Tag Archives: IDF

Remembering 23,447: Yom Hazikaron

Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.May 10 2016.
Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.

The white-haired man walking in front of me put down his briefcase and stood at attention. The soldier at the bus stop across the street removed his overstuffed backpack and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring towards the sky. One of the clerks came out of the health food store and walked to the curb, where he stood saying quietly saying Psalms. Two people who had just entered their parked cars got out and stood next to the open car doors.

The siren blared.

The bus stopped a few feet past the bus stop it had just left. All the traffic stopped—nothing moved. Some drivers got out of their cars and stood in the middle of the street. The light rail halted between stations. At the military cemetery on Har Herzl, Allen reported, everyone stopped in their place; no one continued walking to the grave of their loved one.

On and on the siren blared, for two long minutes. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, enveloping us.

Each of us stood alone in our thoughts, yet united in sorrow.

It was Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. This year we remember 23,447 dead soldiers and civilian victims of terror. In a country as small as Israel, each one of those who died is known. We know their stories. We know their grieving parents, wives, husbands, children. We remember meeting them on Shabbat or working with them. We remember seeing their names in the newspaper, and reacting, “Oh no!”

Although this is our fourth year here, it is the first time I witnessed everything come to a halt in a public space. In ulpan, the siren sounded during our break time. We stopped chatting, put down our containers of yogurt or bags of Bamba, and stood in silence. In a friend’s kitchen, we put our cups of tea on the counter and stood looking towards the Temple Mount. At home, I pushed my chair away from the computer to stand next to the desk by myself.

Standing on the sidewalk, in the company of strangers, and watching traffic stop carries the experience to a different level. Kanfei Nesharim, four lanes wide, is a busy street, used by eight bus routes. I’m used to seeing it empty of all traffic on Shabbat. The rare car can be heard many blocks away. But to see the usual weekday heavy traffic– all the cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles– come to a stop and sit motionless for two minutes impresses the gravity of the moment on the memory.

23,447. So many killed. Too many.

I thought of the ceremony I had attended the night before, in the Jerusalem forest south of the city. Noam school takes its fifth and sixth graders on a hike the day before Yom Hazikaron. They end at a monument to fallen soldiers where they hold memorial ceremony in the evening. The principal said in his opening remarks that every year the school goes to a different monument, one that is not visited often. This year the ceremony was held at the monument to the soldiers who died in Operation Lulav against Kfar Husan in September 1956. Kfar Husan, at the time on the Jordanian side of the armistice line, had been a base for the fedayeen who carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. Operation Lulav was triggered by a Jordanian attack on an archaeological conference at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, in which four archaeologists were killed and sixteen others wounded. During the action, the IDF destroyed the fedayeen headquarters, killing several of their leaders. Terrorist attacks in the area ceased. But nine members of the IDF were killed.

Most of the memorial ceremony was carried out by the sixth grade boys. They started by lighting flames, one flame in memory of each of Israel’s wars, plus one for victims of terror.

One of the speakers had been a member of the IDF squad which attacked Kfar Husan. He described the action. Six soldiers had been killed because they were too close to the building when it blew up; the fedayeen killed three soldiers. Their names are on the small monument near the clearing where the ceremony took place.

The school rabbi spoke about Shia, his best friend from childhood–how they grew up together, went to Yeshiva together, and were hevrutot (study partners). They enlisted into different units in the army. After the 1973 war, he discovered Shia had been killed. He talked about our duty to remember, not to forget, those who died.

The ceremony was timed so that the 8 PM memorial siren would be heard about halfway through. I noticed the principal checking his watch several times to make sure the siren would not interrupt any of the prayers or poems.

At exactly 8 PM, the siren sounded. I was amazed at how loud it was out here in the middle of nowhere. We heard the sirens from both the city of Beitar to the south and from the town of Tsur Hadassah to the north. Everyone stood in absolute silence. No moved for a moment after the siren ended, until we heard the echoes of sirens from distant towns die away.

This is the second time I’ve attended a memorial ceremony held by the boys’ school. Both times, during the two minutes of silence, my mind drifts from thinking of those who gave their lives to protect the country to the boys in front of me. In a few years, they will all be in the army. I say a small prayer, asking G-d to protect them, and to protect us and the land of Israel.

May we know no more wars

The Road to Jerusalem: Mishmar David

Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Dorps who gave their lives in service to Israel
Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Corps who gave their lives in service to Israel

Mishmar David is one of those places in Israel that I never knew about until a tour guide took me there. It was once of the key points in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948. Once Eitan Morell told its story, I wondered why I had never heard about it before.

Mishmar means guard, so Mishmar David is David’s Guardian. In this context, it refers to those who guard Jerusalem,the City of David. Atop the hill is the memorial to the Haganah Engineers and their successors, the IDF Engineering

IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)
IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)

Corps, who gave their lives protecting Jerusalem. It’s not too far from Road 1, at the top of one the hills that border the road, and marked by a few small brown directional signs. Basically, if you don’t know it’s there, you probably won’t find it. Yet this spot was critical during the time the British were preparing to leave mandatory Palestine and to the new nation of Israel.

