Independence Day celebrations at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday morning differed from those of previous years, with a change of pace and increased inclusiveness.
This year’s reception for chiefs of General Staff, defense ministers and IDF commanders from 1948 to the present day was held in a much more relaxed atmosphere that included community singing.
President Shimon Peres wanted to include Diaspora communities and the world at large in the festivities, and toward this end recruited all three television channels, Army Radio, two stations on Israel Radio and various Internet outlets to broadcast the proceedings around the globe.
Peres decided that both the reception for commanders and the one for outstanding soldiers would be held outside, in Beit Hanassi’s garden. Another change was the absence of a speech by the prime minister, even though he was present.
The sing-along took place after Peres and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi inspected an honor guard of 120 outstanding soldiers.
Selected from all branches of the armed forces, they included 41 women, eight new immigrants, four lone soldiers (olim in Israel without close relatives), two haredim, 18 officers and 65 members of combat units.
Bat-El Yaish’s and Chen Damari’s fathers had been outstanding soldiers before them.
Each of the 120 outstanding soldiers received a pin of excellence and a scholarship worth NIS 4,000 contributed through the Soldiers Welfare Association.
Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Ashkenazi each had to select a song related to Independence Day, say why they chose it – and sing it.
A back-up team and the families of the outstanding soldiers joined in to drown out less than beautiful voices or those who couldn’t carry a tune.
This section of the program was moderated by actor Avi Kushnir, who personifies the brash, informal Israeli.
Peres chose “Anashim Tovim B’Emtza Haderech” (Good People Along the Way), saying he one told then-Turkmeni president Saparmurat Niyazov that such people were the secret of Jewish survival.
Kushnir invited Rivkele Kremer, a star of the Palmach era, to sing “Hen Efshar” (Yes, it’s possible). The expressions on the faces of the veteran commanders as they sang with her spoke volumes.
Netanyahu chose “Tziunei Haderech” (Landmarks), which he sang as a rookie in the paratroopers when they took long, cross-country treks. When he revisits those places with his wife and sons he sings the same song, he said.
Izhar Cohen, who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978, sang “Yerushalayim Aheret, Yerushalayim shel Shalom” (A Different Jerusalem, a Jerusalem of Peace). Barak quoted from the lyrics, by Yaron London: “A land whose long history is pursuit after pursuit, 2,000 plus one, the air in her lungs half consumed – she is weary, but will pursue her enemies...”
Kushnir dedicated the next song to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, seated alongside Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, in tribute to his strength of character during the years of his incarceration in Siberia: “Kol Haolam Kulo Gesher Tzar Meod” (The Whole World Is a Very Narrow Bridge). Sharansky sang along with gusto.
Ashkenazi’s choice was “Malchut Hahermon” (The Majesty of Mount Hermon).
In his address, Peres paid tribute to the IDF “that gives us security and brings us peace,” and praised Ashkenazi, “who has brought pride to our army, our security and our people.”
Peres also prayed for the full recovery of wounded soldiers and for the return home of soldiers kidnapped and missing in action.
Referring to both the veterans and the 120 young soldiers being honored, the president described them as “fearless warriors with humane values,” and “the sons and daughters of a small but great nation.”
Ashkenazi declared that the 120 outstanding soldiers, which include both Jews and non-Jews, symbolize all that is good and beautiful in Israel.
Of the 120, he singled out three:
• Sgt. Daniel Meltzav, who migrated from the Republic of Georgia at age seven and lost his father, yet insisted on performing his army service even though he had a sick mother, which fact would have exempted him. Even after his mother died a few months ago, Meltzav remained focused on his army responsibilities.
• Lt. Linoi Ben-Shoshan, one of six female combat officers, who is heavily involved in planning operations and was a key figure in the prevention of a terrorist attack near the Erez industrial zone in the northern Gaza Strip.
• Sgt. Netanel Uzan, driver of the Merkava tank that fell into a trench last August, resulting in the death of its commander, 21-year-old St.-Sgt Uriel Peretz Liwerant. Despite his personal trauma, Uzan established contact with Liwerant’s family in Efrat and remains closely connected to the family.
“There is no other country whose young people carry so much responsibility on their shoulders,” Ashkenazi noted.
Addressing the parents of the soldiers directly, the army chief said: “Your pride is our pride, and the pride of the nation.”
Ashkenazi then said: “Mr. President, we love you.”
Later, during the distribution of pins of excellence, Ashkenazi presented the last one to Peres.
Lt. Mayan Weizman, who spoke on behalf of her fellow honorees, defined excellence as a social achievement. “We are the products of the society that raised us,” she said.
Making special reference to those immigrants who had come to Israel
specifically to serve in the IDF, she concluded by saying that even at
a point of such pride in their lives, none of the 120 allowed him- or
herself to forget Israel’s captured and missing soldiers or the anguish
of the bereaved families.
Many world leaders sent Peres messages of congratulations. Among them
were US President Barack Obama, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak and Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
Wrote Obama: “The bonds between our two great countries are deep and
enduring. Our relationship is based on mutual values and interests. The
United States remains unwavering in its commitment to Israel’s security
as we work toward our common goal of a lasting peace. Israel’s
prosperity is a reflection of the hard work and ingenuity of its
people. I wish the State of Israel a peaceful future so that the dreams
of Israelis and their forefathers can continue to be realized.”
Mubarak wrote that the occasion was one in which he could express his
desire to see efforts by Israel to put the Middle East peace process
back on track in order to end the cycle of bloodshed and violence.
Gul wrote in similar vein, declaring Turkey’s willingness to enhance
its relations with Israel on the basis of mutual interests, and by
contributing to peace and stability in the region.