Lifestyle & Belief

Some Israelis are queasy about celebrating their Independence Day


Israeli Air Force planes in formation over Jerusalem during a display for Israeli Independence Day.


REUTERS/Amir Cohen

This week, Israelis celebrated 66 years of independence. There were fireworks and barbecues and airshows, like you’d expect to see on any country’s independence day.

But for many, it was a complicated day.

There are groups in Israeli society who simply didn’t celebrate. Many Ultra-Orthodox Jews, for one. Some of them don’t recognize the State of Israel because they believe a Jewish state can only be established in the days of the messiah.

And many Arab-Israelis feel isolated on Independence Day, because it marks the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s establishment, when masses of Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, never allowed to return.

In that vein, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, purportedly released this mocking YouTube animation featuring alternate lyrics, in Hebrew, set to Israel’s national anthem, in Hebrew. Roughly translated, Israel’s national anthem begins: “Deep in the heart / the Jewish spirit yearns.”

The Hamas spinoff starts: “The Zionist army is built of wax / It already melted and has no hope.” In Hebrew, it rhymes.

Even for those who do celebrate Israel’s birthday, Independence Day is complicated. The holiday starts immediately after a national day of mourning for Israelis whose loved ones died as soldiers on the battlefield or as civilians in suicide bombings and other attacks of the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict. It's a jarring transition, and some have petitioned for Memorial Day to be pushed back so there's space in the calendar before Independence Day.

There have been attempts to sooth the country’s move from grief to joy. Each year, a selected group of citizens who have made contributions, small and large, to Israeli society are invited to Jerusalem to light a torch at a national torch-lighting ceremony. It’s a symbolic move from the little memorial candles traditionally lit to remember loved ones who’ve died, to the large beacons of fire representing pride in the country’s achievements.

A different kind of ceremony was held not far away, at the Tower of David citadel in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Secular Yeshiva, a liberal study center promoting Jewish pluralism and social action, conducted its own version of havdalah. It’s the service that marks the end of the Sabbath each week with a ritual meant to sweeten the transition, as the Hebrew prayer goes, “from holiness to the everyday.”

In the Sabbath ritual, the devout take a whiff of sweet-smelling herbs, to sweeten the transition out of the day of rest. At this ceremony separating Memorial Day from Independence Day, sprigs of fresh rosemary were distributed to the Israelis in the crowd. It’s an herb that covers the graves of soldiers at Israel’s national military cemetery.

Then, Ariel Levinson, head of learning at the Secular Yeshiva, gave a speech that reflected on the complications of the day, and the tensions present in Israeli society. Nowhere are those tensions more prevalent than Jerusalem, a city that is central to the country’s religious and political struggles.

Here is an excerpt:

“There are people that cannot celebrate with us here tonight. The non-Jewish minorities who live with us still do not feel at home, and how can we hear their voice if we cancel Arabic language teaching in schools? [Israel recently cut down on the amount of Arabic language teaching required in the national curriculum.]

“The Arab population and the Ultra-Orthodox society suffer from discrimination and challenge us to try to listen and include other voices different from ours. How can we hear this voice when young Jewish hooligans enact “price tag” activities and act against the Israeli army without response? [Extreme nationalistic Israelis in recent days have stepped up hate graffiti and vandalism on Palestinian and Arab-Israeli properties, called “price tag” actions.]

“Jerusalem is the place where all these charged voices meet, but it is also the city that will sprout, and already sprouts, initial attempts to resolve them, because it cannot allow itself to ignore them.”

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    Ariel Levinson speaks at the Secular Yeshiva's ceremony marking the transition between Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day.


    Daniel Estrin

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    The Secular Yeshiva's ceremony marking the transition between Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day was held at the Tower of David citadel, seen in the background.


    Daniel Estrin