Independence Day is wrapped in layers of new meaning this year, after Israelis spent months in lockdown or partial lockdown as part of the country’s war on COVID-19.
Curfews and masking requirements, as well as surveillance by the Shin Bet security agency, left Israelis thinking about what freedom really is.
“Independence is resilience,” said Jerusalemite Ariella Bernstein. “It is the ability to bend to whatever circumstance has happened to you.”
Bernstein said she did not define independence in such a way until corona, and she never thought so much about how resilient Israel really is.
“Not every society handles this kind of crisis with resilience,” she said, as Israelis have already started to rebound from the pandemic, with more than 50% of the population fully vaccinated and the economy opening up. People can plan barbecues with families and friends this year – a year after they spent the holiday alone in their homes with strict Health Ministry rules on gathering.
“We have always done crises well,” she said. “We have incursions in Gaza, wars, intifadas. During the Second Intifada, a place was blown up and within 24 hours people would work extremely hard to bring it back to the way it was. Is that completely mentally healthy? I do not know. But in Israel, we keep pushing forward.
“I appreciate that more this year.”
The pandemic – at least in the beginning – sparked a wave of solidarity in Israel, according to another Jerusalemite, Ittay Flescher, who moved to Israel from Australia.
Israelis stood on their porches and applauded the country’s doctors and nurses. They sang the Four Questions on Passover together through their open windows.
Flescher acknowledged that the second and third waves of coronavirus were fraught with politicization and divisiveness, and that just as the country began emerging from the pandemic, Israelis were at the polling stations for what was a dirty and divisive election. But he likes to believe “we are not as divided as we think. The media fan the flames of pro- and anti-Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] wanting to kill each other and, in actuality, we have a lot more in common than separates us.”
Oren Zauder, another Australian oleh who moved to Israel three decades ago and now lives in the Galilee’s Kfar Tavor, felt similarly. He said that in the first wave Israelis came to appreciate their Arab neighbors, many who were medical professionals or staff serving in Israeli hospitals.
“I think this Independence Day we should try to be more inclusive,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “For them [Arab-Israelis] to feel a part of it, as well.”
He added, “We have an opportunity to build on that solidarity.”
Others reflected more personally on how their lives have changed as a result of the pandemic and said they now better understand the meaning of independence.
“I think to me it is kind of tied up with the idea of being alone,” said Laura Borden Richter, who lives with her husband and children in Zichron Yaakov.
Before the pandemic, she said she felt that independent meant she could handle life on her own. But during COVID, she realized, “I did not enjoy it. I feel more aware that I want to depend on other people in a healthy way. I realize I need them, and I don’t like being alone so much.”
Richter said she sometimes feels like she has forgotten who her friends are because she has not seen them in so long. Now, she makes a concerted effort to reach out and connect with people each day.
And Jill Batya Virag said she has learned to appreciate her freedom of movement and what is important in life. She said throughout the pandemic she feared entering home isolation. “That was my worst nightmare, not being able even to walk around the block.” She never was sent to quarantine, but said even the worry made her wake up to how lucky she was just to go to work.
Before COVID, she said, “I definitely did not appreciate that I could wake up, go outside, get a coffee, go to a restaurant – the ease of things... I used to think about what I was going to wear for Shabbat dinner – stupid questions, if you look back now.”
Virag said she appreciates seeing tables in restaurants and just being able to come home from work, meet friends and enjoy a drink or dinner together.
“Independence has to do with not taking things for granted,” Virag said. “COVID made us think twice about life and how we live it.”