Love, hope, faith and unity were the prevailing themes of the official Independence Day celebration honoring 120 outstanding soldiers at the President’s Residence on Thursday.
While much of the annual event follows a standard format, each president brings something innovative to the table. Unlike his predecessor Shimon Peres, who presented his favorite Hebrew song and had the prime minister, defense minister and Chief of Staff do the same, President Reuven Rivlin had each invite an inspirational individual to the ceremony.
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot chose Oren Blitzblau, who in January 2005 was severely injured in a terrorist attack in Gaza and rendered permanently blind.
Blitzblau, who previously had been a promising swimmer, turned to riding a tandem bike as part of his rehabilitation process and began participating in para-triathlons.
An example of sheer willpower, in 2012 he came in seventh in the world championships, and second in the European championships. In 2013, he moved up to fifth in the world and, in 2014, won a bronze medal in Madrid and first place in a sprint in Brazil.
Blitzblau said he had been able to overcome his disability simply by acknowledging that he had it and learning to adapt to new realities and challenges.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon selected Muneer Sawaed, a former paratrooper who served in the unit he commanded during 1982-83 and who lost a leg when a booby trap on the side of the road in Lebanon exploded.
In 2005, Sawaed was part of an initiative to create a memorial for four Beduin combat soldiers from his village of Salame in the Galilee who were killed on active duty. His story illustrates the common fate and values of all Israelis regardless of religious and ethnic differences.
Ya’alon pointed out that, as a Beduin, Sawaed was not obliged to serve in the army and certainly not in a paratroop unit. Following his rehabilitation, Sawaed returned to his village and became its council head.
Under his administration, the village has received electricity and a proper sewage system, there is progress in education and residents pay their rates and taxes, Ya’alon noted.
Sawaed said he was surprised and deeply moved to be selected, and excited to be in the President’s Residence on Independence Day.
“It has not been an easy year but there is always hope,” he said, voicing hope for peace in the region and confidence in the incoming government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ya’alon.
Netanyahu chose the iconic Miriam Peretz, a widow, who remained proudly Israeli and true to her faith after sons Uriel and Eliraz were killed during active IDF duty, saying she represents the ability to overcome and never lose hope.
An educator and eloquent and passionate orator, Peretz meets frequently with soldiers, youth and bereaved families giving them hope and faith through example and the sharing of grief and pain.
Peretz said the spirit of her sons – the spirit of the People of Israel – had not been vanquished. “We are a people who always know how to rise again,” she said.
Netanyahu, whose younger son Avner is now serving in a combat unit, said he thinks of every soldier as his son or his daughter.
Both Netanyahu and Eisenkot evoked the memory of Golani Brigade St.-Sgt. Oren Shaul who was killed in an ambush in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge and whose remains have not been recovered. Shaul, last year, had been one of the 120 outstanding soldiers honored at the ceremony.
Eisenkot said no effort would be spared to bring him back to Israel for burial. However, Shaul’s mother, Zahava, in a Remembrance Day interview on Israel Radio, said she had a mother’s gut feeling he was still alive, albeit seriously injured.
Rivlin’s choice was prize-winning filmmaker and screenwriter Rama Burshtein who grew up secular and became haredi, noting that she had succeeded in narrowing the gap between the two worlds “where we have not yet succeeded.”
Burshtein said she uses “love” to convey the haredi life style to those with a secular background, noting that she loves humanity regardless of whether it is religious or secular. “In life, we all look for love,” she said.
The 120 outstanding soldiers from the army, navy and air force also represented Israel’s demographic mosaic including lone soldiers and those born abroad who had come with their families to Israel from the United States, Canada, Argentina, Holland, Belgium, Ethiopia, Russia, France, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, Italy, China, India and Australia; male and female; secular, national religious and haredi; Sephardi and Ashkenazi; Jewish, Beduin and Druse; as well as those who considered themselves Jewish but were not halachically so. They came from big cities, small towns and villages, moshavim and kibbutzim from the North to the South and the East to the West of the country.
The ceremony was a first and visibly emotional experience for both Rivlin and Eisenkot in their present roles, with Rivlin noting that he had been born into a generation for whom the raising of the Israeli flag was not something to be taken for granted and adding that “it never will be.”
Rivlin told the 120 outstanding soldiers, who had been chosen for their devotion to duty and professionalism, they were proof that although Israel is forced to bear arms, it is not at the cost of sacrificing social, traditional and humanitarian values.
“The IDF is outstanding not because of its force, but because of its spirit,” Rivlin declared.
Eisenkot told the soldiers they were living proof that excellence is still the foundation of the IDF, adding that he was certain the exemplary conduct they had demonstrated in the IDF would continue to characterize them when they doff their uniforms and return to civilian life.