They pierce ears and hearts, and can bring Israel to a halt

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, April 22, 2004

JERUSALEM - Few people welcome the sound of sirens. Even less so in Israel where they are more frequent and portend more ominous things than in most places.

Sirens have become a regular part of my life in Jerusalem. Hard to believe there was a time when I rarely heard one. Growing up in Toronto, I'd occasionally hear the distant sound of a fire truck, police car or ambulance responding to some urban urgency. Back then, such sirens were fairly rare and had little impact on me.

In the 1970s, when I moved to France, I heard my first air raid siren. I quickly discovered that on the first Wednesday of every month, at precisely 12 noon, sirens would sound briefly to test the civil defense alert system. During the 12 years I lived in Paris, I barely paid attention to this noise.

It's a different story in Israel, especially this month when air raid sirens will sound throughout the country on several occasions. Instead of their usual function of signaling an emergency or danger, they will be a call to remember. And what is Jewish reality without memory?

This week, sirens will bring life to a halt almost everywhere in Israel. Literally, if only temporarily. On April 19, sirens will blare at 10 a.m. for two minutes as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day. True to Israeli tradition, as soon as the sirens start, drivers of cars, trucks and buses will stop their vehicles and, with great dignity, calmly get out to stand at attention along with their passengers. Pedestrians in the street, workers in offices and factories, students in schools, and shoppers in malls will all suddenly become statue-like. They stand erect and silent with their heads bowed in a poignant pause to honor the 6,000,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis.

Every year, it invokes tremendous sorrow. Every year, I marvel at this custom. Every year, I am deeply moved by the experience, an entire nation taking time out together to remember people they never knew. Several times, I've been downtown when the sirens begin. It makes for an unusual sight - a large, loud animated city transformed instantly into one big motionless scene.

Next week, a similar scenario will unfold, only this time it will be after sundown. Again the sirens will resonate from Metulla in the north to Eilat in the south, bringing Israelis to a standstill. Again the sirens will trigger painful memories, as they mark the beginning of Memorial Day, a 24-hour period of mourning for the 22,000 men and women killed in uniform in defense of the country.

The next morning, on Monday, April 26, at 11 o'clock, the sirens will again pierce the air to coincide with ceremonies at military ceremonies. For the third time in less than a week, Israelis will freeze in their tracks. Again they will relive heart-searing events, wrestle with the enormity of their loss and the grief that will never go away.

Again, almost no one will move as the sirens reverberate. No one except Arabs and ultra- Orthodox Jews who want nothing to do with this commemoration. They continue on their merry way, tuning out the sirens and ignoring those around them standing motionless.

The disregard of most Israeli Arabs is hardly surprising. More disturbing is that the ultra-Orthodox can't stand for even two minutes in memory of their fellow Jews who gave their lives protecting the country. All because they consider this a non-Jewish custom. Such disrespect for their co-citizens is especially offensive coming from those who don't seem to mind taking from the state while systematically avoiding to do their share to defend Israel.

If only these were the sole sirens Jerusalemites had to endure. In recent years, residents have become only too familiar with the cacophony that invariably spells disaster. Within minutes of a major terrorist attack, scores of ambulances, their sirens blaring, swing into action racing to the site of the latest atrocity.

We first hear these sirens from a distance. Soon they grow louder and more unnerving as they get closer. Unlike the sirens of my youth, these are anything but banal or removed from my reality. They are a signal of horror that has struck all too close to home, yet again. It's only after the sirens go silent that we learn what we dread the most.

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