My Word: The Great War and the battle for online consumers

Nonetheless, for many 11/11 is more about remembering to part with money in a typical merging of the digital age with the consumption obsession.

MORE THAN 15,000 poppies, handmade by local craft groups, schools and care homes, are displayed at Hertford Castle in Britain this week to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War (photo credit: ANDREW COULDRIDGE/REUTERS)
MORE THAN 15,000 poppies, handmade by local craft groups, schools and care homes, are displayed at Hertford Castle in Britain this week to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War
I am coming to the conclusion that the world can be split into two: Not “Them” and “Us,” but “Then” and “Now.” The generation gap is becoming a chasm – not wider, but deeper. But perhaps it’s my personal prejudices coming through: Nothing to do with race or gender, it’s the computer and consumer age that’s getting me down.
The trigger came as I heard an increasing number of commercials building up to November 11. This now lasts longer than just a day, and has been rebranded as “Singles Day,” a time for frenetic online discount shopping.
As I have noted in the past, few juxtapositions are as jarring as Israel’s Remembrance Day immediately preceding Independence Day, back to back, in the spring. But the November 11 date is a clash of giants.
Growing up in Britain, I knew November 11 as “Poppy Day,” the day marking the end of what was meant to be the “War to end all wars” – The Great War. We all know how that worked out – especially as November 9 this year marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
So, the hostilities from 1914 to 1918 became known as The First World War. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the armistice went into force. It is a time and date for the world to remember its dead, and the meaning of the conflagration. Or it should be.
This year being the centenary of the end of the First World War, there are special commemorative events being held to mark the day. So many millions were killed during the period of the First World War (an increasingly mechanized affair) that it is hard to find a reliable definitive number. Just to give an example of the scope of the slaughter, consider this figure (from “The heaviest loss of life for a single day occurred on July 1, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, when the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties.”
Nonetheless, for many 11/11 is more about remembering to part with money in a typical merging of the digital age with the consumption obsession.
The Chinese online retail giant Alibaba originally adopted the distinctive date in 2008 as a form of counter-celebration to the twosome-ness of Valentine’s Day. In other words, it is an artificial festival, a product of the modern era, whose sole purpose is to encourage people to shop online until their fingers are sore from hitting the word “Buy.” It works. Revenue from global consumers last year reached some $25.3 billion in a 24-hour period. This year, the 10th anniversary, is predicted to be even bigger.
One of the biggest anomalies of our time is that China is still Communist enough to restrict Internet access for its own population while being capitalist enough to encourage worldwide spending sprees. Personally, I find it more than a little sinister. And – call me old-fashioned or just old – I still prefer buying something I can touch from a person I can see rather than sending my credit-card details into cyberspace, knowing that my purchasing habits are being collected and processed along with my order.
GROWING UP, I used to stand for a minute’s silence at a ceremony to remember the victims of the wars and the British and Commonwealth soldiers lost in the fighting. The commemoration was touching, but not nearly as personal as the minutes of silence I have observed in nearly 40 years in Israel. Here, the whole country comes to a halt – public transport, cars on major highways, supermarket shoppers – frozen on the spot in an act of respect, and perhaps fear. For so many of us, when we stand in silent tribute we are recalling the names, faces and memories of friends, comrades-in-arms, colleagues and neighbors. And every year, the list gets longer. Antisemitism, as we saw last month in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, is still alive and kicking. And the world is gradually coming to learn from firsthand experience that global jihad is indeed global. Perhaps, the increased consumerism is some kind of strange international shopping therapy.
But Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Poppy Day – whatever you call it – should not be a day for parties, picnics and shopping.
Poppies became a symbol of the First World War because of the image of the resilient bright red flower growing among the crosses on the battlegrounds. It appears in the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian physician Lt.-Col. John McCrae. I can’t help but wonder whether such powerful images will be able to survive in the social media age.
My family not that long ago discovered the fate of a forever-young 19-year-old soldier relative, Solomon (Solly) Cornblatt, who died in the First World War near Arras, in France.
His posthumous nephew namesake, a sailor in the Royal Navy, died in World War II when his boat was sunk. The First World War is considered the last time large numbers of Jewish soldiers fought in armies on opposite sides. The patriotism of those who fought with the German and Austro-Hungarian militaries was not enough to save them from the Nazi war machine a few decades on.
The First World War led to the collapse of empires and was a turning point in history. The Sykes-Picot Agreement that in 1916 carved up the Middle East between British and French created havoc that can still be felt in the turmoil in the region today. But those who believe that Israel was founded because of the Holocaust and see the Jews as colonialists planted by European powers are either ignorant or choose to ignore the fate of the pre-state Yishuv. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 is not the source of the tragedy of the Palestinians. Their misfortune lies in lacking a leadership willing to create a similar flourishing state alongside Israel instead of consistently choosing to wage war against the Jews.
Under the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the Turks forcibly expelled many Jews. Future prime minister David Ben-Gurion was deported and like many “Jewish Palestinians” served in the British army with the Royal Fusiliers. They include Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor, who shortly after the First World War fell while defending Tel Hai in Galilee.
According to legend, Trumpeldor’s last words were “Tov lamut be’ad artzenu,” which more sincerely echo the sentiment Wilfred Owen expressed ironically in the last line of his haunting poem “Dulce et Decorum est [pro patria mori].”
But all soldiers – and their families – know that sweeter by far than dying for your country is living and helping it survive and thrive.
One of the most poignant stories in Israel this week was the news that 56 years after his plane went down over Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), and following years of intensive searching, the remains of Israel Air Force pilot Lt. Yakir Naveh were discovered. Naveh was a newlywed 23-year-old when he was lost.
According to the IDF’s Missing Persons Division, there are still 177 fallen soldiers whose bodies have not been found; soldiers whose families have no comfort and closure. Among them are Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, whose bodies are being held by Hamas in Gaza; IAF navigator Ron Arad, missing since his plane went down over Lebanon in 1986, and the “Sultan Yakoub Three” – Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz – whose fate remains unknown since the battle in June 1982.
For the sakes of all those soldiers who paid the ultimate price, don’t spend the day in “shop until you drop” mode. Stop and think. And remember. Particularly on the 11th of November. Especially at the eleventh hour.
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