The Arab siege of Jerusalem started months before the proclamation of the State. At the time Jerusalem was just a small city. It could have been classified as a Jewish outpost since it was surrounded by Arab towns. Those Arab towns not only surrounded the city, they also surrounded the road to it. Strategically, Jerusalem was worth little. It was distant from the population centers, surrounded by the Mountains of Judea, far from a good source of water. It had no decent airport nearby and didn’t even overlook any major road.

But psychologically, emotionally, it was worth everything. As the direction of Jewish prayers for millennia, as the focus of longing for a land of our own, Jerusalem was the heart of the nation. Without Jerusalem, there could be no Jewish nation.

Even the nonreligious David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community, the Yishuv, and first prime minister of Israel, recognized this. Although he was determined to keep the Negev part of the new country, he pulled army units from the south to save Jerusalem.

Saving Jerusalem meant breaking the Arab blockade.

The first attempt to break the blockade was sending convoys carrying food, water, and weapons from Tel Aviv. Armored trucks and jeeps carried the supplies. The word “armored” is used loosely here. The vehicles were covered with thick boards, over which thin sheets of metal were attached. They offered a little protection against bullets. Worse, the “armor” made the vehicles much heavier, which slowed them down on the way up the steep roads through the Mountains of Judea on the way to Jerusalem.

The road wound up to Jerusalem along the valleys, through the mountains. Arab villages were located on almost all the hilltops, which made the slow-moving trucks easy targets. The truck drivers knew that their chance of getting through were not good. In every convoy, at least three, and maybe five or eight, drivers died. Nonetheless, as long as the Haganah was able to send supplies, men and women were willing to drive the vehicles.

On March 30, a large convoy gathered at Hulda to make its way to Jerusalem. Although winter was almost over, it was still the rainy season, and it rained. As the slow trucks passed Mishmar David, one after the other become bogged down in mud. The Arabs on the nearby hilltops saw, and attacked. They then looted what remained. Little of the valuable food or weapons arrived in the city, but the Arabs in the nearby villages were well armed and well fed for weeks.

Convoys continued to travel, Arabs continued to attack, and truck drivers continued to die, but a trickle of food reached the city.

Zipporah Porath, a young American who had come to Jerusalem to study for a year in the fall of 1947, described the convoys in one of her letters home that spring:

           “A convoy…generally sets out from Hulda or the outskirts of Tel Aviv                   with thirty, forty, or fifty trucks laden with hundreds of sacks of flour,             canned food, other staples and fruit—the city’s needs for less than a                   day—accompanied by a couple of armed escorts to “protect” it. Burdened             as they are, the trucks, which can’t travel faster than about ten miles an             hour, are perfect targets for a bloody massacre by the Arab bands that             lay in wait.

          “If the convoy is in luck, maybe fifteen or so of the trucks will make it to            Jerusalem. If they have ben waylaid by roadblocks, most of the trucks                will be knocked out of commission and block the way for the others, so                the whole shebang becomes sitting ducks for the Arab attackers and the            precious cargo is dislodged, scattered and looted. We’ve lost so many of              these armored trucks—along with their drivers and Haganah protectors—            that stocks are now almost nil. “ (Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, p.              135-136)

Jerusalem was kept going by the convoys for several weeks. The memorial at Mishmar David includes a map of the area as it was in March and April 1948(see below). The British camps are yellow, Arab villages are red, and the Jewish settlements, including Jerusalem, are blue.

Map of road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948 at Mishmar David, showing Arab (red) & Jewish towns (blue)
Map of the road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948

Looking at the map, I wondered how the city managed to remain in Israeli hands. Jerusalem’s rescue seems like the hand of G-d, working through the hands of the Engineering Corps and soldiers of the IDF. I’ll describe what they did later—it’s too long a story for one installment.

When I came to Israel in 1962, the destroyed trucks and jeeps still sat at the side of the road to Jerusalem. They were the rusted skeletons, left where they had been stopped as memorials to the brave men and women who had saved Jerusalem. Our guide told us that they would not be moved from the roadside where they sat because they were people’s graves. The visible deterioration and the rust that had accumulated in fourteen years contributed to their emotional impact.

The trucks still sit there today. You can see them as you travel Road 1 near Sha’ar Hagai. In the smallest national park in Israel, six old truck skeletons sit in the grassy median between the east bound and west bound lanes.

None of the trucks are exactly where they had been stopped by Arab bullets; they have been moved several times as the road was widened or straightened. Periodically, they are taken to the shop and given a coat of preservative paint, to keep them from rusting away to nothing. The pale green paint is not quite the color of old rust. The solidity and new look of the painted relics lacks the emotional impact of the old rust. Their smoothness covers up the destruction and deterioration beneath. Visitors who don’t know the history of the road probably think they are statues placed artistically along the road towards Sha’ar Hagai, not even identifying the location as the fearsome Bab al Wad. The urge to preserve them is understandable—they are the only physical evidence of the lives sacrificed to save Jerusalem, to keep it part of yet to be born Jewish state.

Nevertheless, I miss the rust.

To get there: