When it comes to Memorial Day, we have a lot to learn from Israel
Last Memorial Day, I went deal hunting at the Jersey Shore Premium Outlets, a marvelous mall aggregating all discount brands an average dresser could ever wish for: Banana Republic “Factory,” Eddie Bauer “Outlet,” even Brooks Brothers “Factory Store” (et tu, Brooks Brothers?).
At the conclusion of my shopping excursion, before heading to the beach, I texted my family in Israel a picture of my bounty, captioned “Yom Hazikaron sales.” My sister promptly responded with a confounded emoji.
Bingo! That’s exactly how I was feeling.
The way I spent Memorial Day 2019, while typical for a New Yorker, could not be more different from how Israel marks its version of memorial day, Yom Hazikaron.
As anyone who has experienced it can attest, Yom Hazikaron is the holy of hollies of Israel’s secular calendar. In the evening, after the nationally-broadcasted official ceremony, Israelis gather to sing somber ballads in memory of “the sons,” as the fallen soldiers are often called. The next morning, thousands flock to military cemeteries around the country to observe the 11 a.m. moment of silence. To set the tone for the day, all shops and restaurants close on the eve of Yom Hazikaron.
There are no sales on Israeli memorial day — literally.
There are several reasons why many of us in the U.S. treat Memorial Day differently — the end of conscription and the anti-war movement, to name a few. America’s battles are fought far from its borders, and relatively few Americans have a personal connection to fallen members of the armed forces.
Israel’s approach isn’t perfect, either. Some see an overemphasis of martyrdom, which breeds unhealthy self-pity. Others believe that Israel’s fundamentally positive ethos of caring for every military casualty has at times clouded its leaders’ judgment, including with respect to prisoner swaps and the appetite for civilian casualties on the other side.
Yet, as we look toward Memorial Day 2020, we should consider taking a page out of Israel’s memorial day playbook. Observing Memorial Day through, well, memorial, conveys an important message about the sanctity of human life, a powerful reminder that “death counts” represent more than just numbers.
In a diverse society, where voters are prone to dismiss needs beyond their immediate purview — be it geographic, ethnic, or socio-economic — this is an invaluable takeaway, especially at a moment when public health is being weighed against market performance. To my mind, there is a firm connection between the respect a society pays to its fallen soldiers and the medical treatment it affords those who fall ill, between the care shown for service member casualties and the protections and benefits provided to essential service workers.
If military casualties are relegated to the back pages of the morning paper, it should come as no shock that people suffering from pre-existing conditions are left to wither on the fringe of the American healthcare system.
It’s unlikely that in a few weeks’ time, a crowded mall will be an appealing place to spend Memorial Day 2020. There will, however, be plenty of online sales, and considering retail’s recent struggles, an argument can certainly be made for partaking in the shopping palooza. Memorial Day is, after all, a celebration of the American way of life, and by no means should the national pastime be barred from the festivities.
That being said, perhaps we can try to dedicate a bit more time this year to honoring those who sacrificed their lives for the security and prosperity of the United States of America. The positive impact on American society would be far greater than a few extra dollars contributed to the national GDP.
Alongside the individual mandate to remember, this is a call for Jewish communal institutions – synagogues, JCCs, schools – to expand their programming for Memorial Day. This can be done internally, or through outreach to neighboring communities for whom Memorial Day might feel more acutely resonant. May 25 is still a few days away, there’s enough time — and, as shown by the quick transition to Zoom, so much talent and creativity — for our institutions to adjust.
At Yom Hazikaron ceremonies, one often hears the following phrase: “bemotam tzivu lanu et hachayim” — “in their deaths, they commanded us life.” This is usually understood as an obligation to persevere despite the painful losses.
But I think it carries another meaning: In remembering the sacrifices of the dead, we express our commitment to preserving life, be it on the battlefield or in our hospitals.
Ben Zion Ferziger is an attorney living and working in NYC and a member of Shazur/Interwoven, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering understanding and appreciation between Israeli and American Jews.