Oh Israel: If only it could have lasted a bit longer! I’m not lamenting the country – that will be around long after the doomsayers are ancient history.
It’s the 66th Independence Day festivities that came and went too quickly this week.
A country that doesn’t have a proper weekend, and lacks the concept of bank holidays, could do with a more days off.
And there is nothing more Israeli than the way the country celebrates its birthday.
For a start, there’s that back-to-back combination of Remembrance Day and Independence Day.
On Remembrance Day this week, I found myself explaining one of the most Israeli phenomenon possible.
Relative newcomers were not surprised by the siren when everything comes to a halt – they’d already experienced that very special moment last week on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was when I mentioned the phrase “In a little while we’ll turn into a song” that I drew blank stares.
The project has been running since 2001, the height of the second intifada, and under its auspices every year poems and writings of fallen soldiers and victims of terror, or tributes commemorating them, become lyrics for songs performed (for free) by some of the biggest names on the local entertainment scene.
The project is overseen by Galei Zahal, the IDF Radio station, and its name comes from a line in a Shlomo Artzi song inspired by a quote he read in paper by a soldier who fell in the First Lebanon War.
Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron, in any case, is accompanied not only by the sound of the siren, but an almost set repertoire of songs, many of them dedicated to siblings and friends who will never grow older, such as Canadian-born Amit Farkash’s “Million Stars” commemorating her brother Capt. Tom Farkash killed in a helicopter crash in the Second Lebanon War (“You wanted to fly, you went too far”).
This year, with the death of iconic singer Arik Einstein, his classics such as “Tears of Angels,” seemed even more poignant.
When Remembrance Day draws to an end, and Independence Day begins, the mood changes. As writer (and 1948 War of Independence fighter) Haim Gouri once told me: We’re a country of extremes; we’re either up or we’re down. It’s either Remembrance Day or Independence Day.
One moment we’re commemorating those who fell, the next, the gunpowder has turned into fireworks.
I spent the evening at the home of a friend with a great view offered by a topfloor apartment on a hill – a position so good we could, as someone quipped, actually see something other than the Holyland project that has brought former prime minister Ehud Olmert and a lot of his associates down.
This, too, was a very Israeli evening. To the embarrassment of our pre-teen children, we insisted on watching the traditional torchlighting ceremony at Mount Herzl on TV (while eating felafel, no less!) I realize that to outsiders, a parade involving 12 torchlighters (representing the Twelve Tribes) and a display by IDF flag bearers (this year’s outstanding soldiers), seems to be somewhere between archaic and overly militaristic, but the show – carried on all the main stations – it’s not for outsiders. It’s for those of us who live here and don’t see anything wrong with being called Zionists.
Struggling to guess what the various shapes created by the flagbearers were meant to represent and predicting what would be next turned into a bit of a game.
I had this sneaking suspicion that any minute the assembled soldiers would rearrange themselves into the words “Gam anahnu im hanahlawi” – “We’re also with the Nahal Brigade soldier” – the protest that conquered the social media last week referring to the untenable condition of young soldiers, trained to fight and then placed in positions calling for policing and superhuman restraint in the face of taunting and provocations, although this particular Nahlawi was far from being a saint. And this is a good point to note that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies the so-called “price-tag” acts.
No, not everything is perfect in Israel this year or ever, but every year we carry on hoping it will get better and better.
Since the focus this Independence Day was on the achievements of Israeli women, all the torchlighters were women with inspiring stories and accomplishments.
Walking home on my own, close to midnight, I had another only-in-Israel moment.
A young man, beer bottle in hand, approached me to ask if I knew where there were any parties. In no other capital in the world would a gray-haired, middle-aged woman not feel threatened by such an encounter at such an hour. For that matter, in most major cities, an identifiably Jewish young man would not feel comfortable asking around for a party to crash. I was able to direct him to the all-night bash going on in the center of town (and the nearest night-rider bus stop) and we parted we a “Hag sameah!” (Happy holiday!) It seemed symbolic of the day that he would just assume I would know how to help him – if you can’t ask your own mother, find somebody else’s, it’s a day when we’re one family.
Independence Day is also the perfect opportunity for watching a movie (particularly for those of us who don’t watch on Shabbat). I decided to forgo this year’s most obvious choice – Givat Halfon Eina Ona (“Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer”) a cult classic made by actor/director Assi Dayan who died last week.
Instead, I chose Operation Thunderbolt, a movie in which Dayan co-starred alongside Yehoram Gaon, telling Hollywood’s version of the 1976 Entebbe rescue.
The film appears dated, the acting slightly wooden, but one thing has not changed: Entebbe, although not the first Israeli hostage rescue, strengthened the Israeli belief that when something goes wrong, the state should help.
I was raised on British war movies like The Great Escape in which soldiers were expected to literally dig themselves out of trouble.
Israeli soldiers have almost the opposite idea – stay put and help will arrive.
It doesn’t always work out as planned: On Remembrance Day eve, I watched a documentary showing the father of kidnapped soldier Nahshon Wachsman and the mother of Nir Poraz, the officer killed in the failed rescue attempt, visiting the spot where their sons both died.
Independence Day passed all too quickly with all the usual trappings – a barbecue, a traffic jam, and watching the flyby – another overtly militaristic display, which nonetheless offers a moment of pride.
Friends watched the annual International Bible Quiz and a few diehards even sat through the traditional Israel Prize-giving ceremony.
Perhaps the most peculiarly Israeli event of all is the sing-along at the President’s Residence, where president, prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff all suffer the indignity of singing in public, and the public suffers its leaders’ efforts at Hebrew karaoke.
It was almost a relief to discover, at the end of the day, that American officials were accusing Israelis (via a report in Newsweek) of being super-spies, “as likely to stop spying here as it is to give up matzo for Passover.”
With a day of mourning followed by a night of partying and a day of the top brass singing out of tune, Facebook protests run by soldiers, and planes whooshing through the sky to entertain the crowds barbecuing en masse below, it was a relief to know that Israel still maintains some kind of deterrent in the Middle East.
I just hope our enemies are as scared of our peculiarities and abilities as our friends seem to be.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.