Culture

What America Can Learn from Israel on Veterans Day

Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day I have one wish: for Americans to mark these solemn days with as much respect and seriousness as our greatest allies in the Middle East, the Israelis, honor their heroes. Today is Veterans Day, and yesterday was the anniversary of the U.S. Marines Corps. Across the United States, we will honor  in some strange ways the sacrifice of those who served in our armed forces in peacetime and during war, with sales on linens and kitchen goods being among the most common. On Memorial Day in the United States, a day in which Americans are given the day off to memorialize those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of our freedom, we for some reason “celebrate” with beers and BBQ. The juxtaposition between how Americans and Israelis mark the day is stark, and provides lessons for how we can improve how we honor our troops and those who have given their lives for our country.

In Israel, Memorial Day is called Yom Hazikaron. It falls on the day before Israel’s Independence Day — Yom Haatzmaut. The two days are linked — the day of sadness and introspection leads into a day of celebration. This linkage of the two lends additional importance and gravitas for Memorial Day. One day in the future, hopefully soon, generations of Israelis will grow up not knowing war or conflict. For these Israelis, the pairing of Memorial Day and Independence Day will help explain how it is only through sacrifice that freedom and independence come. The feeling of pure elation on Independence Day is felt through the country and celebrated in a multitude of ways, including dance parties in the streets of major cities, like Jerusalem. Israel is a young country, and each generation has faced war. The celebration of the existence and very survival of the Jewish state is one taken seriously by Israelis and Jews everywhere.

On Israel’s Memorial Day all places of entertainment — amusement parks, golf courses, movie theatres, nightclubs, and bars — are closed. It’s understood that this is a day of solemnity, not fun. While schools and most workplaces are closed, it’s not treated as a “day off” by Israelis — it’s a time to truly honor those who have made Israel’s existence and survival possible.

Similar treatment is given to Yom HaShoa, the Day of Remembrance for Holocaust victims and survivors. A website dedicated to goings-on in Tel Aviv, the country’s most bustling city, explains how the day is marked:

On the eve of the holiday, everything is closed by law: no shop, no restaurant, no bar, nor even an AM PM open. Tel Aviv turns into in a dead city then.

A remembrance ceremony with movies, pictures, songs, is generally performed in a theatre of the city. Location changes according to the years.

During the day, shops, bars, restaurants re-open, but leisure places and public services remain generally closed.

TV and radio programs broadcast documentaries about Shoa and low songs.

Flags on public buildings are flown at half-mast.

While Americans would probably balk at the idea of mandatory closure of business and entertainment venues, giving more opportunities to culturally mark the day would provide Americans with options to pass the day in a reflective manner.

Like on Yom Hashoa, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance, on Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, normal television and radio programming is suspended. On these days, the standard shows, movies and music are replaced with those which memorialize the fallen, those who perished in the Holocaust or those who died fighting to protect and honor the state. Israelis are usually home from school and work on both days, but even leisure time spent watching TV or listening to radio is dedicated to the spirit of the day.

American Jewish programming does something similar, and the video below gives a sense (in English) of what comparable programming is like in Israel (in Hebrew) on Yom Hashoa.

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On Israel’s Memorial Day public prayers and events are scheduled in all of the country’s military cemeteries. This remembrance is similar to what many, but not nearly enough, Americans also do in our own military cemeteries. Unfortunately for Americans, there is often little programming and prayer scheduled by individual cemeteries, compared to in Israel where these ceremonies are standard and held throughout the country, with no exceptions. Most Americans who visit military cemeteries do so in order to honor their family members, while in Israel, these visits are made by many, most of whom have no relationship, familial or otherwise, to those buried there.

Photos, like the one above taken by the National Park Service in an American cemetery on Memorial Day, are inspiring, however it is noticeable that while there are flags at every single headstone, there are no visitors honoring those buried there.

Compare the above image to that of one in Israel on Memorial Day:

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What is most commonly associated with Memorial Day in Israel are sirens. There are two sirens, one at 8 p.m. (Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before) and one at 11a.m. These sirens bring the entire country to an absolute standstill. No matter where a citizen is when they hear the siren, the world stops. Cars on highways come to a halt,  and their passengers stand at attention on the cement in the middle of bustling streets.

Shoppers in the cities’ busiest marketplaces put a pause on haggling in order to pay their solemn respects to the lives which were lost protecting their freedom and lives, throughout Israel’s history.

While I composed this blog post, I received the following email from Linens N Things:

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While America’s spirit of capitalism is one I normally applaud, it has never ceased to amaze me how Memorial Day and Veterans Day in this country is somehow taken as an opportunity to shop till we drop. A local ABC affiliate in Indianapolis writes,

In honor of Veterans Day, many retailers are dropping prices on some of your favorite electronics, apparel and grocery items.

All of the deals featured in ShopSmart are gathered from dozens of sales flyers from stores throughout central Indiana.

I would love to hear a viable explanation of how honoring veterans is somehow linked to buying groceries.Screenshot 2014-11-10 at 11.37.08 AM

Americans love a good barbecue cookout — I’m as guilty as the next person. For some reason, though, Americans have come to associate Memorial Day, a day we are given off of work and school in order to honor those who have fallen to protect our freedom, with grilled meat. When you enter “Memorial Day” into Google, some of the top auto-completion suggestions include BBQ and menu. Every major cooking website has suggestions for meal ideas, recipes and outdoor table layout. For some reason, this solemn day is treated as a long weekend for beach-going and leisure.

This post isn’t all about hating on American traditions, however. We have some pretty great ones that I’d love to see expanded. One of these fine traditions is the Veterans Day parade. In towns big and small across America, veterans of our armed forces parade down main street and are rightfully cheered by many of the towns’ residents. This year I hope to bring my daughter to her first of many such parades in our town.

veterans parade highlandpark

While we don’t have much in the way of programming at our military cemeteries, there are some that do a beautiful job honoring those who lost their lives on Memorial Day. Some cemeteries, like that in Arlington, have inspiring Veterans Day programming as well.

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What traditions would you like to see the United States adopt, from Israel or elsewhere in the world, to commemorate our armed forces? How will you mark Veterans Day this year?