Commentary Magazine


What Memorial Day Feels Like in a Country at War

Many Americans, and especially American Jews who have grown up in the last few decades, tend to think of Israel as an extension of the United States in some ways. Which is to say they see it as a powerful country obsessed with security in spite of the fact that it is seemingly very secure. The idea that Israel might be locked in a deadly existential struggle is somehow so remote from America’s own experience—in spite of 9/11—that the Jewish state’s exertions and attempts at self-defense tend to be viewed as either absurd or disproportionate to the threats that face it.

The antidote to this conception of Israel’s status in the world is encapsulated in the way the country celebrates its Memorial Day, as it is doing today. Americans live in a place where the day set aside to commemorate those who gave their lives for their country is an excuse for a day off. Other than a few poorly attended official ceremonies and the war movies that are played on some cable channels, Memorial Day is just another three-day weekend for Americans, albeit the one that heralds the start of the summer. But in Israel it is a day that literally brings the country to a stop as a siren sounds and the population stands at attention to think of the thousands who perished that the Jewish state might live.

Though America has been at war for the last decade, the size of our standing army is such that most of us don’t know anyone serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, let alone someone who died there. By contrast, Israel is a small country that has been at war for every day of its existence and most people there serve in the military or perform national service after high school. Most men then do time in the reserves. It seems as if everyone there either has lost a relative or knows someone who has. The price that has been paid for Israel’s survival against the odds is measured in the long rows of soldiers’ graves to which families journey to this day. Perhaps after the Civil War, from which our Memorial Day derives, or during subsequent mass conflicts, Americans felt about the day the way Israelis do now but that understanding has clearly been lost.

Americans must thank God that this generation has not had to pay the same kind of price that was paid in the past. Israelis are not so lucky. With Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists mobilized at their borders, a hostile Iran trying to gain nuclear capability and a Muslim world still too driven by anti-Semitism to accept its legitimacy as a Jewish state, Israel is engaged in a struggle for survival that is far from over. Many in this country are cavalier to dismiss Israel’s security requirements as unnecessary. But those who wish to understand the difference between America’s concept of defense (still measured in terms of oceans and continents) and that of its tiny Israeli ally need only look at the way the two countries celebrate Memorial Day.