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National Post, November 11, 2011

Every year on this date, Canadians pause to remember the more than 100,000 of our citizens who have died serving our country and protecting the freedoms we enjoy. The solemn marking of this great sacrifice, and the pain of those our fallen soldiers have left behind, is especially meaningful this Nov. 11. For the first time in many years, Canada is not at war.

It is true that a major Canadian contingent remains in Afghanistan, where 950 members of the Canadian Forces are mentoring Afghan military and police officers. The death last month of Canadian Army Master Corporal Byron Greff, killed by a truck bomb as he rode a bus in the Afghan capital of Kabul, should remind us all that while our combat mission in Afghanistan has ended, our troops are still at risk in that distant land. And only in the last few days have the Canadian troops that went to war in Libya begun to return home, after a successful mission that thankfully saw no Canadians killed.

These men and women will join the ranks of Canada’s proud veterans. In two world wars, the war in Korea, throughout the Cold War and numerous UN peacekeeping tours—and more recent battles throughout Afghanistan and the Middle East—our soldiers have accomplished much, and always for the right reasons. Canada does not fight for territory or resources. Our battles have always been in defence of our allies and our values.

Canadian soldiers, past and present, never ask for much in return for what they have freely given us. That makes it all the more important, on this day as all others, to keep them in our thoughts, and offer them all the respect and gratitude this blessed nation can spare. We hope all Canadians join us today in remembering our military heroes. They have our thanks.

John Thompson
National Post, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day isn’t just an event on the calendar. It’s more timeless than that. Our annual Nov. 11 ritual taps into a set of feelings that are thousands of years old.

It is a central part of the human condition to wonder about what comes next when we finish the brief span of our lives. Does some part of us linger? Can we still connect with what we loved best? Will we remember?

Almost all human beings believe (at some level) that something of us remains, and we see the graves and tombs of those who have gone before us as a way of remembering and staying in touch with some element of our dead. It is also almost equally universal for humans to believe that lives ended violently are less likely to settle into whatever comes next as peacefully as those who experienced longer lives and more peaceful deaths.

For those who deliberately offered themselves to violence or sudden death, particularly to protect others, our need to assure ourselves (and the dead) is strong. This was a central theme in the works of Homer, who almost 3,000 years ago praised those who put their bodies between their homes and families “and the war’s desolation.”

It was the Greeks who also gave us the idea of the cenotaph (literally, “empty tomb”), so that those who fell far from home or at sea could have a symbolic resting place somewhere friends and families could honour them. Over 2,400 years ago, Pericles, in his famous Funeral Oration to the Athenians, argued that a cenotaph is a more honourable grave than most others—for it contains a purity of spirit with no physical corruption.

Stunned by the toll of the First World War, many Canadian cities erected cenotaphs. Erroneously called “war memorials,” these are the empty tombs for the 109,700 Canadian war dead who have fallen since the Boer War. It is where we go to honour these dead and hope—at some subconscious level—that they realize it. Ceremonies that take place in Canada and throughout the old British Empire include the sounding of the Last Post, the minute of silence, and the sounding of The Rouse. Following these, wreaths are laid.

The Last Post is a British Army bugle call going back well into the 18th Century, with Dutch roots before that. It is the traditional last bugle call of the day, signalling to all soldiers in ear-shot that the routines of the day are finished. Sentries are out, and everybody else should be in bed. However, like all bugle calls, it has a slightly different meaning on a battlefield.

Imagine some battlefield in the era of muskets as dusk is closing in. There is a gunpowder haze floating over fields coated with the dead, dying and wounded. In this circumstance, the Last Post is a rallying call for the wounded and those who have been separated: The day is done, the fighting is over. Here is rest, here is safety, here are your comrades, come here.

Do we imagine that, besides the lame and lost, those who were untimely ripped from life would ignore this call, too? Do we dare to think they couldn’t come? The question is seldom voiced and we cannot answer it anyway. But we sound the Last Post at our cenotaphs not only to symbolically end a day, but perhaps also to call in the missing to the empty tombs we built for them.

Reveilleor Rouse (to cite both the American and British names for it) is the other bookend to the minute of silence. It was the first bugle call of the day for centuries in the British Army, and the message is basically “Everyone get up!” It has a lesser meaning, but one that is still significant in Christian imagery: There will be that last morning someday in which all the living and the dead will arise together in a final resurrection, when all will be made whole.

The minute between Last Post and Reveille is the most charged element of all, and the oldest, of the ceremony.

Even in Prehistoric times, human notions of magic have held that to own a part of somebody might give you the means of controlling them even in death. Carrying off a trophy like a scalp or an ear from fallen enemies was deemed by many cultures to be a way of controlling their spirits. Another widespread belief was that to mutilate a fallen enemy even further would spoil his chances of enjoying the afterlife. More practically, scavenging animals have always feasted on the dead, and looters have often robbed them of anything valuable.

In consequence, whenever possible, you guarded your dead after a battle until you could properly dispose of them according to your culture’s rituals. This was done to protect from mutilation, trophy-seeking and from being dragged off by scavengers. In the long centuries before we got a grip on internal medicine, we also stood watch over the dead to ensure they weren’t just unconscious or in a coma.

Symbolically, the minute of silence is not just a pause for reflection. Sandwiched between the last and first bugle calls of the day, it is a ritualized night vigil for the dead to guard them from insult and further harm. By standing watch, we not only remember them but we pledge ourselves to protect them from dishonour.

Thus, here is the ceremony in brief: We call to the spirits of our slain to a tomb built for them and announce that it is nightfall. We stand vigil to guard and remember them, we end the “night” with the implicit hope that we shall meet together again.

As for the wreath-laying ceremony, human beings have been marking graves with flowers for at least 40,000 years insofar as archeological evidence is concerned. Moreover, to the Greeks and Romans (and so far as we know, other ancient European peoples), wreaths were offered as prizes to champions and heroes. Leaving a wreath at a cenotaph is another unconscious declaration that it is a home for the heroic dead who offered up their lives for our safety and well-being.

Doing all this on Nov. 11 provides a highly charged ritual full of significance. It is more than maintaining a memory and rending honours; it is a pledge and a shared hope in life after death.

Keep the faith.

Frederick Krantz


The following editorial by Prof. Krantz, published in CIJR’s Daily Briefing(Vol. IV, No. 885) on Friday, June 4, 2004, remains pertinent on this year’s Memorial Day.

Sunday, June 6, 2004 is the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the massive Allied amphibious landings in Normandy which, along with the earlier Russian victory over the Germans at Stalingrad, marked the beginning of the end of World War II in the European theater.

Solemn ceremonies, many involving the last surviving participants in the landings, will take place. It is a fitting moment to remember (although the figure is incomprehensible) the probably almost 20,000,000 Allied soldiers who fell in that life-and-death struggle against fascism, and to remember too the major Jewish role in the struggle to defeat the Nazis and their Axis collaborators.

1,397,000 Jews, not including thousands of partisans, fought with Allied forces: 550,000 from the USA (5% of the American military, and approximately 15% of the Jewish population), over 500,000 from the USSR (including over 70 generals), and 91,000 from Britain and the Commonwealth (16,000 of whom were Canadians).

36,000 (an incredible 6% of the total yishuv population) from Jewish Palestine served with the British. This includes the Jewish Brigade, formed in 1944 as part of the Kentish Brigades [The Buffs], 5,000 men who fought under a Magen David flag in the Italian campaign.

400,000 Polish Jews were in arms in 1940, and after the defeat many fled to Russia (General Anders’ Army) and Britain. Similarly, many French Jews joined the Free French under De Gaulle, after France collapsed in June, 1940.

Jewish fighters rose against the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto in April, 1943 (the first rising of an urban population against the oppressors), in the death-camps (as at Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, among others), and in the forests and mountains as partisans.

More than 50,000 American Jewish servicemen  were killed or wounded; many were among the over 5,000 casualties on the first day of the Normandy landings, June 6, alone. 10,000 Jews fought in the South African Army, where Major General Alexander Ohrenstein was director-general of medical services.

