Originally published on May 28, 2023 as an op-ed at The Washington Examiner
Sometimes you get to know your own country best by visiting another country. That was my experience after a recent trip to Israel during their Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations this past April. Perhaps, like me, you were unaware that in Israel , those two holidays are back to back. Memorial Day took place on April 24, and Independence Day was on April 25. This year, the holidays were amplified by the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Israel’s statehood.
I love our U.S. Memorial Day (as well as our Independence Day on July 4). Growing up in our home, Memorial Day always marked the beginning of the summer. The morning of, the first thing my father would do would be to put out the flag. My parents would always host a large picnic at our house on both of those holidays. We lived on a lake. There was lots of food, games, competitions, and water activities, and the children enjoyed going into town for the local parade. Sometimes a reflection on the meaning of the day would be shared. The memories of those special days are fond and cherished.
Memorial Day in Israel was not celebratory. There were no picnics, no big retail sales, as far as I could tell. On the eve of Memorial Day at 8 p.m., a one-minute siren was heard across the country in remembrance of the soldiers who gave their lives for their country. The entire nation came to a stop. Another siren sounded across the country at 11 a.m., which was followed by state memorial services held in all military cemeteries.
Everyone seemed to know someone who died in a war (the War of Independence in 1947, the Six-Day War of 1967, or one of the other conflicts since then) or who died as a victim of terrorism. Some of the people we spoke to had loved ones who died in the Holocaust. It was a somber day. And since all young people serve in the military, the pathos of this day was shared widely across the generations.
But then, following on the heels of this day highlighting national sacrifice, was Independence Day. It was a day of celebration, especially this year, which marked Israel’s diamond jubilee. To start the day, we were invited to a large Orthodox prayer service. There was singing and dancing. Flags were everywhere. There were military flyovers. There was also the sense that, while great sacrifice needed to be memorialized, gratitude for the nation, what it stood for, and its deep national heritage, which goes back thousands of years all the way to the time of Abraham, was just as important.
At the end of the trip, I thought to myself: If I could bring back to America anything that I’d seen in Israel, or if I could wave a wand and change our national life, what would it be? Three things stood out. First, I would not only emphasize what Memorial Day and Independence Day mean for us, but I would also move our holidays back to back.
The lessons of these holidays have been lost by many of us. However, when celebrated back to back, one vividly realizes that freedom is not free — it comes with great sacrifice. Independence really makes sense only in the context of responsibility.
Second, I would figure out a way to require mandatory national service for all young people — perhaps some combination of military and national civil service, to forge a unifying experience.
And third, I would figure out a way to reinforce and teach our own national heritage and its deep roots, all the way back to the Founding Fathers and beyond. Right now, our culture and schools are pressing hard in the opposite direction, with too many calling for us to repudiate our entire heritage.
That heritage is more important than ever. The values Memorial Day (and Independence Day, for that matter) represent have been lost amid increased division. We’ve been so focused on that division over the past few decades that we’ve forgotten to pay attention to what unites us as a nation. We are, after all, the United States of America.
Perhaps you have heard it said that America would be served well if we not only had a Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, but also a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. We desperately need both. But short of that, how about just moving our Memorial Day and Independence Day back to back? Think of the conversations that might arise and what it might teach the next generation.