Identifying a nation through its memorial day

Ha’aretz 11/15/12

Having grown up in London, settled in the United States and had the rest of my family make aliya, I have experienced all three countries’ rituals of memorial days.

If I have learnt anything through my experiences in each of these societies it’s that each one honors those who gave their lives depending on how it views itself. Whether with a pride of the present, a shame of the past, or a feeling of inevitability; memorial/veterans day gives us a glimpse at a nation’s soul.

My childhood memories of Remembrance Day are dominated by red poppies and a moment of silence following the service at the Cenotaph in the heart of London. Apart from that one day each year, and the admirable people at Wootton Bassett, there are never visible feelings of pride and respect for the British armed forces in England. Members of the military do not walk around in uniform and there are no announcements on trains, buses or airplanes supporting our troops. When one does come across someone in uniform no one really makes a fuss at all.

Last year, I moved to the United States and found myself amazed at how respectful the majority of the public and the institutions are to their soldiers. Military personnel are allowed to board planes early, are given shout-outs by the pilots on planes and are respected in the streets. The government invests millions (though many say not enough) into veterans programs, to get people back into work and support them through their education. Despite only 1 percent of Americans serving, there is an appreciation of that service recognized in every state and private institution I have come across. Not only to the United States have Veterans Day on November 11, it has another, separate day that remembers those who have fallen, in a Memorial Day in late May.

The different relationships that each of these societies have with its military seems to be engrained into the way the country perceives itself. America sees itself as the leader of the free world; the military being the tool that can fix bridges, fight wars and build nations. The image of the greatest generation, those who fought in World War Two and came back home to rebuild the country, is part of the American narrative. Serving one’s country is seen as an intrinsic good.

In the United Kingdom, the military seems to be one of the last bastions of the old order. It appears to be part of the British Empire, but not part of Britain’s modern story. There are few, if any, recognitions back home of the sacrifices that are being made by members of the armed forces abroad. Indeed there are now only a handful of members of parliament with any military background.

My third experience of a memorial day comes from my Jewish acquaintance with Yom Hazikaron. Occurring on the day before Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Hazikaron remembers all of those who have fallen while defending the State of Israel. Its occurrence before the happiest secular day of the year shows the peaks and troughs of Jewish life: there is no celebration without tragedy, yet no tragedy leads to despair.

What is a very universal message is also incredibly personal. Statewide conscription to the Israel Defense Forces means that every family goes through the same experience and the society collectively shows its scars. It fundamentally affects the military covenant of Israel morphing it into a completely different concept than that of a professional army. Israeli society is built around national service; indeed it is very hard to be a part of mainstream society if you did not serve.

I’ve always had friends and extended family in the IDF, but with my immediate family having moved to Israel and enlisting, I now have the same anxiousness that comes from having a loved one in harms way. Yom Hazikaron has always been part of the global Zionist calendar as a day for education, but one that re-enforces the differences between Israel and her Diaspora. This year I feel that I have been able to cross the emotional Rubicon.

While I have admired the pride of the United States and wondered about the ambivalence in the United Kingdom, Israel’s Memorial Day has always left me with the most questions. The universal nature of the sacrifices made prompts Israeli society to constantly look at itself introspectively. Perhaps that’s the purpose of the day after all.

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