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Memorial Day came to me three times in rapid succession this year: twice in Israel and once in the U.S. Rather than feeling sad and reflective, I felt restive, frustrated and angry. I wanted to scream at the poetry, bicker with the statements honoring those who died to preserve our freedom, cry at the wasted lives of boys and girls barely out of childhood. The lyrics of a song by Phil Ochs popular during the Vietnam era echoed in my head:
It’s always the old who lead us to the war[s]
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me, is it worth it all?
Israel marks two memorial days a week apart. The first, Yom HaShoah, is for the victims of the attempted annihilation of European Jewry during World War II. It is followed a week later by Yom Hazikaron L’chayalim for the fallen soldiers and civilians in Israel. Unlike Memorial Day in the United States, a day marked mostly by store sales and BBQs, these commemorations are hard to ignore.
On both days in Israel, sirens sound throughout the country and activity stops for a moment of reflection. The sound is primal and terrifying and, even when anticipated, cannot be ignored. I am a dual citizen and frequent visitor, more so since my daughter made Israel her permanent residence in 2011. This was the first time I had been in the country for these observances in 16 years.
I was on a train between Haifa and Tel Aviv when the siren for Yom HaShoah was scheduled at 10 a.m. The train slowed to a halt at 9:58 and everyone stood as the sirens wailed—teens, tourists and commuters, including several women in hijab. “Out of respect,” one of them commented to me. I was moved by the humanity of the gesture.
A week later while exiting a bookstore in Haifa, the sirens began to mark the Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and civilians—23,471 to date. Buses and trucks pulled to the curb so their passengers could exit to commune together on the sidewalk. It’s a small country; you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has not been touched by war and violence.
The evening before, I had attended a commemoration in a neighborhood park. Through the speeches, songs, sirens and sobbing, I felt an agitation, but I did not see it expressed in others. I asked my friends—why aren’t you angry that we aren’t wise or compassionate enough to prevent this? Is our future one war after another? Is it beyond us to come to an accommodation with our neighbors and, to be fair, aren’t they wise or compassionate enough to come to an accommodation with us?
About a month ago, it was Memorial Day in the United States: a day to mark the service and sacrifice of the 1.3 million people who have died in all U.S. wars to date. It could have been any Sunday, except that it was a Monday. In an era of a professional army, there are communities that have no connection with modern warfare and the human tragedy that comes from it.
Here too there is no outrage. We seem resigned to a future where the only universal is death and war. We are unable or unwilling to “fight” for peace.
Phil Ochs died in 1976, a suicide at age 36, perhaps as a casualty of a world that would not heed his plea. The last verse of “I Ain’t a Marching Anymore” went like this:
Call it peace or call it treason
Call it love or call it reason
But I ain’t a-marching anymore
I ain’t a-marching anymore
Until we demand of our leaders that peace and conciliation is the weapon of choice, we will keep marching, we will keep dying and reciting poetry, singing songs and making speeches honoring our sacred dead. My call to action is to rage against death, my call to action is rage for life and old age and for finding another way.
Look at all we’ve won with our sabers and our guns, tanks, planes and bombs, and tell me if it’s worth it all.
Charles Rubin is a computer systems engineer employed by a major media company in New York City. He spends his summers in Lake Huntington, NY and the rest of the year in Hoboken, NJ.