On May 9, 2000, at 11 a.m. sirens sounded and every citizen stopped what he or she was doing--drivers got out of their cars--for two minutes and paid homage to the nation's war dead. That's how sacred Memorial Day is in Israel. Not surprising, since one of every seven Israeli families has suffered a war-related death.
Israel has the highest proportion of veterans in the world--80% of Israeli men serve in the armed forces, as well as a large number of women. The obligation to serve is decades long. As the saying goes, "There are no civilians in Israel, just soldiers on leave for 10 months of the year." (Reservists serve well into their 40s.)
A tiny country the size of New Jersey with a population of 5.8 million (80% Jewish), Israel (Palestine prior to 1948) sits astride the ancient, medieval and modern paths of conflict between East and West. For a half century, the country has been the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Recently, the potential for some sort of strategic agreement between the two countries has been discussed, too.
When presidential candidate George W. Bush declared that the relationship is "more than a friendship," he touched upon a cultural connection dating back to America's settler society. The time when Palestine and the Bible helped define our colonial-frontier identity.
MARINE MEMORIAL ON THE MOUNT
So what's the draw for an American veteran-visitor to this strategically significant land? In a phrase--a wealth of martial history. Some of which is modern and directly relevant to past official and unofficial U.S. military operations in the region.
Let's start with 22,000-acre Mt. Carmel National Park at the Mediterranean port of Haifa. Because of the United Services Organization (USO) presence there and its director, Gilla Gerzon, the 241 Marines and sailors killed in the terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983, are permanently remembered in Israel.
Gerzon recalls how she "was heartsick when I heard that so many young men had been killed." She went to work soon after to create a living memorial. But the project was delayed by the later kidnapping and subsequent murder of Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins. Finally on Feb. 12, 1992, a "path of peace"--lined with 241 olive trees--was dedicated in the park on a point overlooking Lebanon. At the end of the path stands the "Higgins Tree" complete with a descriptive plaque.
Gerzon did not stop there. When 21 sailors returning to the Saratoga from liberty in Haifa drowned after their ferry capsized in December 1990, she launched a memorial drive immediately. Within a year, she orchestrated the dedication of a plaque on a large rock in the park's Federman Forest along with the planting of 21 trees.
Director of the Haifa USO since 1981, Gerzon has earned the title, "Mother of the 6th Fleet." No U.S. ship docks in that …