Annual Memorial Day School Assembly Reflects the Changes in Israeli Society

The hidden drama of the Memorial Day ceremonies is the clash between old and new values in a society that no longer considers personal sacrifice a supreme value.

Illustration by Yael Bogen
Illustration by Yael Bogen

"Lekhol ish yesh shem" ("every person has a name" ), sings the 10-year-old, with great pathos, in his bedroom. "Lekhol ish yesh shem ... shenatan lo heharig" (instead of he'arig ). "Ha'ish mihagiv'ah" (instead of mihabik'ah ), he continues hoarsely in the bathtub. He plays Yehuda Poliker's "Keshetigdal" over and over on YouTube.

The boy is not having a sudden attack of love for Israeli music. Rather, the entire fifth grade of his Jerusalem school consumed with preparations for this week's Memorial Day ceremony. The endless hours he and his classmates spend in the parched schoolyard, rehearsing the mournful songs and the texts about heroism that they have memorized have their effect. And so, well in advance the home is flooded with the gloomy soundtrack, the essence of Israeliness that involuntarily activates the emotions.

In schoolyards across the country this week children in white shirts will praise Israel's rugged, handsome heroes, just as their parents did before them. "The model that has emerged here is a relatively fixed ceremony that stresses the grief and mourning, not the victory in battle as in other countries," says Prof. Avner Ben-Amos of Tel Aviv University, who specializes in the history of education and has studied memorial ceremonies in schools. "The structure of the Memorial Day ceremonies is similar: It includes a reading of the Yizkor [memorial prayer], the siren and the flag that is lowered to half-staff."

An Education Ministry directive issued in the 1950s still dictates the character of the ceremonies, including the wearing of blue and white, the military-style stance and the recitation of texts. The master of ceremonies commands the audience to stand at attention and at ease, in turn, and the ceremony concludes with the singing of "Hatikva," the national anthem. "This uniformity plays a role in instilling the Israeli and Zionist ethos from a young age," Ben-Amos says.

There have been changes to the ceremonies over the years, but Ben-Amos believes they are merely cosmetic. Once the recitations were of "classic poems such as Natan Alterman's 'The Silver Platter' and Haim Gouri's 'Here Lie our Bodies,'" Ben-Amos says, adding, "Now the tendency is to choose more contemporary, less bombastic texts; Yehuda Amichai poems such as 'And Who Will Remember the Rememberers' or Yair Lapid's 'Hahahmatza.'"

Group singing is taking an increasingly larger place, and the repertoire has been broadened and changed: "Less army entertainment troupes, more Aviv Gefen - 'Livkot lekha, haver' - and songs that children and teens can identify with more, such as 'Yaldei horef '73'," Ben-Amos says.

Another change is an increased emphasis on personal loss rather than the national aspects of deaths in combat. "Once we heard the official voice of the teacher or principal, now a bereaved parent is invited to speak," continues Ben-Amos. "But the overall message hasn't changed. We justify the loss to the same degree. The fallen always die for the homeland, and in their death they command us to live. The backstory has not changed."

And it is in the backstory where the problem with the memorial ceremonies lies. "Memorial Day is basically a day when historical events are talked about," Ben-Amos says. "The ceremonies mourn the soldiers who fell in Israel's battles, but they are structured so that the historical context and the circumstances of the deaths are forgotten."

Ben-Amos seeks to make a distinction between the significance of Memorial Day ceremonies for the families of service members who have died and their meaning in Israeli society.

"The ceremony enables Israeli society to ignore the circumstances of the death," he says. "Since 1967, Israel's wars have basically been meant to protect territories we captured. That is, these are wars that actually have no justification, including the 1973 Yom-Kippur War, which today we know could have been prevented. You could say these deaths were superfluous, but in the ceremonies the soldiers are depicted as passive victims. They are not even presented as fighters. There is no mention of specific battles, and there is no distinction between wars. 1948 is presented the same way as 1967 or 1973. But each war had its own circumstances."

Overlooking the circumstances of death and the wars leads to "the flattening of our history," Ben-Amos says. "Because of the flattening and the forgetting these ceremonies containing a comforting element. We view the soldiers as our national children. But they are soldiers."


Middle Eastern music is not part of this national soundtrack. "The format of the ceremonies was after all determined by the Ashkenazi elite in the 1950s," says Ben-Amos, although he says that certain Mizrahi songs could be appropriate, such as 'Pri ganekh' [by Yoni Roeh, about a friend of his who died in battle] - T.M. ). But in the end, there is no meaningful change in the backstory or message of the texts," he admits.

Ben-Amos is particularly critical of the concealed meaning of the school Memorial Day ceremonies, which he says are in effect aimed at preparing the students for their own enlistment.

"Some of their classes, such as Bible and history, also prepare them for military service, Ben-Amos says, "not to mention the army prep programs and visits to Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs, or the school trips to Poland. The conclusion reached by students after returning from [a visit to] Auschwitz is that we need a strong army so that it won't happen again." In the face of death, he adds, "we stand as equals. And the fact that the specific details of the death are forgotten blurs things, a kind of anesthesia."

Production values

Communications and film scholar Dan Arav says there is an inherent conflict in the structure of these ceremonies, notwithstanding their relatively rigid structure. "The education system, which was always responsible for shaping memory and national consciousness, "is now in crisis" in the effort to keep up with social and technological change.

"Memorial Day ceremonies are supposed to express the value of heroism and basically to build a collective identity and to recall the individual's sacrifice for the sake of the collective. But this is very problematic given the rise of individualism and the emergence of consumer society," Arav says. "It doesn't really catch on. Policy makers realize it is impossible to sell sacrifice, that lofty and heroic values are no longer part of the consensus." He sees a major shift in the ceremonies over the past several years. According to Arav, the focus on the texts have yielded to an emphasis on the event itself and on the performances, in particular the singing.

"The ceremonies are being turned into a kind of 'Kochav Nolad' [the Israeli version of the "American Idol" song competition] for young singers," Arav says, adding "There are many more solo singers, and the songs place much less emphasis on personal sacrifice. Songs such as 'Dudu' are not heard these days because the music is outdated and full of pathos, and also because it is associated with a certain soldier who died and the style of performance is very archaic. But a song like 'Yoram' is heard, because it is more accessible and associated with contemporary performances."

The hidden drama of the Memorial Day ceremonies is the clash between old and new values in a society that no longer considers personal sacrifice a supreme value, a more hedonistic, capitalist society that emphasizes individualism, achievement and personal gain. Arav, unlike Ben-Amos, believes the national context plays a minor role in these ceremonies. "More important is the communal context, the feeling of togetherness, singing sad songs together. This communal feeling is the important thing. This is what television can do, to turn people into a community. For that reason the ceremony functions like a media event, offering a festive break and gathering together, a moment of performance that speaks in a language we all know," Arav says.

Creating good soldiers

Popular songs were a key agent in building Zionism throughout the 20th century, says culture scholar Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, and they continue to do so today. Generation upon generation," she says, was raised on songs in the spirit of the values of the Israel Defense Forces, with lip service to peace songs."

"The songs performed by the army entertainment troupes are among the most beautiful around," Gavriely-Nuri says, adding, "but their militarism suited the era of the Six-Day War." She suggests that a reassessment is in order, noting, "Even if the music is updated the songs still preserve a military value system and present the IDF as our biggest cultural given." She says that while a few, mainly private schools, hold alternative Memorial Day ceremonies most Israeli schools are careful to educate their students to be good soldiers.