In general, I am not a great fan of the annual Torch-lighting Ceremony on the eve of Independence Day.
This ceremony, which is undoubtedly one of the most stately national events that the State of Israel has nurtured, and which is designed to offer an emotionally impossible transition from the mourning of the casualties of war and hostilities to the celebration of the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland, is full of false pomposity which befits dictatorships the likes of North Korea.
Such ceremonies invariably include military drill exercises that require a combination of extreme discipline and accuracy, of which we are short. This is also the reason that while Israel has some very impressive, world-class modern dance troupes and soloists, though it has a classical ballet company – the Israel Ballet – it is a rather provincial group, which is far removed from the phenomenal standards of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, or the Royal Ballet in London.
The ceremony traditionally includes, in addition to the drill exercises, also a “socially balanced” selection of singers and dancers, 12 torchbearers, who are considered to have stood out in Israeli society in various fields, and – how not? – fireworks.
In the past, the only speech delivered during the ceremony was that of the Knesset speaker, who has traditionally hosted the ceremony, accompanied by the Knesset guard.
However, in recent years, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s second period of premiership, the ceremony progressively assumed the dimension of a personality cult, with the prime minister delivering a political speech, something that was absent previously, when the prime minister used to be physically present but passive. This had enabled the ceremony to remain as apolitical as possible, which was important because politics in Israel have turned increasingly toxic and divisive, and are certainly unbefitting days that ought to emphasize unity, as much as possible.
Nevertheless, in recent years I have rarely missed watching the ceremony on TV – frequently from beginning to end – following which I viewed the fireworks, which I could see clearly from my veranda, which faces in the direction of Mount Herzl.
SINCE I was in kindergarten during the War of Independence and was preparing to go to first grade at school when the war came officially to an end (in July 1949), Independence Day has much more meaning to me than just a historic event about which one reads in history books.
As a child, I used to go out to dance with my classmates on the main street in the Mount Carmel Center in Haifa, which was a short distance away from where I lived, and to view the fireworks from Yefeh Nof Street, from which one can see the magnificent view of the lower city of Haifa and Haifa Bay.
Later on in life, in Jerusalem, when my children were small, we used to meet friends with children of the same age, for various outdoor activities.
Now, unless I am invited by friends to spend the day together, the ceremony on Mount Herzl (which I have never actually attended) and the fireworks are my main entertainment on Independence Day, accompanied by thoughts of all that has happened in Israel – for better or worse – in the last 74 years.
This year I decided to watch the whole ceremony on TV. As usual, the military drill exercises were imperfect, the patterns that were created were nothing to write home about, and, out of respect for those suffering from shell shock, the only fireworks were modest, silent ones, though I would add in parentheses that, somewhere below the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, someone decided to set off a rather impressive barrage of noisy fireworks soon after the official ceremony ended on Mount Herzl – perhaps as a sort of protest, or simply out of thoughtlessness.
DESPITE ALL of this, in many respects, the ceremony was pleasing and even exciting at times, and I could identify with it much more than I had for a long while. I was especially touched by an excited group of soldiers with disabilities, who ran onto the stage, and then threw flowers at the audience. Dancers in wheelchairs were another inspiring feature.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett didn’t seem to mind that he had no active role to play in the ceremony, and acted like a normal family man, with his youngest son on his lap most of the time. Only once did I catch a glimpse of his wife, Gilat, who made no effort to look up at the cameras or assume the mannerisms of royalty.
One could also catch occasional glimpses of Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper (Blue and White), who was responsible for the basic concept and organization of the ceremony, which was to offer opportunities to participate to numerous persons with all sorts of disabilities, who had been victims of abuse, or who have devoted their lives (or part of their lives) to assisting those who require assistance from society.
The details, including accessibility to everyone, were worked out in close cooperation with MK Shirley Pinto (Yamina), who is deaf. It was Tropper who had decided to leave out the noisy fireworks.
Like Bennett, Tropper did nothing to stand out during the ceremony or seek the cameras. In fact, if Tropper were not the minister responsible for organizing the ceremony, he would have been a perfect candidate to be one of the 12 lighters of the torches. Just over two years ago this gentle, modest 44-year-old, with a small crocheted skullcap on his head, donated a kidney to someone he did not know before.
Several members of the Likud came to the ceremony. (I caught a glimpse of MK Miki Zohar.) Netanyahu stayed away. One of his avid admirers, MK May Golan (Likud), said to one of the journalists who attended the ceremony that “even when Netanyahu is not physically present, he is nevertheless here.”
No, MK May Golan. What exemplified this ceremony was the fact that Netanyahu was not present, neither in body nor in spirit. Unfortunately, this might change in next year’s ceremony, when Netanyahu might once again be prime minister, and the current efforts to demonstrate at least a modicum of stately decorum will once again be pushed aside.
Incidentally, on Friday evening, the satirical show Eretz Nehederet on Channel 12 did a takeoff on the ceremony. The takeoff was admittedly extremely funny, but, by turning the ceremony into a political parody, did it an injustice. The ceremony was anything but a political event, for which its organizers ought to be commended.
The writer, born in Haifa in 1943, worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her book Israel’s Knesset Members: A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job will be published by Routledge in July.