Yom Hazikaron for Veterans
By Yair Rosenberg
In Israel, where everyone’s a soldier, Memorial Day is about the living as well as the dead
Tuesday night marks the start of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Across the country, vigils will be held commemorating those lost in war and terrorist attacks. Family members will appear on television and talk about sons, daughters, and spouses in the past tense. It’s a national discourse with a very particular set of collective rituals and tropes. And it’s one that Yaron Edel wants to change.
A little over a year ago, Edel founded an organization called Resisim, taking its name from the Hebrew word meaning both “shards” and “shrapnel.” Its goal: to refocus the Israeli conversation on the living, and not just the dead. It’s a pressing project with nationwide implications. Due to mandatory enlistment, the majority of Israel’s citizens serve in its army. Many have traumatic combat experiences, from watching friends fall under fire to sustaining serious injury. Yet the stories of these men and women—the ones who survived Israel’s wars, rather than perished in them—are rarely told. Instead, Edel explains, “every soldier is called a hero” and expected to play the part, concealing any weakness or hint that they struggle with what they carry.
“If I am a hero, I cannot cry, because I have a job, I have a role,” Edel told me recently. “I cannot have a hard time, because I’m a hero and I’m supposed to deal with those things.” Soldiers are supposed to serve as models of valor and societal success. Some are acclaimed politicians and national leaders, like former generals Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. Others achieve celebrated success after the army, like the entrepreneurs of Israel’s “Start-Up Nation.” But a great many draftees don’t fit these molds and grapple privately with their army experiences, with a silent stoicism masking their inner turmoil.
The purpose of Resisim is to challenge the hero culture of Israeli society and give former soldiers the space to tell their stories without fear of judgment. Toward this end, Resisim runs year-round events where former service members open up about their experiences and encourage others to do so. The organization’s dozens of volunteers collect such testimonies and put them online and work with mental health professionals and artists to craft a more compassionate conversation surrounding military service.
“We feel that we’ve really hit on a kind of blind spot in Israeli society that we need to change,” Edel told me. Tuesday night, they will be running their own alternative Yom Hazikaron program at Jerusalem’s Beit Hansen, seeking to do justice not only to the stories of Israel’s martyrs but its survivors, with all the humanity and frailty that entails.
With the permission of their authors, Tablet has translated three reminiscences of Resisim members. These are not the stories one typically hears on Memorial Day, but they may be the stories Israeli society needs to hear.
It’s the first day of my war. I’m what they call a lone soldier—the only one in my family living in Israel. Most of my friends are from the army, many from similar backgrounds. With them, I have been the least alone of the lone soldiers. We’re family. Even once we finished our army service, we remained a tight bunch. We understand each other when no one else can.
Our parents live abroad. They have no clue about what we really did in the army, and we often can’t tell them either. You’d have to be cruel to do that. When we talk at the start of the war, they hear selectively on the phone. Their suppressed fears sift through the information we’ve already filtered for their ears. “I’m good” is all they want to hear. They do not believe us when we say that half of the country is going on with their lives in an absurd routine that is the simplest yet most beautiful display of resolve that one can offer to daily rocket bombardment. They have no idea how you can be a civilian here in wartime. I don’t either. When my war started, many of us had already been called up. I was actually relieved to join them.
My army service is all about connections and disconnect. I’m a contact for the international press. I’m an army spokesperson. We give and hold back information. We’re in between. I go back and forth. The field and normal life. The drenching sands of Gaza and the surreal serenity of hotels in Jerusalem, all taken over by foreign journalists. I bury my own story; my own narrative remains deep inside myself.
“I” is not really there when I speak. “I” recedes to leave space for the official message. The new “I” hasn’t seen the first mortar fall in the field and rushed to the freshly dug tranches with everyone. The new “I” hasn’t laughed hysterically with these soldiers at our being alive. Old “I” was forced back down into myself and contained. That “I” has seen the look of horror on the face of the medic after the explosion, as a scream cut through the dust and our silence. The new “I” translates for the cameras, “just a piece of shrapnel.” “I” does not think that a piece of shrapnel is nothing, but “I” did not think much during the war.
