Anyone who entered the grounds of the President’s Residence on Tuesday morning could see workers and soldiers making final preparations for Thursday’s Independence Day celebrations.
At the far end of the garden, 120 outstanding soldiers who are due to be honored at the central festivities at the President’s Residence on Thursday, were being put through their paces by Lt. Col. Oded Nahari, the head of the Ceremonies Department of the IDF Personnel Branch.
“Sit with your heads high. Look straight ahead. Don’t fidget. Keep your hands resting on your laps. Make sure that your berets are on properly and that your boots have been polished,” he told them.
There was one concession, however. He advised everyone to put a tissue in their pocket in case they sneezed or had a runny nose.
At one stage, Rivlin, accompanied by his senior staff, came out to greet the soldiers, telling them that they were “the best of the best.”
Looking at them, and knowing their personal stories, he said that he knew there was hope for the people and the state. He complimented them on being the peak of excellence, saying that it was not easy to be the most outstanding among the outstanding.
For most of the soldiers, the fact that they were selected came as a total surprise, and although all of them were excited, some were more excited than others, who were speaking of their parents’ pride that surpassed any emotion that they themselves were feeling.
Rivlin shared some stories about the different branches of the IDF, in which his children and grandchildren served and are serving, and commented on the extent to which the army had progressed since he himself was a soldier.
The first three soldiers who the president stopped to greet were the most outstanding of all.
The three soldiers – Yuval Shitrit, Lior Cohen and Yonatan Cohen-Shai – all suffer severe physical disabilities that would ordinarily exempt them from army service, but they fought to be allowed to contribute like others in their age group for whom army service is mandatory.
Of the 120 soldiers, one, Miriam Yablon is married, Orthodox and comes from Denver, Colorado. She wears a head covering underneath her beret.
Anabelle Elbaz, who enlisted in the IDF after doing civilian National Service (Sherut Leumi) is also Orthodox, and positioned in a female combat unit on the Egyptian border.
Despite being strictly Orthodox, she has been on duty on Shabbat, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. For her, this has been the most difficult part of her service, but she understands that national security takes priority over all else.
In an Independence Day message that Rivlin broadcasted to the Jewish world, he recalled what it meant to him as a nine-year-old to see the flag of the sovereign State of Israel raised for the first time.
“Today, each time I see the flag flying, it fills my heart with pride and joy,” he said.
“As Israel turns 68, we can look with pride at our past, and must look to the future with hope. The State of Israel was born out of the hope of 2,000 years. It was born with the bravery of dreamers who worked to turn their dream into reality. Their spirit stays with us today. In the past year, I have visited many different places across this wonderful country, I have seen this spirit, this joy and pride, which still pushes us forward.”
Rivlin also spoke of terrorism as the price that Israel has had to pay for its sovereignty.
“Over the last year,” he said, “Israel has faced a wave of terrorist attacks which has brought much pain, and left many painful scars. I sat in the houses, of the families who lost loved ones, soldiers and civilians, I felt their pain, and shared in their tears.”
Yet, he added, “Terror will not overcome us, even though it may take a terrible price.”
In the message, Rivlin also spoke of the importance of celebrating diversity in Israel’s democracy.
“Real independence,” he explained, “means the freedom of expression, to celebrate and enjoy the diversity of voices of all the people in Israel, as different as they may be, whether we agree with them or not.”