140 Soviet Jews received the title Hero of the Soviet Union; a Soviet flyer, Michael Plotkin, was given the honor of flying in the first Soviet air-raid on Berlin, in August 1941, and several Jewish generals were key figures in the decisive battle of Stalingrad. 20,000 Jews served as partisans on the Polish-Russian borders.

Jewish soldiers with Allied forces participated in the liberation of the death-camps in 1945, and both Palestinian and Diaspora volunteers (like General Mickey Marcus, buried at West Point) formed the core of the Israel Defense Forces in the 1947-48 War of Liberation in Israel.

A total of over 60 million human beings from all countries, including China and the Axis countries, and including the 6,000,000 Jews of the Holocaust—no other people, including the Soviets, suffered such absolute decimation—died in World War II. The Soviet Union alone lost 13,600,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, and over 7,000,000 civilians. Great Britain lost 326,000 fighters, and 62,000 civilians; China 1,324,000 soldiers, and 7,700,000 civilians.

We are once again engaged in struggle with a death-enthralled terrorist foe who, like the Nazis and their henchmen, has made extermination of Jews, represented today by the State of Israel, its stated goal. D-Day this Sunday [and Memorial Day today—Ed.] should, then, remind us of the profound sacrifices made by the Free World in order to defeat the fascist murderers, and of the key role of the Jewish people, itself the sustained focus of the Nazis’ exterminatory drive, in the struggle, and the victory.

(Prof. Krantz is Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research
and Editor of the Isranet Briefings series.)

Charles Bybelezer

As the fire alarm sounded and soldiers exited from the Canadian Armed Forces building onto Montreal’s Ste Catherine and Bishop intersection, I could not help but think that a different time and a different place a similar alarm would have induced terror within the hearts and minds of these brave patriots. Such are the peculiarities of time and space: for most, a siren is only a siren; yet for those who have served on the front lines, the sound has often foreshadowed the end.

As I admired the men and women in uniform, unable to conceptualize the things they have done and the horrors they have witnessed, my thoughts turned to another region of the world, to another people on the front lines, who share with our servicemen and servicewomen an understanding of the life-and-death nature of the dreaded siren. That region is known to all of us, but the circumstances there often escape our comprehension: the sovereign territory of Southern Israel, bordered by a terrorist enclave, Hamas-ruled Gaza. In that region, blaring sirens precede the inevitable missile bombardment, indicating the immediate necessity to mobilize; not to the battlefield, but rather to bomb shelters, found in homes and schools alike. For the residents of Israel’s south are not soldiers, but civilians.

For the past ten years, many Canadians, myself included, conducted their daily affairs overlooking that, until last month, Canada was at war. As we endured life’s many complications, manoeuvring to meet and overcome challenges, we may have overlooked a fundamental truth: sometimes a siren represents more than mere noise. So too many of us now fail to realize that in certain parts of the world terror continues unabated; that every projectile emanating from Gaza has one tangible outcome: an explosion, which, in turn, wreaks destruction. Just ask the wife of Yossi Shushan, 38, of Ofakim, Israel, who recently was killed by a rocket while on his way to pick up his spouse, nine months pregnant.

The widespread ignorance regarding Israel’s plight often forces me into the position of safeguarding Israel’s right to defend its citizens. In doing so, I encounter a common retort: Israel brings terror upon itself due to its “occupation” of Palestinian lands. To which I reply: “Is the murder of innocents ever justified?” Moreover, this twisted reasoning ignores Israel’s reality—that it is flanked by a territory governed by a terrorist organization, Hamas, openly committed to “raising the banner of Jihad…in order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews.” Not Gaza or the West Bank, mind you, but all of ‘Palestine’, “from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.”

As a corollary, then, can any and every Israeli action vis-à-vis Gaza not be logically attributed to Israel’s need to contain its enemies, who have repeatedly, and overtly, declared war against the Jewish state? Yet reason is too often abandoned when it comes to the Middle East’s lone democracy. So I ask: Like Canada’s military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, are Israel’s actions not aimed at combatting terror? Is this not a moral cause?

