Will Memorial Day always be observed in the United States and Israel?

Just ask the ancient Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva.

Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: Pixabay.
Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: Pixabay.
Lenny Ben-David

The United States will commemorate Memorial Day on May 30. The holiday was established in 1868 to mourn members of the armed forces who died in defense of the nation. Flags are lowered for half a day. Memorial services are held at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac from Washington D.C. and cemeteries across the country. My wife remembers her father, a World War II veteran. She raises the Stars and Stripes and the family attends a stirring parade on Staten Island. I remember that my family rented a boat for the day to sail on the Chesapeake Bay or attended an Orioles or Senators baseball game. Fourteen teams are set to play in the National and American Leagues this year. The start of summer unofficially begins on the Memorial Day holiday. It is no longer a “holy day.”

There are fewer and fewer World War II and Korean War veterans alive today, and their memory is fading. It is sad—and alarming—that there are fewer and fewer Americans who view the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan experiences with patriotic pride, which has left many of those wars’ gallant veterans—to quote the poet—unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung. The impression is that Memorial Day is commemorated more in the “America between the coasts.”

In Israel, more than one Memorial Day

Memory is integral to Judaism. The weekly Sabbath wine blessing, the Kiddush, states that the day is in memory of the Creation and the Exodus from Egypt. Jewish holiday services include the “Yizkor” prayer for family members who want to remember their loved ones. The leader usually adds a prayer for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The most prominent memorial period is the month-long “counting of the Omer” between the Passover and Shavuot holidays. More on that later.

An Israeli Yom Hashoah stamp. Credit: Israel Philatelic Agency, 1962.

Israel commemorates two national memorial days—approximately one week apart—that are not religious holidays. The first is Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Memorial Day) the 27th of Nissan, April 28 this year) when schools have special assemblies, communities hold programs and a one-minute siren freezes Israelis wherever they are across the country. Television and radio are dedicated to documentaries about and biographies of the victims and survivors. Some 165,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel, and many of them are brought to schools to discuss their lives with students. Their numbers just grew by 500 with the arrival of Jewish survivors from Ukraine, who are part of the 24,000 Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Israel. The average age of survivors in Israel is 85.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, nightlife, sports matches and restaurants are shut down. Flags fly at half-mast and cable TV channels are off the air except for programs on the Holocaust. Members of Knesset read the names of Holocaust victims from the podium all day long.

Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers

The second national memorial commemoration—Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror—is the day before Independence Day, the fourth day of Iyar (May 4, this year). It is comparable to the U.S. Memorial Days of the past, with special programs, solemn music on the radio, newspaper accounts of heroes, half-mast flags, visits to military cemeteries and newspaper accounts of valiant battles. In addition, an Israeli TV channel broadcasts a picture of each fallen soldier and the date of their death throughout the day. Ceremonies are also held for Muslim, Druze and Bedouin soldiers who fell in defense of Israel.

An Israeli Memorial Day stamp. Credit: Israel Philatelic Agency.

Another mourning period for the victims

The Holocaust and military memorial days fall during the period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, the 49 days called the “Counting of the Omer,” when farmers used to bring their early barley crops to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Jews practiced the commandment to count the Omer every day.

Around 1,900 years ago, the period took on a calamitous connotation. The Talmud states that a plague killed 24,000 Jewish scholars—disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. The scholars were said to have been punished for their lack of respect for their colleagues. However, since Rabbi Akiva emphasized the concept “love your neighbor as yourself,” it seems unlikely that they did not respect each other. It is more likely that the students died during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-136) against the Romans when they took up arms in allegiance to Rabbi Akiva, a spiritual leader of the rebellion. Akiva identified the revolt’s leader, Shimon Bar Kochba, as the Jewish messiah, and some engravings on Bar Kochba’s coinage reflect Rabbi Akiva’s halachic opinions. The Passover seder service mentions that Rabbi Akiva once conducted his seder with other rabbis until students came and told—or warned—the men that morning had dawned. Were the rabbis conspiring against the Roman occupiers?

Rabbi Akiva as depicted in the 1568 Mantua Haggadah. Credit: Wikimedia.

The Romans rounded up Jewish leaders and rabbis, including Rabbi Akiva, who they tortured and executed. The “plague” lasted until “Lag B’Omer,” the 33rd day of the count.

The Omer mourning period was also applied by medieval rabbis to the massacres of Jewish communities in France, England and the Rhineland, as Crusader hordes made their pilgrimages to liberate Palestine from non-Christians.

A memorial prayer for the victims of the Crusade’s pogroms is incorporated into the Ashkenazi Sabbath liturgy.

Massacre of Jews in Metz in 1096 during the First Crusade, by Auguste Migette, 1802-1884. Credit: Wikimedia.

Memorial and remembrance today

I am not a believer in numerology, but it is said that Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students, while his teachings kept the flame of Judaism burning for centuries. More recently, the State of Israel has lost approximately 24,000 soldiers who died to establish and defend Israel. Their memories inspire Israelis and Jews around the world.  Moreover, as mentioned above, around 24,000 Ukrainians have landed in Israel since the Russian invasion began. Is there some special message in that? God only knows.

The source of this quote is uncertain, but it is axiomatic:

Israel has two Memorial Days:
Yom Hazikaron reminds us of the cost of having Israel.
Yom Hashoah reminds us of the cost of not.

These days in Israel, most catering halls sit empty, because weddings are postponed until after the 33rd day of the Omer. Some TV newsreaders, usually well-dressed and coifed, have scruffy Sfirat Ha’Omer mourning beards. Many in the Jewish State remember and commemorate the memory of men, women and children killed 1,900 years ago; 1,000 years ago; and 80 years ago.

Lenny Ben-David served for 25 years in senior posts in AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem. In 1997, he was appointed as Israel’s deputy chief of mission in the embassy in Washington, D.C., where he served until 2000 under three ambassadors and two prime ministers. He is the author of the book “American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs” and editor of “The Gaza War 2021: Hamas and Iran Attack Israel.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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