They commute with guns. A lot of Israeli soldiers live at home while they do their mandatory service, and, like me, they take the bus to work every day. I’m a student so for me that means carrying four different translations of the Qumran wisdom texts to the university campus. They carry what I think are semi-automatics. We all take the bus together. There is a language to the army uniform that I cannot read. If you know these things, you can tell what part of the armed forces someone is in by the color of his or her beret. The red ones seem tough, I know that. The uniforms themselves are different colors too: a standard green, a nappy white, a khaki. The grey-blue ones tend to have broad shoulders and handguns tucked into their pants. It took me a long time to realize they had holsters under their trousers: I thought the guns were being held in by their underwear elastics, and could fall any moment. From this information, a literate person lays the bones of their expectations for the soldier they see, if she sees them at all. I think most people don’t even notice them. One thing I cannot get used to in Israel is a kind of suspension of horror: that the mechanisms of danger and violence are laid bare and become mundane. Through what I’ll call a willful innocence, this is something I resist fully. I notice every soldier, every gun. Guns they tote indifferently on the bus, in the mall, getting ice cream, at the beach. Obviously they can’t spend several consecutive years (required service is two for young women, three for men) having anxiety attacks about whether or not it’s emotionally damaging to develop a familiar relationship with weapons. Luckily for them, they have me to do that.
The exception to the soldiers’ invisibility is during a series of memorials, which occur in Israel over a period of two weeks. First is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a day of ceremonies: candles are lit, and you will hear testimony from the dwindling population of survivors. This year it was on April 7 (holidays here are kept by the lunar Jewish calendar). It is marked by a one-minute siren at ten A.M. For a memorial siren, everyone stands. No matter where you are, you stop and stand. The entire country has this really effective PA system. It reminds me of that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before Earth is bulldozed, when every physical object becomes a transmitter. The memorial siren is similar to the siren that sounds when there are rockets falling but it is one single tone instead of a falling and rising pitch. This is so that if rockets fall during the siren, you know to seek cover.
A week later is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day; this year on April 15. It is in remembrance of Israelis who have died in war and terror attacks. The year’s dead are added to a list. The day starts the evening prior (in accordance with the Jewish calendar), marked with a two-minute siren. At this point, the entire nation gives itself forty-eight hours to focus on the soldiers. The TV stations play a continuous loop of short documentaries on the lives of the dead—heartwrenching tributes with interviews and blurry home-videos. The radio stations play only sad, traditional music. At 11 A.M. on the day-of, there is a second two-minute siren. There are ceremonies that evening and, at the end of the memorials, Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) begins immediately: whiplashing the nation into July Fourth mode. Opinions on this model, and the sudden change in attitude (grievance to celebration) are mixed in Israel.
My friend just left the army, after six years of service. He asked that I call him Ido instead of using his real name, and who am I to argue. So: Ido. This was Ido’s first post-army Yom HaZikaron. He said this year he was in his car, driving, when he realized the siren would go momentarily. Perhaps they said something on the radio. He pulled over, with every other car on the road, got out, and stood by his car, with the door open. He probably ended up in a Reuters photograph. He said it was strange to be in civilian clothes, to be a civilian, on that day. When you are a soldier, everyone looks at you on Yom HaZikaron: you are at the center of something that now he felt slightly peripheral to. In the past, during the siren, he has raised his hand in salute (a gesture exclusive to officers during the siren); this year he has stood with his hands folded by his car. I asked where he would look (I was never sure where to look during the sirens) in those days. “At the flag,” he said. Read More