The sirens sounded at 8pm. Standing on a hotel balcony, I watched the city come to a halt. The few cars on the main street stopped, the drivers getting out to stand beside their vehicles. On the beachfront a teenager on his electric scooter slowed and dismounted. In Tel Aviv, and all of Israel, Memorial Day was starting.
The day when Israelis commemorate the dead of the wars since 1948, shortly after Holocaust Memorial Day, is followed immediately by the celebrations of Independence Day. But from the evening before Memorial Day the country goes silent. Shops shut, cafés and restaurants close, and for these minutes the whole country stands under the wail of the sirens to remember. As the sirens stop the drivers get back into their cars and the boy on the seafront gets back onto his scooter and glides off into the night.
The next morning the motorways are full of cars heading to cemeteries. The newspapers show the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the grave of his brother Yoni, killed at Entebbe. Now everybody is taking their turn. A dear friend, who crossed the Suez by tank in 1973, took me with him to his battalion memorial.
At the shell-marked Mandate era police station, now a museum, there is a wall with all the names of the dead of these battalions. Wreaths are laid by people who have seen each of Israel’s wars, and one by an American widow of the Afghanistan war, her young son beside her.
After the formal ceremony the old comrades mingle. In the neighbouring woods there are separate memorials for each battalion. “Are you heading down to the memorial?” one asks another, as though it’s no special matter. “Perhaps.” But in the period that follows these old soldiers all find their way through the woods and finally my friend’s is the busiest reunion group of them all.
They pull fallen twigs off the memorial. One takes photographs as they linger. Chinks of sunlight break through the trees, and it isn’t a trick of the light that for a moment, as some are persuaded to recall their long-ago battles, these men seem not just united, but young again.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s singing voice turns out to be quite good. As does that of Shimon Peres. I am in the latter’s garden in Jerusalem for an Independence Day party.
The night before, from 8pm again, the country changed, this time from silence to celebration. Fireworks go off, children squirt each other with industrial-sized cans of foam, and young people drive into town in packed cars to break out onto the streets singing and dancing.
A friend tries to explain the sudden shift. No explanation is needed, I tell him. It seems just very Jewish. “Like the moment at Jewish weddings when the groom breaks the glass with his foot and shortly afterwards the singing breaks out,” I say. “You know why he does that?” my friend says. “To commemorate the destruction of the Temple,” I reply, slightly irked he thinks I don’t know this. “No,” he corrects me. “It’s because it’s the last time the groom can put his foot down.”
No fear of this in the president’s garden. In front of an audience including 140 young men and women of the IDF, the president, prime minister, defence minister and chief of the general staff are each invited to choose a song to sing. When someone told me this would happen I was sure I was having my leg pulled, but no.
First Peres, then Bibi Netanyahu, Bogie Ya’alon and Benny Gantz choose a song and sing it out, each helped by a chosen singer. They all turn out to have passably good voices, though I become distracted with trying to work out what the British equivalent of such a ceremony could possibly look like. But it is warm, self-deprecating and only faintly surreal. All part of a nation in the strangest surroundings enjoying itself.
At the airport back in England, as I wait by the luggage carousel, an elderly English lady asks if I’ll help pull her bag off when the time comes. Of course, I say, and as we fall into conversation I see her watching me closely. At some stage I mention “schlepping” somewhere. “Are you Jewish?” she inquires carefully. I thought this had been what she was wondering. “No,” I say. “I thought not,” she replies. “It’s just, when you said, ‘schlepping’.” We discuss various other Jewish words that are useful in any language. But there is a sadness about it. Perhaps it’s just in the diaspora, but Jews always seem on the lookout, like having one less layer of skin. Which is why Israel matters. As an Israeli friend says: “At least this is ours.”