Memorial Day: A Day of Remembrance

Written by: Steven Grant, Board Member

I have had Memorial Day very much on my mind lately, partly because the American Memorial Day observance always has a tremendous emotional impact on me. As a passionate student of American history, I have become intimately aware of the American story, the sacrifices that went into the making of that story, and the significance of those sacrifices.  But since I have had the opportunity to observe Memorial Day in what has become my second home, the State of Israel, our own Memorial Day has had an even greater impact for me.

I have been in Israel when the Israelis have observed their Memorial Day.  They do theirs a little differently in that the day after they observe their Memorial Day, they celebrate their Independence Day.  Since the days are back to back, they link them together. There is a day of memory and mourning followed by a day of celebration. On Memorial Day, at a pre-arranged time, sirens go off and the entire nation stops. No matter what you are doing, no matter where you are, you stop for two minutes of silence.  If you are in the middle of a meeting, the meeting stops and everyone stands for the prescribed two minutes; if you are in your car, you pull off to the side of the road, get out of your car, and stand for two minutes; buses stop, trains stop, everything stops.  

I must say, it was a very powerful experience to witness an entire nation honoring their fallen at precisely the same moment. It is not that Israelis are always so unified, they are not.  They are not a homogeneous people in thought or lifestyle, in ethnic origin or even religion and no, they do not think alike.

We Christians can be very much the same.  We proudly point to the church we attend and say, “Yes, that’s my church, but that church over there—I would never set foot into that one!” We Americans can be very much like this, too. We are very diverse people from all points on the earth.  One of the things that is amazing and very unique about America is that anyone can become an American. Think about it. If I were to go to France, and even if I were to become a French citizen, I could never become “French.” But a French person could come to America and, just like me, become an American. America is a collage of humanity.  It is one of our greatest strengths. Yet so often we resist it as if it were a detriment.

Today we are divided in spirit. I do not wish to imply that we should be one homogeneous people any more than our Israeli friends. Our freedom of speech and our freedom of conscience are things that we embrace and that we celebrate; the free exchange of ideas was meant to be used for our advantage.  Not being of the same mind is not our problem. Our problem is the venom, it is the hatred, it is the demonization of those who do not agree with us or who live differently. Such internal strife weakens us, and unity in its truest sense is less and less possible. My friends, there is not a military on this planet that can defeat ours.  What threatens to bring America down is the division and the rot from within.

On Israel’s Memorial Day, in that moment, they are one in the remembrance.  It is reflected in a statement made by now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his supporters when previous Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was being vilified and attacked for a policy that Rabin was advocating. Netanyahu said, “He is not a traitor, though I believe he is making a big mistake.  We are dealing with political rivals, not enemies. We are one nation.” If only we could embrace this view in America! While it is true that we have very different opinions on which direction our country should go, we forget that we are all Americans.

You see, Israelis are very conscious of what is at stake.  This is one of the reasons Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, is so powerful.  You may have been to other Holocaust museums, but this one is tremendous not only because of the subject matter, but because of how the main museum building is designed. In the middle of the campus there is a long building that suggests the ark.  You go in and out of all the exhibition rooms in this building starting with the rise of anti-Semitism through the rise of Nazi-ism and the horrors of the Second World War, and end with the victory over fascism. What is most important, and what is missed by most the guests who come to see this, is the view at the end. When you get to the end of this building, as the architect intended, you look out over the countryside of Israel.  This is to emphasize that while the supposed thousand-year Reich is destroyed and the Nazis are dust, the Jewish people they sought to exterminate are still here. They have a country of their own. But even today, the fact is that if an enemy of Israel were to prevail in a military conflict, the State of Israel would cease to exist. The Israelis live with the grim reality daily.

There was a time when this was also true in America. Think back in our history to the American Revolution. We came very close to being destroyed in the womb, so to speak.  In the war of 1812, we were in danger of being snuffed out in our infancy. We were being torn apart in our adolescence during the horrific Civil War. Those of you who lived through World War II and the Cold War at least questioned whether America would survive as we knew it.  

In our modern day I fear that America’s strength, our prosperity and our stability are simply assumed; it is taken for granted that our power and influence will always exist because that is just the way things are.  We have also developed an incredible and all-pervasive sense of entitlement. We feel that we deserve all this. Somehow, we just expect these things because that is just the way it is. All the advantages, all the conveniences, everything that we have is just because of the way things are. Ladies and gentlemen, you know that is not just the way things are!  Our country as it is, our way of life, our privileges are not a given.  There were a multitude of people who went before us, who worked, who sacrificed, who fought, and many of whom had their lives taken from them.  Our nation is what it is because past generations made it so, and there are some among us who are still doing their part.

They did not agree on everything either.  Believe me, they did not. But there was a commitment to something greater than themselves, and they built this nation.  Will future generations have that same commitment? The more we emphasize personal privilege and glorify self-indulgence, the more we lose the sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves and take responsibility for being a part of it.  

My friends, this is why Memorial Day is so significant.  It is more than a day off work, a time for parties and Memorial Day sales.  It is a time to reflect on who we are as a nation, why we are what we are and how we got here. It is also a time to embrace what we must do together to maintain it, to secure it, and to chart our future.  But first, we must remember.

Recently, I officiated at the memorial service for Louis D. Corbat. Lou was a Staff Sergeant with Company A of the 116th Infantry of the United States Army. Lou was 19 years old when he participated in the Normandy invasion on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded three Purple Hearts. On Memorial Day I will think of Louis Corbat and so many like him who made it possible for me and a multitude of Americans to enjoy the life we have in America. If they and so many of their comrades in arms did not do their jobs, the world would be a totally different place. Praise God that in His Providence there were men such as Louis Corbat who rose to the occasion and stood up for the values and principles that make America what she is and was willing to put their lives on the line to defend it. As it is said: Freedom is not free. We will remember.      

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