Culture Minister Miri Regev (center) poses for a photo on Sunday with most of this year's Independence Day torchlighters.
(photo credit: MUKI SCHWARTZ)
As the country prepares for the uniquely Israeli phenomenon of the back-to-back Remembrance Day and Independence Day, the 16 torch lighters at the traditional ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl have begun intensive rehearsals. There is comfort in the tradition that brings the country together as we make the transition from commemoration of loss to a celebration of freedom.
The torch lighters are chosen by a public committee, based on recommendations submitted by the general public, and requiring final approval by the head of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols, currently Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.
Twelve torches are lit, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. This year’s theme is “Saluting the Israeli spirit” and the torch lighters personify those “who have overcome difficulties against all odds.”
The list of those granted the honor is impressive, comprised of inspiring personalities – some famous, others almost unknown – and covers the spectrum of Israeli society: Jew and non-Jew, young and old, male and female.
As Regev said, “This is a praiseworthy team of men and women who will succeed in moving the entire public.”
The torch lighters include Marie Nahmias, a Tunisian-born Holocaust survivor who became a foster mother to dozens of handicapped children; Paralympian athlete Moran Samuel; mental health activist Dr. Hila Hadas; singer Yehuda Poliker, whose work also includes a powerful remembrance of the Shoah and the destruction in particular of the Greek Jewish community; Dr. Salman Zarka, director of the Ziv Medical Center in Safed and former head of the IDF Medical Corps, who was involved in the operation offering healthcare to Syrians during the civil war there; Col. Shai Siman-Tov, who did not let his injuries in Operation Protective Edge stop him from returning to IDF service, even while wheelchair-bound; Hodaya Oliel, who recently became a doctor, becoming the country’s first medical school graduate with cerebral palsy; soccer star and activist for the Ethiopian Jewish community Menashe Zalka; Sderot teenager and scout leader Gil Shlomo, who participated in the march by teenagers from the South to Jerusalem to spotlight the security situation there; and iconic filmmaker Avi Nesher, who lost his teenage son in a traffic accident last year.
Philanthropist Morris Kahn, the primary sponsor of the Beresheet lunar spacecraft project, and Kfir Damari, one of SpaceIL’s three initiators, will also jointly light a torch at the 71st Independence Day celebration on May 8 – as will Iris Yifrah, Bat-Galim Shaer and Rachelle Fraenkel – the mothers of Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali, the three teens who were kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 2014.
“From our personal tragedy, we were able to see the people of Israel; the spirit of Israel in this incredible people,” Yifrach said at the first rehearsal on Sunday. “We are a people who know how to connect with one another, to nurture one another, to love each other and to help one another.”
A particularly poignant choice is Jeffrey Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, the site of a deadly antisemitic shooting last year. He will light the torch as a representative of Diaspora Jewry. Regev announced Finkelstein’s inclusion only last week; in the wake of Saturday’s lethal attack at the Chabad synagogue at Poway, near San Diego, this seems especially appropriate, literally spreading light in the face of darkness.
On Sunday, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira issued a report critical of Regev’s handling of the Independence Day ceremonies, particularly regarding the Diaspora. Last year, for Israel’s 70th anniversary, Regev initiated the inclusion of a representative of world Jewry. She initially dropped the idea of a Diaspora torch bearer this year before quickly reinstating the honor in the face of public outcry.
Shapira’s report included other criticism regarding the selection process, the number of seats available to the general public and the way the tickets are distributed.
As with all State Comptroller’s reports, the conclusions from this one should be studied and the faults rectified. However, the timing of the report – published just 10 days ahead of this year’s ceremony – is unfortunate, as it did not provide time to implement changes and instead cast a shadow over an event that should signify unity.
We hope that the lessons will be learned for the future – and that the spirit of unity here and in the Diaspora around Israel’s triumph against the odds will continue to prevail.
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