In Israel, Yom HaZikaron remembers the 23k+ (number from Rafi, feel free to confirm to disagree) soldiers, Zionists, and victims of terror who have fallen defending, or just living in, Israel. Tiny, little, Rhode Island-sized Israel is pushed right up against the Mediterranean, surrounded on all sides by. If Israel is a bunny, then it is a bunny surrounded by bears and hunters -- Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan have all had their share of conflicts with Israel. Things aren't looking so hot with Iran, and within the borders, "green lines" barely keep the Palestinians and Israelis at a quasi-truce. Since the 1880s, people have been dying for the Zionist dream to keep Israel alive.
Maybe my favorite Yom HaZikaron picture: even E! (as in Entertainment TV, yes we get it here, too) has special צה"ל / Tzahal / IDF - Israeli Defense Forces - programming.
Yom HaZikaron is not like Memorial Day in the USA. I'm sure there are ceremonies, but there's still regular programming on TV. There are still probably hordes of people flocking to visit graves of fallen family members. But a national siren, at night and in the morning? Open ceremonies at Har Herzl, the equivalent of Arlington National Cemetary, as well as city halls and plazas around the country? Not likely. And it's also really unlikely that every US citizen knows somebody who has fallen in battle. I have one friend from FL and NY who is currently serving in the US's JAG corps in Iraq. But every single Israeli has a friend, a family member, or a friend of a friend, who died in wars from Independence until today. In the war in 2006, the deaths in the Lebanon conflict included my co-counselor and roommate's best friend. At another Ramah, they lost a former camper, counselor and friend.
When the siren went off today, I was at the top of Ben Yehuda Street, where it meets King George. I timed my walk so that I'd be right at this active intersection at that time. I looked around me, realizing that Israelis and tourists were all checking their watches constantly, waiting for the siren. It's supposed to, in theory anyway, catch you off guard. People with cameras set up shop everywhere -- in medians, in HaMashbir Square (next to the buses), at Kikar Tzion (at the end of Ben Yehuda).
To my surprise, a minute or two before 11, the buses lined up and stopped on King George, usually honking wildly to get cabs out of their way and rushing to get away from the center of town's traffic. Bus drivers got out of their seats, and stood next to open doors, chatting until the start of the siren. Pedestrians paused on either sides of the very large crossing, ignoring green lights (usually, we ignore red lights) to go down Ben Yehuda.
When the the siren began to wail, taxi drivers got out of their already stopped cabs, cameramen took video and stills, I held my camera close to my chest, standing at attention and clicking the shutter about 20 times while rotating slightly. The traffic didn't really screech to a stop, as the whole group had been anticipating the sound. In front of me, I could see people stopped on Ben Yehuda. Behind me, I eyed a few people on the steps of a large outdoor staircase. A line of cars, froze on their ride down Betzalel. Every door was open, every person standing still. Two people bolted across the still street -- a women with a baby carriage and a man who looked sheepishly rushed.
The siren faded out after 2 minutes. A woman to my left wiped her cheeks and eyes. The buses roared to life, and the horns started honking again. Life was back to normal in a matter of seconds. But the tone for the day had been set.
Taxi driver, standing at attention on King George. Siren time may be the only time in Israel to see cab drivers on two feet.