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To stand, or not to stand? The politics of Israeli memorial days

Some Israelis prefer to choose by themselves how and when to remember the fallen soldiers, and not be forced to stand in silence when Memorial Day sirens are sounding.

Almost all Israelis do it automatically, without thinking about it. As soon as the siren sounds on Holocaust Memorial Day and on Memorial Day for the Fallen in Israel’s Wars, Israelis get up and stand still. If driving, they pull to the side of the road, get out of their cars or off of their motorbikes and stand beside them.

Israeli tradition dictates that ceremonies on both these days begin with a one- to two-minute siren across the state. This ritual of standing in silence while a siren blares is one of the few things that the overwhelming majority of Israelis agree on observing, at least in public spaces. Those who do not stand are a very small minority. “We’re talking about a ritual that is the ultimate Israeli Zionist ceremony,” said Jackie Feldman, a lecturer in anthropology at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev who studies secular ceremonies.

What do Israelis do on these occasions if they are alone? Many stand even when they are at home and no one can see them. Although loath to say it, doing so seems a little silly. There is no evidence that one participated (or declined to take part) in a collective ceremony whose whole essence is to “stand together.”

In 2013 in Haaretz, Alon Idan wrote that people who stand for the siren when they are home alone do so “because they are afraid. … They are the kind of people who combine individual and nationalist elements within themselves. … The person and the state are a single body, with blurred boundaries distinguishing them.” In contrast, Hanoch Daum wrote in February in Yedioth Ahronoth, “Being part of a nation that stands for the siren, that stands when everyone else is standing, and that remembers the soldiers and other casualties that we all remember together … evokes a deep emotion within me … even when no one sees me.”

The art critic Galia Yahav stands for Holocaust Memorial Day when she is alone. “I try to devote time and concentration and thought and intention to it,” she told Al-Monitor. “The siren allows for a humanistic, universalistic moment, during which I can feel like a Jew without any connection to religion or the state, but as an issue of joint historical trauma and respect for the persecuted no matter where they are.”

Yahav, however, does not like standing in the public space. “It has an element of collaboration with nationalist brainwashing and other ideological usurpations and disgusting attempts to appropriate memory,” she explained. “When I am outside, I feel like I am part of a herd.”

She refuses to stand anywhere for the morning and evening sirens marking the Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers. “That is something entirely different,” Yahav remarked. “In a nationalist state that fails to celebrate peace agreements but that celebrates wars, most of them unnecessary wars, instead, and which gauges ‘Israeli identity,’ ‘loyalty’ and ‘Zionism’ using militaristic and racist parameters, I have no interest in participating in ceremonies surrounding personal loss and militarism.”

This year as Holocaust Memorial Day approached — it was commemorated on May 5 — I asked on my Facebook page whether people stand for the siren when they are alone. The discussion that it elicited was passionate and emotional. Not standing during the siren is an Israeli taboo, yet many people had no reservations about “coming out,” admitting that they do not stand when they don't have to take public pressure into consideration.

Yuval Ben-Ami, an author and tour guide, confessed that he stands when he is among other people, but that he chooses not to when he is alone. He explained, “I won’t stand until they turn Holocaust Memorial Day into a Day of Human Rights and the War against Fascism and Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers becomes the Day of Striving for Peace and an End to the Conflict.”

Michael Gluzman, a professor at Tel Aviv University, responded on Facebook to say that he is not in the habit of standing when alone. “The nationalization of personal loss and mourning drives me crazy,” Gluzman wrote. He added, however, “Nothing I said above stems from any failure to identify with the survivors of the Holocaust.”

Another respondent, Tal Eitan, wrote, “My grandmother and grandfather, both Holocaust survivors, whose entire families were murdered, avoided the despicable custom of standing up for the siren. My grandmother once said something to me that I will never forget: ‘Remembering the Holocaust with an air raid siren is dreck [shitty].’”

Ziv Kitlaro went even further, believing it to be a “cynical ritual … to maintain a sense of perpetual victimhood, a terrible existential angst. … [I] feel like I am standing up in honor of Hitler and his victory over the Jewish people.” Like several other respondents, Kitlaro thinks that standing for the siren is just paying lip service as long as the state continues to neglect Holocaust survivors, and uses the Holocaust so cynically.

Such comments support Feldman’s assessment about the thinking of people who refuse to stand when they are alone. He observed, “[They feel] the state is heading toward conformism and militarism. They want to dig themselves into their own private spaces, in the sense that they are saying, ‘Let me do what I want in my own home, without having to stand at attention like everybody else and salute the flag. After all, I have such a hard time identifying with it because of the occupation and because of the nationalist and religious trends in the country. Give me the space I need not to salute and at the same time not to hurt anybody else’s feelings.’”

Feldman further stated, “National rituals create social solidarity, mark us as a group and define the boundaries that distinguish us from other groups. Society measures solidarity by the fact that even if people don’t see one another, there is still a need to repeat the same ritual that is being performed by the public.”

Sharp responses were quick in coming about those who decline to stand when alone. “I am ashamed by the number of people who answered ‘No,’” said Eyal Naaman Tal, chairman of the Tel Aviv branch of Meretz. “We stand in honor of the victims. It doesn’t matter who sees us or who doesn’t see us. We stand at home and in public, regardless of the weather. We stand in order to remember and not to forget what brought us here [to Israel].”

According to one respondent, Ohad Ouziel, “Ceremonies are important, and this is an important ceremony, for me and for the sake of memory. … Taking two minutes out of your life as a reminder, as artificial as it might be, seems like the right thing to do.”

Yaara Shehori, an author and editor, wrote, “This is my way to remember, with my body and my silence. These are the rituals that I choose to observe even within my own private space.” The artist Aline Alagem explained, “It is a rare thing for me to find a ceremonial symbol that I respect, that I think has beauty. Yes, having everyone stop doing what they’re doing all together for two minutes is powerful.”

In the end, I stood, all alone, in my home.

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