“I” is not the one who called the journalist who ignored the censor and revealed soldiers’ deaths before the families had even been informed. “I” was too angry, inside my contained self. “I” is not the one who refused to answer the frantic calls of friends looking for information after we lost 13 soldiers in one day. “I” hasn’t stared quickly at the piece of paper with the announcement and his name, before moving on quickly to transmit the information to the press. “I” was screaming inside, still contained. “I” wasn’t the one interviewed in the cemetery by journalists. “I” was too busy, fighting back the tears.
The images of my war are like overexposed sepia postcards, in tones of gray and orange. Absurdly, the only place I ever felt safe was a Hamas tunnel. It was cool and even slightly wet inside. The floor was covered with the ammunition our forces expended to take it over, a mere dozen meters from the nearby kibbutz. During my first visit there, I got a text message from my university. There would apparently be a ceasefire. They were happy all their students were still alive, informing us exams would start shortly. I remembered that in another life I was a student. I whistled the Hamas song in the tunnel. I had gained the right to hope freely. Four days later, a mortar killed a small Israeli child just a few hundred meters above where we stood that day. We went back to shooting.
When this war ended, I thought nothing would ever be the same. A few days later, hiking with my dad who’d flown all the way to see me, we spoke about his experience in the Golan during and after the Yom Kippur War. We’d never spoken about it before. He’d never said much. I then realized, I’d never asked either.
It was during the first days of Operation Protective Edge, just before we entered the streets of Gaza on foot. The final game of the World Cup was playing that night—Germany versus Argentina. Our entire battalion came to watch it on the half-broken television of our base, huddling together like bees around their hive. I stood slightly apart, farther away from the screen. Throughout the game, I kept looking at one of the officers in the room, a young guy who’d climbed over some sort of container to gain a better angle, over the heads of the taller soldiers. He was sitting above us all, enthusiastically absorbed in the match, smiling from ear to ear. I still can’t understand why, but I could not keep my eyes off of him. He seemed like the happiest guy in the place.
As days passed, our forces started going into Gaza. I still have trouble recalling exactly how the events unfolded. It was on one of our hardest days under fire during the entire war. Voices started coming through the radio. I can’t exactly remember the wording of the official announcement that followed. It provoked a clamor of responses on our side. Somewhere from afar, our guys were shouting emotionally into the radio. Our officer called in: An anti-tank missile had hit our forces, he explained. “I cannot find the head of my soldier!” stuttered a voice on our frequency, which didn’t really register. It was only when dawn finally came that we stopped shooting. Only then did I hear the exact wording of the announcement, and fully understand what had transpired—and my part in it.
On that night, shortly after the antitank missile hit, we depleted our explosives. We were then ordered to fire many, many lighting flares. The instructions were very dry, to the point. We just followed them without thinking. A few hours later, we found out that they had needed the light to find the pieces of the body. In the morning, we understood that our company officer had kept this terrible news to himself to ensure that we’d continue functioning normally. They had needed the light fast, so that other soldiers could go in quickly and gather what they could find without coming to harm. This we realized in the morning.
As you follow instructions like these, you know, in some recess of your mind, that something has happened. But at that moment, you do not allow yourself to think at all about the possibility that someone may have been killed. Instead, you rush to ensure that the next ordnance will be set properly in time. There is tremendous tension in the air. People are screaming from all sides. You find yourself running with a bomb of a few tens of pounds as if it were a feather. As for me, amid the chaos, I began setting bomb after bomb without even bothering to put in earplugs. I just covered my ears with my hands between each breath, each shot, protecting them and hoping to hear the instructions well enough.
It was only at the end of the war that I understood the terrible dimension of this night. Finally, they let us go home. Sitting in front of my computer, reading the latest news, I suddenly recognized one of the faces. It was him. He’d become one of the pictures of the fallen, that officer who watched the game with us and looked like the happiest guy in the world.
