A Civilians’ Army – Military Holidays in Israel

by Zehorit Heilicher, Tastemaker in Residence

Tourists walking through Israel’s streets are often startled to see gun carrying, uniformed soldiers mingling with the civilian population in the everyday hustle and bustle of life. The mandatory military service, required of all Israeli citizens (male and female), creates a society that shares a collective experience. For two years or three years, depending on gender, personal goals are set aside and private time is enlisted into the country’s service. Unlike the American armed forces, the Israeli soldier’s experience is part and parcel of the whole national identity.

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Commemoration, rather than celebration, is woven into the life of the nation. The last military parade was held in the spring of 1973 and since then select military bases are open for tours and exhibitions during the Israeli Independence Day. There are no holidays commemorating wars or campaigns; however, there are two adjacent major holidays: The Israeli Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) and Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) on the fourth and fifth days of the month of Iyar (which occur in May). First, the nation remembers it’s fallen soldiers in a somber day. At nine in the morning a siren is broadcasted and all observe a minute of silence.

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The whole nation comes together in grief. As the siren begins cars and busses stop along the highways, and then drivers and passengers step out to stand in silence. Every citizen is familiar with loss: a friend, a father, son, colleague or relative. It is a very powerful moment. The day continues with memorial ceremonies held at all school levels and at military cemeteries throughout the country. Television stations share stories and pictures of the fallen while radio broadcasts music and poetry. The day is solemn and respectful.

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As the day comes to an end and evening falls, the country transitions into a celebration of its independence. Though this transition may seem harsh, it is anchored in the belief that Israeli independence was achieved through great sacrifice. Celebrating the survival of the Jewish homeland cannot be detached from remembering the lives lost in its creation and defense.
The capitol, Jerusalem, hosts a celebratory ceremony on Mount Herzl, its content reflecting aspects of Israeli life including music and dance. The following day is a holiday when families have picnics, visit military bases and enjoy time together. 

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The Israel Defense Forces are an integral part of the Israeli society as David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, coined it:” The people make the army and in turn the army makes the people.”

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