Next week, Israel will be celebrating its 70th anniversary. The festivities will be launched on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, in a torch-lighting ceremony which has been the center of controversy for the last several weeks.
The controversy surrounds Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to speak at the event, while Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein insisted that prime ministers never speak at the Independence Day torch ceremony and threatened to boycott the event.
The event’s organizer, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, in a demonstration of Israel’s world-renowned ingenuity, invited Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández to be one of the torch lighters. As there would be a foreign leader in attendance, it would require the participation of our own head of government. Genius. At least, until Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg led a public outcry against Hernández’s participation, due to his dubious human- rights track record, leading him to decline the invitation.
Regev immediately accused Zandberg of treachery, rhetoric that demonstrates how much our government aspires to be more like Honduras’s. Here’s a glimpse at what’s going on there, according to Amnesty International research:
The levels of violence and insecurity are very high, impunity is rampant, and there are regularly scandals of corruption. To protect their lives, 23,634 people from Honduras applied for asylum in 2017. According to NGO Global Witness, Honduras is one of the most dangerous places for human rights defenders, and especially environmental activists. Following the September 2017 elections, mass protests were met with excessive and lethal force, including over 1,000 people arrested and at least 26 people dead, 16 of them killed in summary-execution style.
The torch lighters are selected to represent the values Israel aspires to, so I can see how, in Regev’s eyes, the Hernández cancellation was a grave loss. So, as a committed citizen, I would like to offer her some alternatives: 1. Victor Orbán,
the recently reelected prime minister of Hungary. Netanyahu already congratulated him on his reelection, an electoral victory won by convincing a country where 25% are at risk of poverty that a continued crackdown on refugees was their answer. Like Israel, last year the Hungarian government passed a law labeling NGOs that receive foreign funding as foreign agents, while sponsoring an extensive communications campaign depicting NGOs as undermining national sovereignty and security.
2. Yoweri Museveni,
president of Uganda. Uganda is the undisclosed “third country” to which Israel wishes to forcibly deport its refugees, following Netanyahu’s momentary episode of backbone, in which he signed an almost-humane deal with the UN for refugee burden-sharing, only to cancel the deal less than 24 hours after its announcement. Israel is rewarding Uganda heavily for receiving its refugees; the details of the reward are under strict censorship. When international deals are censored, that usually means it is a weapons deal.
Back to Museveni. Under his rule Uganda has severely restricted freedom of expression, arresting and harassing journalists who have criticized the president and his wife. Last year saw an increase in crackdowns on NGOs, with police raids on NGO offices, and arrests of dozens during peaceful demonstrations. Uganda recently passed a law sentencing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to seven years in prison for the crime of “gross indecency” and – like Israel’s government – is toying with the death penalty.3. Aung San Suu Kyi,
state counselor of Myanmar (the de facto head of government). The Nobel Peace laureate and 15-year political prisoner currently heads a government that (granted, with much control still held by the military) has been accused of crimes against humanity, including ethnic cleansing and an apartheid regime toward the Muslim Rohingya minority, in part with weapons bought from Israel.
For many in Israel, any Independence Day, and in particular this heavily politicized 70th, comes with mixed feelings. How does one celebrate a country with so much to be proud of, but also so much to be ashamed about? A country that sends rescue missions across the world to help in tsunamis and earthquakes, and shoots unarmed protesters and journalists in Gaza for walking close to its fence.
Shimrit Orr, who wrote the famous winning song of the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest, “Hallelujah,” and was asked to add a verse for the 70th anniversary, said in an interview “We were in much euphoria then; we are now 180 degrees from that feeling.” She added that in her new verse – “Hallelujah Israel” – the line “Hallelujah, a wish for you, a birthday is a day of promise, of a homeland, of a people and of hope” was her subversive way of relating to Israel’s difficult current realities.
At the same time as the official torch ceremony – 7:45 p.m. – across the valley from Mount Herzl, at the Emil Grunzweig Square opposite the Prime Minister’s Office, an alternative ceremony will take place. Organized by Yesh Gvul for the 21st time, this is where I believe Israel’s true values shine.
With no dubious country leaders – ours or otherwise – the torch lighters will be Michael Atakliti, asylum-seeker from Eritrea; Atalya Ben Abba, IDF service refuser; Zehava Gal-On, human rights and peace activist, and former Meretz leader; Khaled al-Ja’ar, social justice activist; Shalom Shuli Dichter, social activist and former director of the Hand in Hand coexistence schools; Noraldin Mussa, asylum-seeker from Darfur; Rosemary Solan, Women in Black; Hagit Sigawi, Forum for Public Housing; Neta-Lee Eli, activist against the occupation in Bil’in; Buma Inbar, peace activist.
As the speech of every torch lighter concludes: “le’tiferet medinat Yisrael”
(for the glory of the State of Israel)!The writer is the director of Amnesty International Israel. He can be reached at director@ amnesty.org.il