When the war ended, I decided that the death of this officer was a circle that I needed to close. We’d all missed his funeral, which took place while were still in battle and could not leave. None of our team knew him personally. I don’t know if I felt guilt, but I definitely felt the need to be connected to him. I asked my officer for information on the memorial, a month after his death, and I went. It seemed very important to go. Alone. I did not speak about it with any of my friends; I never asked them to come along. I had to deal with this on my own. I was the only reservist there. It was the closing of a circle for me. At the cemetery, I learned more about the person he was. I felt like I owed him something, this small measure of respect.
The young officer is buried in the same cemetery where my uncle, who fell during the Yom Kippur War, was buried then. He was interred in the plot next to him. Every year, I go back to visit the tomb of my uncle, and now, his too. In this way, somehow, we now share a story.
The room is dark, except for a drop of white light coming from the street through the window. The sheet has slipped from the corner of the bed and now reveals the age of the mattress. There is sweat on my forehead, and I can feel the sheet sticking to my back. It’s 4 in the morning. I have a shift at 7 a.m. and I need to get up in another two hours.
I turn uncomfortably in my bed. I straighten my body, and then fold my legs, first lying on my back, then on my stomach. I fall asleep quite fast, for about an hour, but then I wake up from a bad dream. A very bad dream. My brain has never stopped working since then. It thinks, it analyzes. The images do not let me sleep; they break into my consciousness and force my eyes open. My mind is the director and editor of my inner film. I take a scene, change a detail, and photograph it anew. I change another detail, and it’s a whole new movie. They’re frightening movies, tormenting me, causing my heart to beat hard, my lungs to breathe deeply. I am angry. I’m angry at everyone, at him, at myself. The longer I am awake, the more I get upset. And I have no one to talk to, no one can understand. It’s frustrating. The only thing I have left to do is scream from the inside, silently so that no one will wake up.
It’s was like this for years. Sometimes, I’m still like this. Not really asleep, constantly awake. Weapons. Terrorists. A terrorist chasing after me. A terrorist chasing after me and I don’t have a weapon. I fall down, get up, and awaken with a shock. The dreams used to wake me up very quickly, and then I would lie in bed, fully conscious, unable to think about anything but my army experiences.
I served in the army for almost five years. I enlisted in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, and finished in late 2006, after the Second Lebanon War. Some people had a much more intensive service than mine, in terms of the number of incidents, but quantity is not the issue. It’s how the events remain etched in you. I’ve been shot at many times. Some of my friends were wounded next to me. Good friends. I’ve made some tough decisions under fire. All these images are part of my daily routine, memory, visuals. At first I was angry. I kept on fighting them; they were bothering me when I wanted a peaceful life. I was angry at everyone, I did not sleep. But over time, when I started speaking about my experiences and talking about them—first to my wife, then with my army friends, and finally with others—things started to change. I started accepting that these images will probably be with me all my life. I don’t have to fight them. One has to know: These are things you don’t forget. They affect us. They define us. They shape how we understand the world.
Today I feel like I am only in the middle of the process. I’m still figuring it out. Every day I understand new things; I see what I can do, and what I cannot. I can tell someone my story from the army much more freely. I can go into details and I can accept questions. I cannot hear more than two stories a week about what other people did in the army, what happened to them. Then I stop being nice. Every day, I learn anew how to adjust my pace. Mostly, I have started to realize that I am not alone. There are others. Men and women, young and old, who feel like me, understand me, and hurt like me. They remember and they have not really forgotten. That’s what I find in Resisim: I’m not alone, we’re not alone, and we’re allowed to feel what we feel. It’s OK to speak about it. It’s OK.
Yair Rosenberg is a writer at Tablet and the editor of the English-language blog of the Israeli National Archives. Follow him on Twitter @Yair_Rosenberg.
Source: Tablet Mag