Photo courtesy of Laith Aqel

Being Palestinian on Israeli Memorial Day

Photo courtesy of Laith Aqel At 11:00 a.m. a two-minute siren sounded throughout the country. This would usually signal an air raid, but the bomb ...

Apr 20, 2013

Photo courtesy of Laith Aqel
At 11:00 a.m. a two-minute siren sounded throughout the country. This would usually signal an air raid, but the bomb shelters welcomed no asylum-seekers. Instead, the streets froze as drivers exited their vehicles to join hushed pedestrians in a solemn stance. In a military cemetery at Kiryat Anavim, the mourners likewise observed a moment of silence. I stood with them, head bowed in remembrance. The siren marked Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day in Israel.
Last Monday was the most difficult day since I came to Jerusalem. When I registered at the Hebrew University, I knew I was scheduling myself for a semester of discomfort and uneasiness. As the son of Palestinian refugees, I inherited conflict. My everyday life was filled with dinners interrupted by 12-year-old fathers dodging aerial bombs, 5-year-old mothers splitting a moldy biscuit among their siblings, grandfathers muffling their screams and other indigestible anecdotes that embittered my palate. I learned of a simple us versus them mentality — we are the victims and they the perpetrators. These stories incriminated all Israelis and buried peace under a wall of hatred.
When the siren ended, we sat in unison. The traffic resumed, yet in the cemetery, our eyes were on the decorated military official commencing the ceremony. He spoke with a somber tone, a certain gravity to each articulated word. Forfeiting any attempt to translate his speech with my limited Hebrew, I drew my attention to three objects given to me at the entrance of the cemetery: a water bottle, a sticker and a bouquet of three flowers.
I quenched my thirst with the first as I deciphered the second: Remembrance for the Fallen of Israel. I looked around to see the small note stuck to the front of countless shirts and blouses, dresses and lapels. I reread the phrase and wondered if my grandfather, who was expelled from his ancestral village outside of Hebron, was included in the fallen. I wondered if my friend’s grandfather, who fled to the nascent state after persecution in Casablanca, was included in the fallen. I wondered if I was the fallen. I folded the sticker and placed it in my pocket. In eighth grade, before the memorial wall in Washington, D.C., I could not recall reading any Vietnamese names. I refused to wear a sticker that was too small.
I had applied to the Hebrew University because I, also, was too small; I had a limited understanding of what I assumed was a polarized conflict. The first time I heard of the hundred of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab countries after the formation of the State of Israel, I blushed over my own ignorance. Certainly, they cannot also be victims and we, the perpetrators. But if I have learned anything from the countless reiterations of NYU President John Sexton’s admissions speeches, it is to seek understanding; through a diamond’s prism, there are many perspectives. How can I speak of Palestinian refugees and not discuss Arab Jewish refugees? How do I understand Nakba without acknowledging the Holocaust? How do I pave a path for the betterment of global civil society without reaching across constructed categories of division?
After discarding the sticker for its small-mindedness, I looked at the flowers resting on my lap. The congregation bellowed a Jewish mourner’s prayer as I removed the clear wrapping. The flowers — two yellow carnations — were for the dead. Surrounding me, the cemetery held only Palmach soldiers, the members of the underground Jewish military forces. The headstones numbered the war: 1948. These were the men who had fought for the formation of the State of Israel. As the ceremony finished, every attendee adorned a grave with flowers, but I could only pace the cemetery reading epitaphs, memorizing names, and promising to research the men.
When I finished circling the grounds, I noticed the flowers still in my grasp. I had hoped that they had disappeared, that I had dropped them before someone’s hero. I wondered if it would be easier to place them before another grave. Israeli martyr, Palestinian soldier. The carnations glowed in the spring sun, their death too fresh to be mourned. I thought of abandoning them on a stack of chairs but instead chose to bequeath them to a rosy-cheeked boy with a black kippah. These were people of war, yet I only wanted to commemorate those of peace.
Laith Aqel is a contributing writer. Email him at
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