By Willa Frej:
This past Monday, Americans across the nation ditched their suits for shorts and celebrated the arrival of summer with beer, grilled foods, and family and friends. Memorial Day is a holiday observed in the United States on the last Monday of May to remember those who have perished while serving in the US Armed Forces. Yet for most, rejoicing is far more common than mourning.
I spent Memorial Day in transit from Israel back to the US, where I had been on a ten-day Birthright trip. For half of the program, eight Israeli soldiers, of the same age as our group, traveled with us around the country.
On the day that we visited Mount Herzl, the Jerusalem cemetery where Israeli soldiers and national heroes are buried, our group experienced a real disconnect when we shared with our Israeli companions how Americans celebrate Memorial Day. One of the male soldiers stood up, teary-eyed, and explained to us that in Israel, regular life is halted on their memorial day, Yom Hazikaron. The day begins with a siren that is blown across the country, lasting one minute. During this period, Israelis are expected to stop everything – including driving – and stand in silence. Observant Jews spend the day praying. Shops are closed. The only programming to be found on television and the radio is that about the Israeli Defense Forces.
A pang of guilt struck our group. Should we, as Americans, apologize for our apathy or our ignorance? Should we lament the fact that war is being fought miles from our homeland? Is it shameful that many of us have never met a member of the Armed Forces?
On the flipside, war is woven tightly into both Israel’s culture and history. A mere speck on the world map surrounded by current or former enemies, Israel has no choice but to depend on armed defense. Patriotism is survival. The United States has never had to consistently protect its land, thereby never engendering fervent nationalism among its people, except during times of war…specifically, popular war.
We shouldn’t wait for the outbreak of popular war in order to foster patriotism at home. Perhaps we should take a page out of the Israeli book and acknowledge warfare as an unfortunate reality in order to pay greater respect to those who serve and have served dutifully.
Willa Frej ’13 is in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.