I used to think it was weird that Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day are back-to-back. As the sun sets on Memorial Day, we go from eulogizing to dancing – in the same ceremony. The shift feels jarring.
This year, however, I finally understood what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu referred to as “the unbreakable bond between Memorial Day and Independence Day.”
My husband and I visited Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery and its main military cemetery, on the morning of Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day). The day before, it had been filled with somber families and politicians. The morning after, it was quiet. Bouquets and wreaths, memorial candles, and black-beribboned Israeli flags adorned every one of the too-many graves.
The flowers were just starting to wilt. The plastic bags in which they had come – imprinted with the words “Yehi Zichram Baruch,” “May their memory be a blessing” -overflowed the trash bins. Exactly how many stems, I wondered, did the government purchase and distribute at its 44 military cemeteries to lay at the graves of 22,993 men and women killed in the line of defense? How much wax, how much blue-and-white cloth and black ribbon were needed to supply all the candles and flags?
Walking among the rows of tombstones, through the underground memorial to the 69 Dakar submarine sailors lost in 1968, and around the blue pool dedicated to the 140 sailors killed on the SS Erinpura in 1943, we saw that many were under 25 years old when they fell, and many were immigrants, like us.
We left Mt. Herzl and got on Jerusalem’s light rail, where the mood changed abruptly. Instead of handing out fines, the conductors handed out lollipops and wished everyone a happy holiday. We then met up with our son, daughter-in-law and two little grandchildren for a traditional cookout amid throngs of Israeli families fanning the flames of their grills.
That is when we understood the connection on a personal level. If not for all the brave men and women who sacrificed their future, we would not have a present to celebrate. They are the reason we were free to scamper around a Jerusalem park with our grandson and granddaughter on Yom Haatzmaut, wiping their sticky faces from the residue of s’mores and listening with delight to their “Hebrish” toddler talk.
If Independence Day were separate from Memorial Day as it is in the United States, the message might not be as obvious. I get that now.