Holidays are a unique way of understanding the national psyche of a country. If you want to understand what a country values, look at their holidays. See what events they chose to celebrate and how they celebrate.
As someone who has had the privilege to live in many different places around the world, I’ve been able to witness or participate in many diverse holidays.
From the blaring patriotism and celebration of freedom that the American Fourth of July represents to the mind boggling dichotomy of Thanksgiving, a time of food family and gratitude contrasted to the materialistic rush of Black Friday the next day, one can understand aspects of the American culture.
However, for some countries, Independence Day is a unfamiliar concept. Germany for example instead celebrates The Day of German Unification, remembering when the Berlin Wall fell and the country was reunited.
For others such as, Belarus, Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries, victory over the Nazis is a significant celebration and a reminder of the staggering loss of life in a war to drive a foreign invasion from their soil.
But one of the most meaningful examples of holidays which represent a key aspect of a national psyche I have ever observed are the Israeli holidays that took place this week; Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day. It is not a coincidence that these days fall one after another.
First comes Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), a very solemn day set aside to remember those who have given their lives in defense of Israel or lost their lives at the hands of a terrorist.
Normally, ceremonies take place at military cemeteries across the country and schools remember their alumni who had lost their lives. However, Coronavirus has impacted the observation of both of these days this year.
In such a small country that is no stranger to conflict, practically everyone has some connection to a loss. Whether a neighbor, friend, comrade, classmate, coworker or family member.
Unlike in America, where our wars are half a world away, in Israel, reminders of war and conflict surround daily life. One can pass battlefields on your daily commute to work, see building still scarred with bullet holds, and of course the ever present young IDF soldier, going about their daily business with an M-16 strapped on their shoulder providing constant protection against the ever present danger of terror attacks.
On Memorial Day a siren will sound twice and the nation comes to a halt to remember those who have died to preserve and protect the Jewish homeland. All typical entertainment stops and the TV channels only broadcast special memorial events telling the names and stories of those who have lost their lives over the decades.
Even Israelis traveling around the world will sometimes synchronize their watch or phone to the time that the sirens will go off so that they can stop to remember, even though they are half a world away. I have stood with my Israeli friends in silence, late at night outside a cafe in the foothills of the Himalayas, a brief and simple action, but one so filled with meaning.
Unlike in America, you will not find anyone observing Memorial Day with Barbecues or picnics. The very suggestion that anyone would do such as thing as “celebrate” Memorial Day is beyond most Israelis ability to comprehend.
However, at sunset, the meaningful transition between mourning and celebrating begins. At sunset, the flag is raised from half mast to the top of the flag poll as Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day) begins.
For many Israelis it is a difficult emotional transition, from mourning too celebrating. However, it demonstrates the reality that Israel faces. Independence, freedom, the very existence of the Jewish state is not cheap.
In the USA we often use the phrase “freedom is not free”. Israel takes that concept to another level. The very existence of the Jewish people in their historical homeland is not easy. It has a cost that increases every year.
Last year the IDF reported the lowest number of soldiers killed in action ever in the country’s existence. The number of KIA was 27.
By comparison, in the USA, a country with a population hundreds of times later than Israel and one with a global military presence, 22 soldiers were killed in Afghanistan (the highest number in five years), plus eight in Iraq and four in Syria, for a total of 32 soldiers killed in action during the same time. It is no wonder that most Israelis feel the loss much more than the average American.
This year we celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the miraculous, God ordained rebirth of the Nation of Israel. And we remember the brave young men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces who have protected and preserved that dream of a homeland where the Jewish people can live in peace.