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Memorial day: founding and creation

Dan Hadani, National library

The roots of Israel’s Memorial Day lie in the heart of the 19th century, 80 years before the establishment of the state: In May 1868, John Logan, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, urged to make a formal and ceremonial day to commemorate the deaths of the American Civil War (over half a million on both sides), which had ended a few years earlier, in which Logan had served as a general. Communities and cities across the United States marked the new Memorial Day by visiting at the fallen graves, and the day entered the calendar; it was the first time a country had set a national memorial day.

5 years later, on the other side of the world, in mid-Hanukkah, 1873, an Arab gang from the Silwan neighbourhood raided the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the walls of Jerusalem. The raiders searched for property to plunder, but were whipped by 23-year-old Aaron Herschler (the head of the Hungarian immigrants), who went in pursuit after them, but was shot and killed. The raiders did not know the Palestinian national movement, and apparently did not see themselves as combatants or terrorists; and Herschler, for his part, did not know the Zionist movement and did not dream of the State of Israel. But with the death of Herschler, the number of fallen soldiers, who would later accumulate tens of thousands of names – pioneers, fighters in the British army, immigrants, underground fighters, civilians and IDF soldiers.

After World War I and the huge number of deaths, the Memorial Day concept was revived in the West, and France, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand created days of remembrance. The Zionist movement in the Land of Israel marked the first Memorial Day in 1940, with the end of the Arab revolt, in which over 400 Jews were killed. The day that was set was, unbelievably, the fourth of Eyar; but Memorial Day was not fixed and was not mentioned again in the years that followed.

During the War of Independence, more than 6 thousand fighters and civilians were killed – about one percent of the Jewish population. In the following year, many memorial ceremonies were held and scattered throughout the country. In 1950, in light of a request from bereaved families to hold one central ceremonial day, the fourth od Eyar was designated a day of remembrance – a day with a special historical connection, because it was also ‘Etzion Day’, when Gush Etzion fell in the war, in a campaign in which some 250 Jews were killed. In 1951 it was decided to leave Memorial Day on this date, and to bind it with Independence Day starting in the following day (so if Independence Day is postponed, Memorial Day is accordingly moved). In 1963, Memorial Day received a legal validity, and in 2018 a final anchor under the Basic Law: Nationality.

Over time, Memorial Day developed state traditions and ceremonies, memorial candles and prayers of remembrance, and of course – a siren. Until the 80s, there were 3 sirens during the day – one at 7 a.m. (!), one at 10 a.m. (the central siren), and one at night (to mark the transition to Independence Day). Over time, the third siren was canceled, the first siren was delayed by an hour, and the first siren was moved to the evening before.

A quick comparison between Israel and the world shows that only in Israel does the State Memorial Day remain a true day of mourning. In the United States, for example, Memorial Day has become one of the national shopping days; other Western countries maintain rituals, but for most of the population it is just a day off. What makes the Israeli day special?

There seem to be 2 main reasons for this:

First, the Israeli experience – the ongoing conflict, the lengthening of the list of fallen, the deep mutual responsibility and the historical consciousness raise the importance and dignity that most citizens of the country ascribe to the need to give a proper memorial to the fallen.

Second, the combination with Independence Day – the sharp transition between Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations, a complex transition that requires deep thought, has become one of the customs of Independence Day, which can no longer be given up.

In conclusion: There is no other country in the world that so deeply respects It’s fallen, where the act of remembrance is so deeply embedded in the general public. Israel remembers, and does not forget: Zachariah Baumel, for example, was laid to rest 37 years after his fall in 1982. May we have, over time, a harder time commemorating Memorial Day; not because of a split or conflict or a decline in the status of today, but because of a decrease in the number of new people we will need to remember, and their inevitable departure into history.

To respond – rxpuyhi@gmail.com

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