To hold democratic, embattled Israel to a different standard is to negate Canada’s legitimate involvement in just wars, and to tarnish the memory of those who perished therein.

Then, returning to “occupation,” the undeniable truth, with which all of Israel’s detractors must come to terms, is that Israel does not in fact “occupy” Gaza. Indeed, since its 2005 military disengagement, accompanied by the uprooting of every Jewish civilian, Israel has absolutely no footprint in Gaza.

Yet the sirens still sound.

Can this paradox be reconciled? Not unless we begin to view the situation from the correct perspective: Israel, the country, is itself on the front lines, defending itself against those who will not only her destruction, but our way of life as well.

Thus, my hope is that in the future the sounds of sirens will evoke from us more than mere sounds of silence. For in Israel, as for the Canadian men and women who valiantly risk their lives to ensure our freedom, the siren may be the last sound heard.

(Charles Bybelezer is Publications Chairman for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.)

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Jerusalem Post, November 10, 2011

A momentous event took place last week: the largest gathering of rabbis in Warsaw since World War II.

The Conference of European Rabbis convened in this historic city, bringing together, among others, the chief rabbis of Israel, France and the Ukraine, Rome and Moscow, Austria and Poland; and dayanim (judges) from the Batei Din (rabbinical courts) of London, Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon and Amsterdam.…

There was one moment in particular during the conference that captured the awe and miracle of Jewish destiny: the mincha [evening] prayers in the Nozyk Synagogue, the only synagogue not destroyed by Germans, because they had turned it into a stable. As we began mincha, I looked around the synagogue. Seeing 200 rabbis, representing almost two million Jews in communities across Europe, the words from the Book of Psalms came to mind: “Some come with chariots and some with horses but we call out in the name of Hashem our G-d. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm.”

Who would have thought, at the height of Nazi power, when Jews were being murdered in gas chambers and when the Nozyk Synagogue was desecrated, that one day rabbis representing Jewish communities throughout Europe would return with strength and confidence to this very synagogue?… The Third Reich brought horrific destruction; but in the end, it lost the war against the Jews. In defiance of any normal laws of history and human nature…the Jewish people have survived.

These are indeed days of “miracle and wonder.” Some 250 years ago, long before these modern miracles, Rav Yaakov Emdin wrote that the miracles performed by G-d to ensure the survival of the Jewish people throughout the many years of exile are even greater than the awe-inspiring miracles of the Exodus from Egypt—the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna falling from heaven and the Clouds of Glory.…

By any logical and rational assessment, we should not exist as a separate, identifiable people after almost 2,000 years of exile, dispersion and persecution.… The miracle of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, which we have been privileged to witness in our time, is a remarkable endorsement of the prescient words of Rav Yaakov Emdin.…

Before the conference started, my son and I went to see one of the last remaining walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. As we entered, a group of Israeli soldiers left. On their lapels was proudly emblazoned the Magen David, now the emblem of the sovereign Jewish state. It struck me how decades ago, when Jews wore the Star of David on their clothing, it was a badge of dishonor, symbolizing their certain death. It has now become a badge of life, strength and pride.

Yet this kind of miraculous rebirth can be intoxicating. It is easy to forget that even now, when we have brave, strong soldiers who can defend the Jewish people, our destiny is in Hashem’s hands.

We learn this lesson from King David, one of our greatest military and political leaders, who bravely led and defended the Jewish State. King David was known not only for his political power and military genius but also as a great spiritual leader, learned in Torah and imbued with deep devotion to G-d, whose faith and connection to Hashem he expressed so eloquently in his Book of Psalms, which contains the verse quoted above.… King David…of all people knew the great necessity of a strong army, but he also knew that we cannot be defined by it.

We are defined by our moral vision, which G-d gave to us at Mount Sinai.… The future of the Jewish people…does not depend on chariots and horses alone. Throughout history, many civilizations and empires with mighty armies have come and gone; yet the Jewish people have remained throughout.…

(The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.)

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