It’s unusual to see a lot of private cars parked on the road leading up to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, but as early as 6.30 a.m. on Wednesday, cars took up every available space and some were parked on the sidewalk, making it impossible for pedestrians to pass.
Some of those cars were driven by people from the furthest northern and southern reaches of the country. They arrived early in order to be on time for the ceremony honoring their soldier sons and daughters among the 120 outstanding soldiers from all three branches of the Israel Defense Forces, who this year had been singled out for medals, certificates and scholarships.
Inside the grounds of the President’s Residence, families were feasting on a buffet breakfast before taking their seats in the rear garden.
A new seating arrangement gave the bulk of the guests a close-up view and the opportunity for a possible handshake with the president and his wife. Rows were arranged at angles alongside a raised runway, along which dignitaries, soldiers and entertainers made their way, striding from a long, red carpet.
Leading the parade was the president’s wife, Michal Herzog, accompanied by Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the prime minister.
Evidence of Israel’s maturity during 75 years of statehood was seen in that, of the 120 outstanding soldiers, 52 were women, some of whom serve in the air force and in combat units. Neither the roles nor the ratio of female soldiers would have been seen as recently as a decade ago.
Another sign of Israel’s maturity was that far fewer of the outstanding soldiers were born in other countries than in past years. However, more than 10% were born in the United States, Brazil, France, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Russia and the Philippines.
Among those born in Israel were Druze, Arabs and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) soldiers.
The outstanding soldiers marched to their places to the stirring tune of the “IDF March,” which was composed in 1963 by 19-year-old Yoav Talmi, who won a competition with the tune. Since then it has been the official march melody of the IDF, and Talmi, who on April 28 will celebrate his 80th birthday, became an internationally renowned composer and conductor. He was among the first Israeli-born musicians to achieve global fame.
Addressing Israel's outstanding soldiers
In his address, Herzog referred to Israel as “an open miracle” and “historical phenomenon”.
Before the state came into being, Herzog recalled, “we were, and still are, like dreamers.” Noting that the dream had become a reality, the president told the outstanding soldiers that they represented the realization of that dream.
In a reference to Israel’s outstanding, often groundbreaking achievements during the past 75 years, Herzog emphasized, “We could not have done any of this if we hadn’t done it all together!”
Even during this period of discord, he added, the stunning diversity contained in Israel’s demographic mosaic is part of Israel’s special power.
Reviewing the history of the people of the Land of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the point that all those who sought to conquer were eventually conquered themselves, and that those who seek to conquer Israel today will also fail. “We are here to stay,” he said.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke of today’s IDF as a continuation of the legacy of those who came from 55 countries to fight in the War of Independence. They came from the Holocaust, from North Africa and elsewhere and fought together, said the defense minister, who himself is the son of a Holocaust survivor.
As a young soldier, Gallant was also among the 120 outstanding soldiers who were presented to Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon.
But Gallant was not the most veteran of the outstanding soldiers at the large gathering. That honor belonged to Yaffa Algon (née Assa) from Beersheba, who brought the certificate she received in 1956, when she was presented to Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
Coincidentally, Algon’s daughter was born on Independence Day, and Ben-Zvi died on April 23, 1963, 60 years ago this week.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi spoke in a similar vein to Herzog, noting that the diversity in all spheres of the IDF makes Israel stronger and more prepared to withstand Iran and Palestinian terrorism.