During Israel’s annual ceremony to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I couldn’t help but notice who was, and wasn’t, standing as well.
As a Christian American student studying in Israel for a semester, I have never felt like I understood the nation’s conflict more than I did today. Today, Israel remembered the Holocaust by sounding a siren, starting at 10:00 a.m., and lasting for exactly two minutes.
In preparation for this, I decided to grab some coffee after class and observe a tradition that is unusual to those who live in the United States.
In the little coffee shop on my campus I noticed the time was approaching, and I was honestly curious to see how my fellow peers would participate. Living in Haifa, I am surrounded by many different types of people due to the diversity and the principle of coexistence present here. The tensions are nowhere near as high as in Jerusalem, but there is still a slight divide between the Arabs and the Jews. Even so, who would not observe two minutes of silence and stand out of respect for the remembrance for one of the worst atrocities in human history– right?
As the siren commenced, 95% of the room stood up immediately and many bowed their heads. Many had tears in their eyes. It was an eerie feeling. It did exactly what it intended to. It made you reflect on the tragedy that took place 70 years ago.
As I looked around the room I couldn’t help but notice around seven Arab students not standing. They were respectful and remained quiet – but they weren’t standing. Many students outside the coffee shop were not standing either. Before the two minutes had ended, a Muslim Arab student walked into the coffee shop and got in line to order. I couldn’t help but notice the looks on the faces of my peers around me. Walking in to order food while people are reflecting on the Holocaust highlighted the divisions present in Israel.
I tried to spend the two minutes not reflecting on politics, and yet it became inescapable thanks to the actions of others. You see, people in Israel prefer to avoid politics because the politics are everywhere: different memorials, different languages being spoken, churches, mosques, synagogues, etc. People just prefer not to talk about it. In a highly politicized land and conflict, people would rather just live their daily lives.
Afterward, I asked two Arab girls who were at the table next to me why they did not stand. They told me “only Jews stand.” Confused by this statement, I asked a Druze friend if this was usual. The Druze are an ethnoreligious group from the Levant who have a close-knit community that does not believe in marrying outsiders or proselytizing. They are an Abrahamic monotheistic religion that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. They are often classified as Arabs, but many do not consider themselves as such: like most people living in the region they are in an identity crisis as well, and perspectives change depending on who you are talking to. Druze men are obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces; because of this they tend to identify more with the Israelis than the Palestinians. This particular friend of mine served in the military, and classifies his ethnicity as Arab but his religion as Druze. He told me that some of the Arabs do not stand and “they’re being disrespectful” and “just trying to piss off the Jews.”
In hopes of finding another perspective, I decided to ask my Arabic professor, who is an Arab Muslim from Nazareth, about her perspective on the situation. Since this class was directly after the two minutes of silence, it was ripe in all of our minds.
“Is it normal for non-Jews to not to stand during the sirens during Holocaust Memorial Day?” I asked.
My professor gave me an uneasy smile. Politics is an extremely tricky subject in Israel and that this would be a long conversation.
She spent an hour out of a 90-minute class answering my question, telling me that it depends on personal preference, and then delving into her own identity and trying to remain balanced, not saying anything that would offend Jewish students in my class.
It was clear that she also had an identity crisis, and she explained the holiday in a greater context of all holidays being complicated in Israel. She claimed that many Arabs do not stand because they believe that the Jews don’t respect their days that they reflect on their own suffering. She cited the Nakba, or “the catastrophe,” which is remembered next Monday, which also happens to be Israeli independence day. It is one of the most tense holidays, due to the day having different meanings to different peoples.
After an hour of listening to her explanation, I felt the need to ask her if she personally stood for the two minutes. She explained that the sirens went off as she was driving to the university. It is customary in Israel for everyone to stop driving and stand up outside of their car. She said that all cars stopped, hers included, and when everyone got outside their cars she joined: because to her, this holiday is about humanity and the suffering of humanity.
If there is anything to learn from this it is that every situation is complicated and every attitude in the region varies depending on who you talk to. The situation in the Middle East, and Israel specifically, is not always as clear-cut as it seems. There is no way to easily classify people. There are very religious Jews that do not believe the State of Israel should exist and there are Arabs that are happy to live and be protected in Israel. There are still others that simply choose not to talk about these topics for the sake of avoiding arguments.
My professor summed it up well: “In the Middle East, everything is complicated.”