Comment: Where they - and we - stand on mourning

Even American Zionists have tended to ignore Yom Hazikaron.

holocaust siren 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
holocaust siren 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
One of the most hallowed moments in the year will soon be upon us. On Tuesday night, and again on Wednesday morning, Israelis will stop their cars on the highway, pause their work meetings and other activities and stand silently for two minutes to remember the 25,000 young soldiers and others who have fallen in the country's wars and struggles. Part of the power of Yom Hazikaron - Remembrance Day - and its impact on Israeli-Jewish identity lies in the fact that when they pause, Israelis are usually remembering someone specific, someone they personally lost. They feel not a vague notion of collective sacrifice, but the missing soldier, the young man or woman who came home on weekends to eat Friday-night dinner with the family and then went out with friends. It is worth noting that this young soldier, when he died on the frontlines, almost certainly did not do so out of a sophisticated ideological commitment to Jewish self-determination, but for a family which, even if it lived on the opposite side of the country from the warfront, was only two hours' drive from where he died. Yet, there is a larger ideological dimension to the day, of the type Israelis are loath to expand upon. This is the deep sense that in some way these sacrifices were made on behalf of the entire Jewish people, whose existence has been fundamentally changed by the dual experience of the eradication of European Jewry accompanied by the rise of Jewish freedom in Israel. The mix of national and personal sacrifice makes Yom Hazikaron a pivotal, collective calendar date. NOT SO in the United States. The relationship of American Jews to Israel's Remembrance Day, which commemorates the largest single loss of life in any Jewish cause since the Holocaust, is strikingly different. American Jews who consider themselves Zionists, who organize rallies for Israel's Independence Day and against the Iranian threat, still do not observe or particularly notice Yom Hazikaron. This week, a first sign that this gap between the two Jewish experiences may be closing came from the Jewish communities of Colorado. "In what is believed to be the first time in American history, Jews from across the state of Colorado will pause from their daily activities, and observe two minutes of silence in commemoration of Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day," reads an announcement by the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado. The pause will be observed, as in Israel, at 11:00 a.m. local time on Wednesday. "Here in Colorado," explains the federation's president and CEO Doug Seserman in a press release, "we feel an enormous debt of gratitude to our brothers and sisters in Israel, who dedicate themselves to building, protecting and defending our Jewish homeland. So it is only fitting that we stand in solidarity with them - quite literally - and remember those who have been lost at the hands of war or terrorist attacks during the past 60 years." How should Israelis understand this initiative? According to Rabbi Edward Rettig, associate director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee and a researcher into the cultural connection between American Jewry and Israel, the gap between the two memorial days has more to do with the "American" than with the "Jewish" component of American-Jewish identity. Israelis who travel to the United States are often shocked to see advertisements in newspapers that read "Happy Memorial Day Weekend," and advertise picnic accessories and sporting events. The "non-observance" of America's Memorial Day among Americans generally is also true of the Jews. An American-born veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Rettig recalls that "Israel's Memorial Day was always observed in my community, and historically this is true of American Jewry more broadly, only very nominally. No matter the size of the community, no more than a few hundred people, the vast majority of them Israeli, would gather for some sort of ceremony. The local Jewish population didn't show up." This difference, says Rettig, "is one of the great unnoticed fissures in the Jewish world. It's there because the American-Jewish experience is so inherently American." According to Rettig, "America generally does not do a good job memorializing its own veterans, and perhaps American society in general has serious problems dealing with death. This is particularly pronounced in regard to those who gave their lives for America." There are two broad reasons for this, he explains. First, ever since today's great-grandparents returned from World War II, Americans' lives have been largely free of the personal experience of war-fighting. "Think about that generation," says Rettig. "They went off to war; they won; they left 600,000 dead, probably five times that number wounded and injured. They came back. They built the greatest economy the world has ever seen, the most powerful armed forces the world has ever seen, and they provided their children, their grandchildren and now their great-grandchildren with a degree of physical security, in terms of war, that very few human populations have enjoyed in history. So great was their success that most of their own children have nothing in their personal experience that can help them understand the sacrifices made by the World War II generation. The different generations grew up in almost different countries." As an example of this gap within the American experience of war, Rettig cites filmmaker Steven Spielberg's release of letters he received from American veterans after his film Saving Private Ryan was released. The elderly veterans "thanked him for making the film because, finally, their grandchildren had some small notion of what they had gone through." Second, continues Rettig, Jews, like many other ethnic groups in America who share their social and educational profile, do not tend to join the professional armed forces of the United States. " American Jews are usually not part of that relatively narrow sector of American society that is represented, for example, by [Republican presidential candidate] Senator [John] McCain's family, where generation after generation take a career in the military." These factors - "the protected nature of life in America for the overwhelming majority of Americans, and the Jews among them" - make it difficult for American Jews to experience the Israelis' most visceral moment in the calendar year. FOR THE past decade, one of the primary goals of organized Jewry has been to connect American Jews with Israelis. This has led to the launch of some of the most expensive programs currently running in the Jewish world, and the problem of the disconnect between the communities occupies the attention of organizations, philanthropists, academics and rabbis. For these efforts to succeed, it is undeniable that Israelis will need to be taught about the American-Jewish experience, with its richer and more varied religious fabric and its focus - even in Orthodox circles - on personal spiritual development, something Israelis are often kept from doing in this country's bitter, politicized culture wars. But it will also mean educating American Jews about the unique Israeli-Jewish experience, its commitments and sacrifices, and the depth of its connection to the Jewish experience generally. For this reason, the Colorado Jewish federation's initiative is, for Rettig, "a pioneering step. If we're going to be a shared community, a transnational one, American Jews have to develop a stronger sense of how they relate to that world. American Jews are going to have to learn about this whole issue of sacrifice, and how widespread and deep it is here." As Rettig notes, "While certainly Israelis have a lot to learn about American Jewry, how culturally and theologically rich it is, there's a missing link going in the other direction. "If more Jews probably stand at attention on Yom Hazikaron than light Shabbat candles worldwide, it says something about what it means to be a Jew. Forty percent of the Jews of the world who live in Israel personalize their Judaism by standing at attention. This is part of their Jewish identity."