Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s most sacrosanct national day. Today once the haunting siren draws the country to a standstill, everyone around me will wave their flags and extol the fallen. I will cower in fear.
As the mother of two young boys, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror reminds me of the course my sons’ lives may take as soldiers. For this reason, it instills in me great dread.
As an immigrant here in Israel, it’s a day that underscores my foreignness in a country where belonging is everything.
From the moment my boys were born and I first held their tiny bodies, their impending military service has hung over me like a cloud. Until recently, I swept thoughts of the army neatly under the carpet of my heart. Eighteen years—the age of mandatory draft for men and women—seemed far away. I’ll deal with it when it comes, I told myself. After all, Israeli matriarchs are bred to fulfill a sacred role: bearing the soldiers who defend our eternally threatened state. I had to put on a brave face; the trepidation I felt is completely taboo here.
So, for several years, I pretended to be like other Israelis, fearless and proud, yet deep down I remained a “diaspora wimp.”
In an unexpected turn of events, my older son broke my silence. It happened exactly a year ago when he was 7 years old.
I was sitting on a plastic stool, primed for our daily bath-time chat. He was in the tub, floating on his tummy.
“Mommy, I don’t want to go to the army.”
“I don’t want to die.”
Just like that, he dropped the bomb, without any preparation or small talk.
“Umm….” I stumbled. I needed an answer that would make him feel safe and recognize his legitimate fears, without contravening the patriotic education he was receiving at school and from everyone (else) around him. Quickly.
It wasn’t an easy task because I agreed with him completely.
I rattled off something that wasn’t a complete lie to the likes of, “Not everyone dies. I mean, most people don’t die. The army protects us all. Daddy was in the army, and so were your uncles. Look at them, they’re fine!”
I soaped his back to make myself feel as if this were a regular discussion. But I was really thinking that I should leave this crazy place and whisk my boys to my native Canada. There, they wouldn’t face such an ominous future. “Leave while you still can!” a voice inside me urged.
The conversation with my son ended there, but it continues to weigh heavily on me.
With surprising pithiness, he had aroused primal maternal instincts and forced me to confront my most deeply held fears: I am petrified that he and his younger brother will die in the army. The army is dangerous. We live in a volatile place. By choosing to move to Israel, I have dealt them this fate.
I like to think that I’ve integrated well in the 14 years that I’ve lived here. Yet, the thoughts I am putting forth in this essay are decidedly un-Israeli. I am raising my boys here, where evading the army out of fear is anathema to the national ethos. Instead of staring danger down, my sensibilities tell me to run and hide.
With my Yom Hazikaron angst out in the open, my difference is glaring. Nowhere is it more pronounced than at home. My Israeli-born husband is militant in his view that everyone must serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He grew up here. He dedicated three years of his life to the army. He was raised on these values, not to be scared. I was not.
I also feel my difference compared to other immigrants. Most Israeli Anglos brim with pride when showing photos of their sons and daughters in IDF khaki. To them, it’s the ultimate incarnation of their Zionism; like the lavish gifts the uncle from America once brought back to the old country, the army is a sign they’ve made it.
Clearly, this topic raises many important questions and has broader implications, political ones, but this is first and foremost an emotional quandary.
As Yom Hazikaron approaches this year, my difficult and forbidden feelings are surfacing. Undoubtedly, I will continue to grapple with this internal storm until one of two things happens: my sons are drafted, or we leave.
I have 10 years to work it out.