Every year we stop everything and stand for two-minute national siren to remember six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. For 24 hours television stations broadcast Holocaust stories and interviews. Radio stations play somber music. Restaurants and entertainment venues are closed. During the siren, drivers pull over to the side of the road and get out of their cars. Busses stop and often passengers get off to stand for the siren. Walkers stop in the street. It is a national pause to take the time to remember.
A video from this year taken on Highway 1 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In Israel, national and religious holidays start at sunset the evening before. On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I witnessed an incredible sunset. It was so stunning not only for the colors in the sky, but it seemed to change the quality of the air. The air seemed to be infused with pink and gold and so full of magic that you might even be able to scoop some into a jar to save for later.
In all the years I’ve been in Israel, I’ve never had the chance to be in a public street for the siren. The siren is at 10am and usually people are at work. If no official ceremony is held, people will stand up at their desks. Places where there are official gatherings, people will stand together and often will have a short remembrance ceremony. I’ve experienced both. But this year, I happened to be out in the street. I didn’t take a video or photos because I wanted to participate, not observe from behind the safety of a lens.
Still, I saw some things:
- A few minutes before 10am, I could feel people start to slow down and start to gather in the square. They knew what was coming.
- A woman brought her own package of Kleenex and was prepared for her emotional response. She shared her Kleenex afterwards with someone who hadn’t expected to have such an emotional reaction.
- Of the 50–60 people that I could see in the square, everyone stopped what they were doing and stood, except 3 people who continued walking. Two were a Muslim couple and what I guess to be an Arab man.
- Several Muslim women (marked by their headcoverings) stopped and stood solemnly with everyone else.
- Time stands still. And then when the siren ends, the world starts moving again as if released from a pause.
What I notice in myself is that at first the two-minute siren seems so incredibly long. And then if I think about it in depth, how could it possibly be long enough?
I feel mixed emotions. First, I’m sad because this is a remembrance for the light of six million human beings snuffed out due to hatred, along with millions of others who were also crushed under the wave of fear, ignorance, and hatred. But then, incongruously, I’m happy. All of us in this square, and actually the whole country, are standing together on this day to honor the memory of the fallen. “Never Forget!” is not just a phrase, but is an active choice made by every person who stops, stands, and remembers. I remember not only for myself, but for the people standing next to me, and they remember not only for themselves, but also for me and their neighbors. During this powerful two minutes, Israel stands together. Not just in theory or with words, but with an active choice to pause and stand together.
There are those who say that Israel exists because of guilt over the Holocaust. The UN vote on 29 November 1947 was a short two years after the end of the World War II, so there may be some truth to that. Whatever guilt there may have been, it still required a lot of political campaigning to get the votes. The result was not a foregone conclusion.
But can we or should we say that Israel has to exist so that a Holocaust will never happen again? A Jewish homeland has to exist so that if Jews are suddenly unsafe or expelled, they will at least have a place to go? There is, of course, a grain of truth to that. The flip side of that logic is that if Jews are safe in the world, then there is no need for Israel to exist.
Rather than focus on the Holocaust as the reason for Israel to exist, which leads to a victim mentality, it is far more positive and a source of strength to say that Israel exists due to an historic connection to the land itself, the place in the world where the Jews as a nation trace their history. The Holocaust must always be remembered, but it should not be the defining point of Jewish history or Israeli history. The memory of the victims must always be honored, but it was the survivors who built the modern state of Israel.
From Passover, we move to Holocaust Remembrance Day, then we will go to Soldier’s Remembrance Day, and then Independence Day. It is a symbolic journey from slavery, to near annihilation, to fighting for the land, and finally to freedom.