Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana’s welcome words - opinion

Keeping gratitude for Israel going will require the kind of resolve that is hard to come by under the present circumstances. 

 MK Amir Ohana attends the Knesset's Mimouna on April 12, 2023.  (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH/KNESSET)
MK Amir Ohana attends the Knesset's Mimouna on April 12, 2023.

Fears that political polarization in Israel would desecrate the solemnity of Remembrance Day and dampen the levity of Independence Day were assuaged this week when the events marking both national anniversaries took place with minimal mishaps. This was partly due to the cancellation by a number of politicians of scheduled Memorial Day speeches at gravesites, where they were warned by anti-government mourners not to show up. 

But even the unpleasant incidents that did take place were minor. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, for example, was heckled while giving a speech at the Beersheba Military Cemetery. Transportation Miri Regev’s address at the Holon Military Cemetery was greeted by cries of “shame!” And Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, who was scheduled to speak at the military cemetery in the Druze village of Isfiya, was prevented from entering the premises.

When nationwide grieving gave way on Tuesday night to Independence Day cheer – especially high for those who consider Israel’s 75th birthday to be a monumental milestone – the protest movement went ahead with its planned rally in Tel Aviv. That was simply par for the course, as was the fact that it coincided with, and aimed to serve as an alternative to, the Independence Day gala at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Traditionally, the annual ceremony, which features soldiers marching, dancers performing and singers belting out fan favorites from every decade, is broadcast live on all stations. This year, however, only the right-wing Channel 14 did so. 

The others preferred to highlight the demonstration, occasionally offering a split-screen glimpse of the state-sponsored jubilee. Perhaps a misreading of the zeitgeist is responsible for the slip in their ratings. 

 The 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) The 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Still, their loss is the gain of anyone who opted to take a short breather from the shrill arguments of angry pundits and bask in a bit of optimistic Zionism. The bonanza provided that, and then some.

PARTICULARLY worthy of note were the words of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana. He began by paying tribute to the dead heroes and bereaved families “without whom we wouldn’t have a state.” Thanks to them and their sacrifice, he added, “we will shed tears of joy this evening, along with the ones of grief that haven’t yet dried, for the privilege of living in a sovereign, independent state.”

He went on to mention the pall of darkness out of which emerged a “beam of light that Jews dreamed of for one-hundred generations in the Diaspora: [the yearning for] ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ And we, who got to make that dream come true, returned to Jerusalem, this time never to leave it again.”

This light, he said, “has been shining for 75 years, in Tel Aviv and Dimona, in Kiryat Arba and Kiryat Shmona, in Beersheba and Jerusalem. And on this night, it shines not far from here, at the Knesset, which represents all citizens of Israel, of all religions, ethnicities, views and origins.”

Seventy-five years in the making

He continued: “Seventy-five years ago, our pioneer parents made the wilderness bloom, paved roads and built houses. We will continue on their path. Seventy-five years ago, our parents fought against our bitter enemies, the few against the many, against all odds. With the strength of their spirit and in the spirit of their heroism, they were victorious. We will continue on their path. 

Seventy-five years ago, our parents grasped that with all our differences and controversies, we simply wouldn’t survive without one another, and that the forces that unite us are far stronger than those that divide us. We will continue on their path.” 

He explained that this is because “we have no country other than this beautiful Israel, unlike anywhere else in the world. We have no people other than these good people, with all its diversity. We have no other way of preserving the giant miracle of this tiny state, but together.”

It is “our shared journey,” he stressed, “which created a fraternal alliance showing us the way – from Mount Sinai to Mount Herzl, from the wandering of the Israelites in the desert to their entrance into the Promised Land; from the heroism of the Hasmoneans and battles of the Maccabees to the destruction of the Temple and lengthy exile; from persecution, torture chambers, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Farhoud in Iraq to concentration camps and annihilation; from the underground fighters to the heroes of the Israel Defense Forces.”

He said that though the Jews embarking on this journey hailed from various movements, countries and cultures, all strived for the same goal and recited the same prayer: “May He who creates peace from on high bring peace to us and to all his people, Israel.”

HERE, OHANA invoked a spate of recent unfathomable tragedies to illustrate the need for fortitude and fraternity in the face of adversity.

“Citizens of Israel, during the past few weeks, we lost four pairs of siblings, [three] in terrorist attacks and [a fourth] in another disaster: Ya’acov and Asher Pally from Jerusalem; Hallel and Yagel Yaniv from Har Bracha; Maia and Rina Dee from Efrat; and Ma’ayan and Sahar Asor from Tiberias, who died in the Arava flood. Shortly before being swept away by the torrent, Ma’ayan Asor wrote, ‘When we will understand that we’re all brothers?’ 

“I’d like to echo his question and pray for us to understand that all of us here are brothers.”

He then pointed to Rabbi Leo Dee, who recited Yizkor, the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead, just before Ohana took to the podium. Dee’s spouse and two of his daughters were slaughtered earlier this month by Palestinian terrorists. 

Ohana reminded the audience of the “humble request” made by Dee (whose wife Lucy’s donated organs saved the lives of five people) in the immediate aftermath of his personal catastrophe: that everyone post on social media a photo of him/herself with the Israeli flag, “so that we remember the common good in what it symbolizes.” 

On this Independence Day, said Ohana, “we all proudly wave the Israeli flag. On this Independence Day, may we see the virtue in our friends and not the lack thereof. On this Independence Day, may we remember the fraternal alliance that has connected us for thousands of years – an alliance that illuminated our path in the past and will continue to do so in the future, because the Jewish nation is eternal.

He ended with the Shehechiyanu blessing, typically uttered at the beginning of holidays, that expresses wonderment at a new or miraculous experience. “Blessed are you, lord our God, king of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this moment.”

Israel at 75 definitely fits the bill. But keeping the gratitude going will require the kind of resolve that is hard to come by under the present circumstances. 

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana lauded the flag as an emblem of unity. Today, it’s like the rope in a tug of war.