On Memorial Day, Israel Has What U.S. Lacks

This Memorial Day, we may share a deep respect for our soldiers, but Americans do not honor ours with the sense of collective responsibility that Israelis do for theirs

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A soldier walks on a path through the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund flag garden on Boston Common in Boston, ahead of Memorial Day, May 21 2015.
A soldier walks on a path through the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund flag garden on Boston Common in Boston, ahead of Memorial Day, May 21 2015.Credit: AP

This article was originally published on May 22, 2015.

Last July, the traffic on Route 1 into Jerusalem before Shabbat was heavier than usual. The road, however, was not clogged with cars, but rather convoys of Humvees, tanks and scores of young men in uniform. Our tour bus stopped at a rest area for a bathroom break and I could not resist asking one of the soldiers at the stop if I could take his picture. Almost immediately, half a dozen friends joined him, intent on being photographed as well. I was struck by their carefree behavior, typical of young men on a road trip. They reminded me so much of my own son, who is the same age. But these boys were not on a road trip; they were headed into a battle. I thanked them for the photo and gave each one a hug. “This is from another Jewish mom: please stay safe,” I implored.

A soldier prays beside a grave at the national cemetery on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, on Memorial Day, April 22, 2015. Credit: Jill Max

Last month, during another visit to Israel, I had the privilege of experiencing Israel's Memorial Day at Mount Herzl. Our group entered the national cemetery early in the morning, before it was closed to outside visitors.  We made our way through the cemetery, ultimately arriving at the section where the casualties of the most recent conflict are laid to rest. One could barely move, as every inch of ground was packed with uniformed soldiers, huddled together in group embraces, sobbing and swaying. Mothers sat on plastic stools adjacent to their sons’ graves as mourners paid their respects. Pictures of smiling young men atop marble slabs told the stories of lives cut short. Cigarette smoke filled the air; tears blurred my vision. And all I could think about were the young men I encountered last summer. Had they all returned unharmed? I was haunted by the fear that they had not.

I am ashamed to admit that in my own country, I have never really marked Memorial Day in any kind of meaningful way. I have no personal connections to military service or loss, and our culture does not support the ideals of collective mourning on that day. We are much more comfortable with retail sales and celebrating the unofficial commencement of summer at the pool or a barbeque.

I live in Baltimore, Maryland, only an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. Every year, when Memorial Day approaches, I remember that I would like to visit Arlington National Cemetery, the sacred ground where many of our country’s war dead are buried. I’ve had the unexpected experience (by pure chance while at the airport) of greeting a flight of WWII heroes as they arrived for a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the memorial in Washington that was erected in their honor. And when U.S. military personnel are on my flight, I always feel both humbled and indebted to them.

In our country, military service largely divides us by class and privilege. I know only one person whose son serves in our military, and this is not uncommon. Since the tragic events of 9/11, so many young men have given their lives, or returned home with catastrophic injuries to defend my country, and I have never found a way to honor that sacrifice, even on the one day each year when that might be a real possibility. As I write this, I understand how profoundly different my life would be if my own son had been obligated to serve in the military, rather than remaining safe within the confines of an elite college campus.

Collective responsibility is a fundamental principle of Israeli society. Culturally, it is almost entirely different in the United States. Here, people are much more interested in protecting their own - their families, their religious groups, their political interests - that they rarely come together around any one ideal that relates to or unites the society as a whole. Although we have set aside a day to remember and honor those men and women who sacrificed their lives to defend this country that we all profess to love, most of us squander that opportunity.

In Israel, the idea that we are all responsible for each other permeates every aspect of life. It is particularly evident on Memorial Day, because everyone has experienced a personal loss, the country shuts down and people use the day to grieve and reflect. Yet the concept of collective responsibility extends beyond that day, being exhibited in large and small ways throughout the year.

Sitting by the pool at my hotel later that week in Tel Aviv, I smiled as an older woman took it upon herself to discipline a child who was clearly not her own.

Jill Max is the Director of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute of Towson University. She has a 23-year history of professional and volunteer leadership in the Baltimore Jewish community. She can be reached at jmax@towson.edu.

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