Israel's Independence Day: What to expect

Independence Day celebrations start Wednesday evening.

May 8, 2019 21:39
Celebrations at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for independence day. Indep

Celebrations at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for independence day. Indep. (photo credit: EITAN COHEN/TPS)

Less than a month ago at the conclusion of the Passover Seder, Jews around the world uttered the age-old phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” For 2,000 years, that was an impossible dream for most Jews.

Today, while the population of Israel’s capital is more than 900,000, of whom two thirds are Jews, many Diaspora Jews have never been here. Similarly, some Israelis have never seen the holy city, despite Jerusalem being the focal point of Independence Day celebrations, and the heart of our national heritage.

For historic and military reasons, it was in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem that David Ben Gurion proclaimed the nation’s independence on May 14, 1948, corresponding to Iyar 5, 5708 in the Hebrew calendar.

Soon after, Jerusalem became the seat of government housing the Knesset, Supreme Court and the overwhelming majority of government ministries apart from the Defense Ministry, which is located in Tel Aviv.

Independence Day festivities begin on Mount Herzl on Wednesday night with marching, dancing, singing, torch lighting and official speeches.

To be chosen to light a torch to set the spark for Independence Day is among the highest honors the state can confer. In recent years, representatives of Diaspora Jewry have also been included.

This year’s ceremony will include Jeffrey Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.

Several of the torch lighters at Israel’s 71st anniversary celebrations are people or the children of those who have overcome great tragedies by embracing life and helping to improve the quality of life. Prominent in this respect is Holocaust survivor Marie Nahmias who became a foster mother to dozens of special needs children. The torch lighters include two sons of Holocaust survivors; song writer, singer and guitarist Yehuda Poliker, and filmmaker Avi Nesher. Nesher is also a bereaved father, whose talented 17-year-old son Ari was killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident in September 2018.

Other torch lighters include Iris Yifrach, Bat-Galim Shaer and Rachele Fraenkel, the mothers of three “teenage boys who were kidnapped and murdered by terrorists;” wounded IDF colonel Shai Siman-Tov; and Hodaya Oliel, who despite having cerebral palsy, recently graduated from medical school. They will be joined by paralympian Moran Samuel; along with mental health activist Dr. Hila Hadas; Ziv Medical Center director Dr. Salman Zarka; Sderot teenager and scout leader Gil Shlomo; soccer star and activist for equal rights for Israel’s Ethiopian community Menashe Zal; and Morris Kahn and Kfir Damari, two central figures in the Space IL attempt to land on the Moon. After the lunar probe crashed, Kahn, a visionary and philanthropist, promptly declared his willingness to invest more money in a second spacecraft.

Apart Wednesday night’s main Mount Herzl ceremony, there will be prayer services in synagogues across the country followed by private and public parties culminating in massive firework displays.

For most Israelis, Thursday’s holiday will be reserved for barbecues, picnics and visits to beaches, nature strips, museums, art galleries, and the like. But for President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it will be a long working day, though one in which they combine business with pleasure.

At 9 a.m., the two leaders will participate in a ceremony honoring 120 outstanding IDF soldiers. Netanyahu will join the Independence Day tradition in his dual capacity as defense minister and prime minister.

On Tuesday, Rivlin met with the soldiers during a rehearsal to express his pride in them. The 120 soldiers always include new immigrants who came alone to Israel or volunteer soldiers who came to serve in the IDF and will return home at the conclusion of their service. In the past, families of such soldiers have specially come to Israel for the outstanding soldiers ceremony, and some are likely to do so this year as well.

Also in attendance at the ceremony will be IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and members of the General Staff, as well as former chiefs of staff and former defense ministers.

Prior to the ceremony, which this year is a tribute to the spirit of Israel, Rivlin will host a singing event in which he will appear in a video clip with veteran entertainer Boaz Sharabi singing Halevai (If Only), a classic with lyrics written by Ehud Manor composed by Sharabi.

They will be singing together with more than 20 choirs and singing groups, kindergartens, artistic gymnastic groups and dancers from the dance department of Beit Halohem and 500 others who gathered at the President’s Residence for what has been labeled as “All Israel from Jerusalem.”

Live entertainment will also be provided by Rotem Abuhab, Shimon Buskila, Maya Buskila, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, Tzipi Shavit, and the IDF’s singing troupes who will pay tribute to the late Yigal Bashan by singing a medley of his songs.

Netanyahu will have to leave soon after the ceremony to attend the International Bible Quiz, which is another traditional element of Independence Day. Fortunately, he won’t have to go very far. In fact, if he chooses, he can use the back entrance of the President’s Residence which leads straight to the Jerusalem Theater where the quiz will be held.

In the late afternoon, Rivlin together with acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz will host a reception for the diplomatic corps including heads of foreign diplomatic missions, defense attaches and senior members of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

In the evening, both Rivlin and Netanyahu will attend the Israel Prize Awards ceremony at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. This is always the closing event of Independence Day.

Sadly, one of this year’s recipients, Rona Ramon, will be awarded the prize posthumously. Ramon – who died last December after succumbing to a battle with cancer – was an example of the spirit of Israel. Following the tragic death of her husband Ilan, who was Israel’s pioneer astronaut and later the death of her son, Assaf, a 21-year-old fighter pilot who was killed when his plane crashed during a training exercise in February, 2003, Rona Ramon devoted her energies to educational projects designed to pinpoint the best and the brightest of Israel’s students. She was also a leading figure in encouraging space exploration and cooperation between Israeli and international space agencies, especially NASA, where she had many close friends and where her husband Ilan had trained. Her contribution to Israel’s development will be recognized by way of a Life Achievement Award.

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