Sirens are forever

June 7, 2009 by

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On June 2nd, a nationwide war drill took place in Israel. As a result, at exactly 11AM a loud siren was heard all over the country. I asked the woman I was meeting if we could continue talking about work in a minute or two and rushed over to the window of the 2nd floor cafe’ we were sitting at. I felt I had to check what percentage of the passers by obeyed the instructions that all Israeli’s received via the media during the week before the drill, and actually ran to the nearest bomb shelter or “safe zone” at the moment of the siren.

The result of my little experiment didn’t surprise me. It was zero. Zero percent. Not a single soul ran anywhere. Many people, just like me, were kind of looking around, trying to see what other people were doing. Most just seemed unaffected and indifferent, perhaps even slightly relieved that the drill hadn’t interfered with the ordinary pace of their day and hadn’t ruined their plans. Simple logic, of course, dictates that in our region it should be in one’s best interest to be able to locate and enter the nearest shelter at any given moment. We view, hear and read of various violent threats from a variety of enemies on a daily basis. Hizbullah will this and Ahmedinajad will that. Hamas is attempting to this and Asad is preparing to that. In fact, I’m quite certain that most Israeli’s have lost track of which of the threats is most pressing right now. Yet, unless I’m totally off, a vast majority of them (or us, actually) did not run to the shelters during the drill and won’t run on the next drill either. As a collective, when facing rules, it seems to me that we can be described as being nonconformists in a rather conformist fashion.

But, as other Israeli sirens prove, the nonconformist conformism that bubbles in the Israeli society is only half the story, for there is some conformist nonconformism in us as well. Every year on the mornings of the 27th day of Nisan and the 4th day of Iyar, loud sirens are heard and Israel comes to a halt. These two dates, which are one week apart, and which usually arrive somewhere during late April or early May, are the two days commemorating, respectively, the holocaust and all the soldiers who died in the 61 years of Israel’s existence. Contrary to what I witnessed during the war drill, upon hearing these sirens, Israeli’s tend to be extremely obedient.

It’s not only that cars pull over everywhere from main streets to highways or that banks, schools, and hospitals all over simultaneously pause, it’s that people actually stop what they’re doing, stand up, and honor these moments of silence and contemplation even in the privacy of their own homes. Even when they’re alone. The immense respect that the average Israeli has for this ritual, the intense feelings held for these moments, can perhaps be demonstrated by the annual outrage directed towards Israel’s ultra orthodox community who refuses to comply with this secular tradition claiming it’s “Un – Jewish”.

But once again, it is quite clear, that these actions are rather illogical. In our overly modern world that’s focussed on making money (or at least on not losing too much of it) it seems almost unimaginable for an entire community to stop what it’s doing, take a breather, ponder feelings that are perhaps too heavy to deal with on a regular basis, and then just keep on going, maybe a little bit slower, until the siren comes again either one week or one year later. To the best of my knowledge, no other society, excluding the Japanese (who choose to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a similar way) has adopted this method of dealing with collective trauma. The Israeli method of memory is, therefore, nonconformist – and the wide spread Israeli compliance, together with the depth of emotions harbored towards these moments can best be described as conformist nonconformism.

And the biggest question rising in my mind has to do with the children. The next generation. All this conformism and nonconformism, stopping and continuing, the abundance of holocaust days, memorial days and war drills add up in my mind to the kids. How much of this sadness will they know? How much of it will they feel? How will they read into the unwritten, illogical and unique laws of this troubled land?

Thanks to Hadag’s drummer, Atraf Moshe Assaraf, who sent me this – I finally know for a fact that Hadag and I are at least blessed with leaving something.

Peace! I’m out.



Shaanan Streett is the lead singer of HaDag Nachash.


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