Independence Day for the secular and religious

The precise nature of how it is to be observed will, like so many other Jewish rituals and customs, remain disputed for many years to come.

Eating barbecue on Independence Day (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eating barbecue on Independence Day
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Tonight there will be an assortment of celebrations to commemorate Yom Ha’atzmaut. Most of the country will watch the official transition from Remembrance Day to Independence Day in the impressive ceremony which takes place on Mount Herzl and the lighting of the six torches by Israeli citizens representing different walks of life. That will be followed by a night of partying and fireworks.
Tomorrow, those who feel the urge to get out, instead of watching the annual Bible Quiz or Israel prize ceremonies on TV in the comfort of their houses, will crowd the roads and the forests and undertake the Israeli Independence Day ritual of family barbeques.
The Independence Day tradition has developed during the past 60 years and, with the exception of the large military parades which characterized the early years of the state and which finally ceased during the premiership of Menachem Begin, has become a form of religious ritual in its own right.
There are, of course, those who will not be taking part in the celebrations.
The ultra-Orthodox will not be celebrating what they see as the abomination of a secular Jewish state. The more extreme among them will mourn and wear sackcloth and some will even go as far as burning the Israeli flag – and although this is but a small minority of a minority, it is hard to understand why they fail to understand the safety and haven which is provided for them by the independent State of Israel, to an extent never experienced previously in the Diaspora, even if they fail to identify with the secular values of a State defined as being Jewish.
Neither will the 20-percent Arab minority be celebrating. But that is to be expected and is much more understandable than the ultra-Orthodox and haredi groups who reject the Jewish state. The flag, the anthem and the very notion of “a Jewish state” does not take account of the large Arab minority.
It is difficult to see how this dilemma will ever be resolved as long as Israel continues to exist, and it would behoove our newspapers and politicians to accept this reality and cease the annual criticism of Arab citizens for not celebrating an event for which they, quite logically, feel no affiliation.
It is unfortunate that, during the past decade, the Arab citizens of the state feel more, rather than less, alienated from the state as they become increasingly frustrated at their lower levels of development, the failure to reach a political compromise with the Palestinians, and their general detachment from the body politic of Israeli society.
There is one group which celebrates state Independence with great fervor.
The world of Religious Zionism views the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state as a religious, rather than secular, festival. Over the years, they have attempted to transform Independence Day into a quasi-religious celebration, including special prayers in the synagogues and the adoption of customs which are similar to those which take place on other religious festivals.
The Religious Zionists have, over the course of the past 65 years, grappled with the way in which Independence Day should be celebrated. They are eager to show their participation in the general celebrations but equally desire to demonstrate their belief that the existence of the state is nothing short of a miracle and should be commemorated accordingly.
It is their attitude toward this very essence of the state which marks the critical difference between the world of Religious Zionism and the haredi community, despite a convergence in many other religious values over the years. It is an ideological difference unlikely to be bridged as long as religious Jews yearn for the ultimate redemption and the different ways in which they see this as materializing.
But Religious Zionists have also displayed an ambivalence toward the religious nature of the celebrations. Starting with the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, special prayers and customs were drawn up to turn Independence Day into a quasi-religious festival, but they never quite went the whole way. The prayer service which is recited on the eve of Independence Day is a mix of customs and prayers taken from the entire annual cycle of Jewish life, including the reciting of the Hallel, the blowing of the shofar, the recitation of sentences akin to those recited at the end of Yom Kippur, and the singing of the famous “Shir Hama’alot” psalm (which was, in its time, considered an alternative anthem for the State of Israel) to the tune of “Hatikva.” Overall, it is a strange mixture, indicating uncertainty about exactly how the day should be commemorated.
Within the Religious Zionist world there has always been a difference of opinion as to whether the Hallel prayer should be recited in its entirety with or without the appropriate blessing. My son tells me that last year he attended the Religious Zionist Independence Day prayer service at the Western Wall. The rabbi who organized the event explained to the participants why they should recite the full blessing. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, arrived in the middle of the prayer service and proceeded to explain why the Hallel prayer should be recited without a blessing, leaving the participants in a dilemma as to what custom they should adopt.
Many of the contemporary Religious Zionist rabbis have written responsa on the topic, often comparing the celebration of Independence Day to the festivals of Purim and Hanukka (both of which were instituted at later periods in Jewish history) as their model for introducing yet another religious festival.
This past week, many of the pamphlets which are distributed in synagogues on Friday evenings were replete with discussions concerning the nature of the religious observance of Independence Day, as though there were a need to convince the public that there is indeed a religious dimension to this national holiday – beyond the barbeques and the fireworks.
This year the Religious Zionist world will be celebrating with renewed fervor.
They are back in power, they have a dynamic new young leader who is not afraid to challenge the haredi parties, and they are reasserting the religious narrative of how they see Israeli independence and Jewish sovereignty.
But the precise nature of how it is to be observed will, like so many other Jewish rituals and customs, remain disputed for many years to come.
The writer is the dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Ben- Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.