long and distinguished career in the field of non-profit, Jewish communal and organizational development. Most recently the Israel Representative of the American Friends of Magen David Adom, he has worked for the Israel Anti Drug Abuse Foundation, Jerusalem Graduate School of Management, UJA Federation of New York, the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev), Yeshiva University, ORT, United Jewish Appeal and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Mr. Ben-Natan received his B.A. from Emory University and his MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He made aliyah from New Jersey with his wife and 6 children in the summer of 2005.