Thursday, May 8, 2008

Musing on memorializing

Growing up and living mostly in Israel, I have long been aware of children's complex reactions to the state sirens used in Israel to commemorate both the victims of the Nazis and the soldiers and para-military personnel killed while serving terms of duty (on the day dedicated to each). Many children find it hard not to giggle, others openly and subversively enjoy giggling, grimacing to make others laugh or squirming, still others are terrified or angry and defiant. Usually, as they grow up, they learn to contain these responses and comply with the national 60 second freeze. I note this because I think that children's "borderline", pre-socialization conduct can serve as a forceful illustration of how this ritual functions.

I won't unpack the full complexity of what I believe the sirens are and do. This introduction to the following piece by Tamar Rotem is just a partial sketch in which I'd like to highlight the surveillance that I see as a central component of their function. Though moderately critical of the sirens' use, Rotem's opinion piece, from Haaretz, clearly illustrates of the power of this surveillance mechanism.

The sirens are sounded at arbitrary, pre-announced times on the eve or day of commemoration, while the majority of people in Israel are going about their usual affairs. They catch tens if not hundreds of thousands of people on the roads, in supermarkets, in clinics, etc. and in short in public space. Under these conditions, everyone is subject to the surveillance of everyone else around her or him. People are compelled to comply with the "appropriate etiquette" and freeze. This simple but ingenious mechanism enforces compliance with the act of physically paying tribute to the Israeli military dead or the Nazis' Jewish victims. Unless she happens to be at home (and sometimes even there) or totally on her own, anyone who fails to comply is visibly, publicly excluding herself from the collective, which delineates itself in terms of the dead to which it pays tribute. Most probably, given the practices prevalent in Israeli society, such an act of self exclusion would be immediately and loudly criticized and possibly punished by coincidental passers-by. Regardless of that, however, it is a very frightening step to take as a lone individual. The sirens operate like the proverbial panopticon, inducing self-surveillance due to the awareness that others' surveillance is an unpredictable yet constant possibility, with the difference that this one-minute imprisonment is achieved by means of sound throughout an entire country.

The mutual and self-surveillance, though, are not merely physical. The sirens are reinforced by messages transmitted through all the media channels, taught at schools, recited at memorial ceremonies held by townships, youth movements, cities, and a long list of state and social institutions. Beyond the appropriate posture, these teach the appropriate emotions and thoughts that every member of society should be experiencing "in memorian". Tamar Rotem, who objects below to the state's regimenting of commemoration, focusing particularly on Memorial Day and the commemoration of military dead, does not question the basic assumption that such commemoration is important and desirable.

To me, as I wrote many years ago, the commemoration of military dead is a vital blind obscuring and romanticizing the fact that the young people who have been conscripted for sixty years now into military service for the state are exploited as a form of currency used for the attainment of political and economic profits. As I wrote in a 1995 opinion piece published in the British Medical Journal, "Recruiting practices indicate that societies (not individual families) hold people of enlistment age to be the most dispensable. The loss of young men is less costly than that of more experienced workers or of people supporting and raising families. This is obviously inadmissible and the opposite view is standardly intoned by officials mourning dead soldiers as the loss of 'our very best.'"

Rela Mazali


w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 21:57 07/05/2008

Faking it when the siren sounds
By Tamar Rotem

When I saw my 5-year-old son standing at attention, his hands ramrod straight at his sides and his head slightly bowed, I was shocked. It was two years ago, and only then did I understand for the first time how to stand when the memorial day siren sounds. I also understood that much as he is my child, the fruit of my education, he is also a product of the Israeli education industry. At his tender age he has already absorbed the deeper rules and orders of Israeliness that I will never know.

Perhaps because I was educated in the ultra-Orthodox Beit Ya'akov system, and have lived for years now in secular Zionist society, I am not at peace, to put it mildly, with the siren as a sign of mourning. Similarly, I have not gotten used to the Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies. Neither to the flowers, nor to the gun-volley salutes, nor to the fly-overs, nor to "the audience will stand at attention for the singing of 'Hatikva.'" The torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl does not speak to me, either.

During Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen, I drown in tears at the stories of the survivors and the television programs about the bereaved. But only my household knows how I fake it when the siren sounds. I am revolted by the scream that rolls from one end of the country to the other. For years I have tried not to be caught outside when the sirens roar. But when I do, I find myself, instead of concentrating on looking inward, looking around, wondering how in a society where individualism reigns, not to mention an impatient society, this works. How does everyone stand at attention as one person? Something in me rebels against the collective commandment to remember at one given moment, and the next moment the world goes back to normal.

For years the media has photographed the ultra-Orthodox who do not stand at attention during the siren, and used those photographs to goad them. They are accused of contempt for the fallen and disrespect for the memory of those thanks to whom we live here in Israel. Defiance with regard to a matter as sensitive as the memory of the fallen is problematic. But perhaps the roots of this behavior should be explained. In the ultra-Orthodox school where I went, they taught that the siren is a "non-Jewish custom." There is no value to short-term commemoration, we were told. We should remember all year, all our lives. In other words, the objection is mainly to this particular mourning custom, not to the memory of the fallen.

Nevertheless, the objection to the signal of collective mourning has caused the ultra-Orthodox to become foreign and psychologically distant, and has created the differentiation in which the ultra-Orthodox leaders strived to prevent assimilation into Israeliness and secularness. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is less politically and societally charged, the argument that "we must remember all year" is logical. If we stood, heads bowed, would we have fulfilled our obligation? If Holocaust survivors suffer poverty year-round, the siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day is a mockery.

In an age of alternative ceremonies on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for the Fallen, when bereaved parents are fighting with the army over the way their children are commemorated, when the naqba is a concept that is coming up and being discussed, and there is debate over ways of commemoration - it may be understood that standing at attention during the siren is not a value in itself, and one should not be shocked that there are those who do not do so.


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