BOSTON – After many years of family trips to the Jewish state, the Bendetson brothers of Massachusetts had an epiphany during a 2010 stay in Tel Aviv.
For the first time, the siblings experienced Israeli Memorial Day’s two-minute Yom Hazikaron air raid siren in commemoration of the nation’s fallen soldiers. The brothers and their father watched in awe as cars pulled over and people stopped in their tracks to hear the siren and remember those lost in war.
“Dad, why can’t we do this in our country?” asked Daniel Bendetson, now a junior at the University of Michigan.
The rest of the story is not just history, but a hard-earned amendment to the annual defense authorization bill passed by the US House of Representatives on Thursday.
The so-called “Moment of Silence Act” calls for a two-minute observance to occur each Veterans Day. In addition to remembering the nation’s fallen soldiers, more than 22 million American veterans would also be acknowledged.
Unknown to most Americans, an old federal code provides for a “Moment of Remembrance” at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day. In part because the moment takes place at a different time in each US time zone, the provision is largely ignored.
To counter the challenge of American’s vastness, the brothers called for the Veterans Day “moment” to occur across all US time zones simultaneously, from 3:11 p.m. in Puerto Rico and westward to Hawaii, where the ritual would take place at 9:11 a.m. Whether or not air raid sirens will accompany the moment remains unclear, said Daniel Bendetson.
Fourteen years ago, president Bill Clinton sought to elevate the ritual through an executive order called “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” Noting how little has changed since Clinton’s order, the Bendetson brothers were determined to take the longer, more arduous path of asking Congress to pass a new Veterans Day bill.
“This project has had two purposes,” said Michael Bendetson, a law student at the University of Michigan. “We have a broader focus of bringing the country together by honoring veterans, and shining a light on them. They are too often pushed into a corner,” Bendetson told the Times of Israel in an interview.
Thursday’s defense appropriations vote was not the first time the House voted to adopt an Israel-style moment of silence, a ritual also used in Canada and England.
Last October, the moment of silence language was added to a veterans-focused bill, which passed the House and was sent to the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, the larger veterans bill stalled in the Senate.
The moment of silence language was recently added to the National Defense Authorization Act through an amendment raised by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) and Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA), granting the provision new legislative life. Although enactment is uncertain — the Senate may alter or table the provision — the Bendetsons are hopeful.
“We just felt that Veterans Day has lost some its power in the US and that the tribute is really missing,” Daniel Bendetson told the Times in an interview.
‘We just felt that Veterans Day has lost some its power in the US and that the tribute is really missing’
Upon returning from their 2010 trip to Israel, the Bendetson brothers set to work on lobbying. Having each interned at the Massachusetts State House, the students were familiar with political pitfalls and legislative hurdles.
During four years packed with lobbying meetings, speaking engagements and op-ed writing, the brothers managed to win some of the country’s most famous politicians to their side and recruit a legion of grassroots supporters.
The project’s bipartisan nature was recognized immediately, when former Rep. Barney Frank – a staunch liberal – and former Sen. Scott Brown – a rising conservative icon – co-sponsored a 2010 version of the bill in the House and Senate, respectively.
“Veterans Day is an opportunity for all Americans to come together to honor the service of those who have answered the call of duty to keep our nation free,” said Senator Brown at the time.
“I am pleased to join this bipartisan, bicameral legislation that all began when two kids from Massachusetts were inspired to find a new way to thank the veterans who served our nation,” added Brown.
Back home in the Bay State, Governor Deval Patrick said he wanted Massachusetts to be the first state to implement a moment of silence — another milestone in the Bendetsons’ patriotic quest. Stepping in to offer pro bono support was DC-based Covington & Burling, a top lobbying firm.
Since the proposal’s initial warm reception, the Bendetson brothers have partnered with key veterans groups including the American Legion and a slew of politicians from all over the aisle. Politics aside, the students said their four-year (and counting) quest is really about rectifying a long-time stain on the country’s honor.
‘When we returned home to America [from Israel], we were appalled to see how little is done on November 11 to show our appreciation for those who have given to us so much’
“When we returned home to America [from Israel], we were appalled to see how little is done on November 11 to show our appreciation for those who have given to us so much,” testified Michael Bendetson during a House veterans committee session in 2012.
“Veterans Day has become a day of mattress sales, a regular day of work for many, or a day off from school without any sense of gratitude for those who risked their lives and died for our freedom,” the self-described “political junkie” told legislators. “We need to re-instill the sense of patriotism and gratitude that is so often missing, particularly among young people,” he added.
Earlier this month, Daniel Bendetson returned to Israel to experience Yom Hazikaron rituals, including the one-minute siren and dramatic ceremony held the evening before at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
Enacted in 1963, Israel’s commemoration includes a day-long television tribute with the names of fallen soldiers in chronological order. As with the previous Hebrew month’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, morning air raid sirens herald two minutes of solemn reflection everywhere in the country.
Having weathered four years of lobbying calls and legislative setbacks, the Bendetsons remain undaunted by the bill’s uncertain Senate future. According to Daniel Bendetson, starting the tradition in one city and then replicating it elsewhere – grassroots style – could do the trick.
“We see a Veterans Day that accords respect, and is more inclusive of both the dead and the living,” the younger Bendetson brother told the Times following Thursday morning’s House vote. “President Obama would conduct a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, similar to Israel’s, and there would be a new, bipartisan ritual to unite Americans,” he said.