Why Do Israelis Observe a Moment of Silence to the Sound of Sirens on Holocaust Remembrance Day?

Installed to warn of enemy bombers, the siren system is a convenient way to unite the people on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day too.

Alon Ron

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, and on Memorial Day, two-minute moments of silence are observed across Israel, accompanied from start to finish by air-raid sirens.

The tradition has its beginnings in Cape Town, South Africa, during World War I. The city’s mayor, Sir Harry Hands, initiated the Two Minute Pause on May 14, 1918. At noon on that day, a gun - which fired daily anyway, for the ships in the harbor to set their chronometers uniformly - gave the sign for the beginning of a moment of silence in memory of the fallen, and in thanksgiving for those who had returned safely from the war. Once the silence set in, a bugler played a mournful melody, after which the city sprang back to life. This tradition was maintained in Cape Town daily for some months, until January 17, 1919.

Meanwhile, the Great War, as it was called, ended on November 11, 1918, at 11 A.M. When Sir James Percy FitzPatrick, a South African businessman, author and politician, heard that that November 11 was going to be made into a day of remembrance across the British Empire, he suggested to King George V that a similar moment of silence be observed on the newly established Armistice Day. King George V accepted the idea and it was incorporated into memorial events throughout the British Empire.

Meanwhile, Palestine had fallen to British hands at the end of World War I. From the end of the war in 1918, until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Palestine was ruled by the British. They left their mark on the Jews of Palestine in many ways. One of these influences was the practice of observing a minute or two of silence to mark solemn events (though marking the moment with an air-raid siren was instituted after the Mandate rule ended).

During the Mandate, these minutes of silence were observed by the local Jews at the opening of meetings after notable persons had died, after catastrophes - and at the start of soccer matches (another innovation introduced by the British).

These days, soccer matches in Israel are not generally marked by a moment of solemnity at the start of the game, barring special occasions - for instance, following the death of a notable.

Palestine mobilizes for war

As World War II broke out and Palestine mobilized for war, the British installed air-raid sirens across the country, to warn of enemy bombers. The siren system would be expanded by the newborn State of Israel during the War of Independence, which officially erupted as the British Mandate ended on May 14, 1948, and the State of Israel was proclaimed independent in a ceremony in Tel Aviv. The War of Independence would only end on July 20, 1949.

In Israel's first years, formal moments of silence marked by sirens were sporadic. When the remains of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl were brought from Austria for burial in Israel on August 16, 1949, a siren was sounded in Rehovot the next day, as the motorcade stopped in that small city on its way to Jerusalem. In November of that year, a two-minute siren sounded in Jerusalem to signal a city-wide moment of silence as the dozens (estimates range from 75 to 250) of civilians and armed defenders massacred in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion at the hand of Arab forces the day before Israel was established were brought for burial in cemeteries in the city and elsewhere in Israel.

In 1950, the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, decided that the commemoration ceremonies for the dead of the War of Independence would take place as a part of the Independence Day celebrations. But this only happened once, on Independence Day of 1950. The contrast between the general jubilation of the public and the grief of those who had lost their loved ones was too much to bear for the bereaved families.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel began discussing an alternate date to mark as a day of remembrance. After nearly a year of deliberations, just days before Independence Day of 1951, the Rabbinate decided to set the official memorial day, Yom Hazikaron, the day before Independence Day.

In haste, the arrangements were made and the blueprints for Memorial Day were drawn up. These included a nationwide two-minute siren at 7 A.M., to mark the opening of ceremonies in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country, and a second two-minute siren at 6:45 P.M., during both of which Israelis stood in silence in memory of the fallen.

The decision to have a siren accompany the silence was probably a matter of expediency. Having been installed nationwide during World War II and the War of Independence, the sirens could signal all Israelis when to observe the silence together.

In 1959, the Knesset passed a law sanctioning a two-minute nationwide moment of silence accompanied by a siren on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day too.

Since then, Israelis stand in solemn reflection three times a year. Nowadays, the times are as follows: Once is on Holocaust Remembrance Day, for two minutes, starting at 10 A.M. On Memorial Day, the siren sounds twice, once for one minute the evening before (as the date is based on the Hebrew calendar, the day starts at sundown and ends the following sundown). The second time is for two minutes at 11 A.M.

Occasionally but rarely, a moment of silence accompanied by a siren takes place at other times. The last of these was at the opening of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral following his assassination in 1995.