Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrated in Israel

Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations in Jerusalem. Photo: EPA/Abir Sultan

IN elaborate birthday celebrations, Israelis covered their country with barbecues, waved blue and white flags, and brought the skies to life with fireworks and flyovers.

“It’s a bigger and better celebration than I imagined,” said Haifa resident Hadas Ralid, as a folk band played near her house and planes whizzed overhead in a celebratory display. “Yes we face worries, but today is just about celebrating.”

President Reuven Rivlin said that the anniversary was a time to celebrate “70 years of a vibrant democracy, 70 years of strong and independent civil society, 70 years that this nation has held high the torch of freedom and equality in a difficult region.”

He also recorded a special video for Diaspora Jews, expressing thanks for solidarity shown to Israel. “Wherever you are, you stand up for Israel every day and support our country and our people,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasised that whatever events the government organised, much of the celebration was spontaneous. “The citizens of Israel are proud of our state,” he said at a special cabinet meeting at the Tel Aviv hall where David Ben-Gurion declared independence. “They love it and they know how to appreciate its achievements in every sphere. The joy and the pride are not ordered from on high – they spring from the heart.”

World leaders sent congratulations to Israel, including US President Donald Trump, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The strongest words that captured the mood of the day didn’t come from politicians or analysts, but rather a woman who epitomises Israeli resilience. “I have a heart that was broken three times with terrible announcements,” said renowned public speaker Miriam Peretz, as she accepted the country’s highest civilian honour, the Israel Prize, for her work with youth.

“The loss of my eldest son Uriel in battle in Lebanon, the death of my partner Eliezer due to a broken heart, and the loss of my second son in battle in Gaza.”

She then said that she turned her “grief into a new melody”.

She speaks widely to young Israelis “of this land and its legacy, of choosing goodness, of happiness, of devotion to life, of responsibility, of social involvement, and out of that heart which beats with faith in this country and this nation, out of the great depth of pain flowed springs of love”.

Her speech attracted so much attention that the transcript is to be taught in Israeli schools. Other Israel Prize winners include former refusenik Natan Sharansky.

Despite widespread enthusiasm about Israel 70 events, not everyone was impressed, with some calling for more prayers or less politics.

The ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman ran an editorial saying that the state does not adequately embody religious Jewish values, and there is criticism of Netanyahu for insisting on speaking at the annual torch-lighting ceremony, and giving a long and fiery talk.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein didn’t want Netanyahu to address the torch lighting. The PM won out – and gave a speech of 14 minutes, well over twice the allotted time. Many saw parts of the speech as PR for Netanyahu’s own political achievements. “We’re turning Israel into a rising world power,” he said.

The Israeli daily Haaretz ran a scathing article titled: “How Netanyahu hijacked Israel’s Independence Day ceremony.” Edelstein was quoted by local media saying that the PM’s credibility was “damaged”, and that Netanyahu and his ally, Culture Minister Miri Regev, “spoiled the celebrations”.

Thousands of visitors from the Diaspora flew to Israel for Israel 70, including many who had just taken part in March of the Living. There were others who arrived from Europe’s Holocaust sites too, including the largest ever Poland mission run by Friends of the IDF.

On this trip, titled From Holocaust to Independence, soldiers and survivors commemorated and celebrated together, in what they said was a symbol of the Jewish rebirth that Israel represents.

“I survived two years at Auschwitz, but it was as if time stood still in that hell,” said Leon Shear, 91, who was born in Bedzin, Poland, and watched his mother and sister being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “To return to this awful place in the presence of our people’s bravest – the soldiers of the IDF – filled my spirit with new hope.”

Delegation leader Meir Klifi-Amir, CEO of Friends of the IDF, said: “Marching tall and proud into the dreadful Auschwitz-Birkenau camps together with IDF officers and the survivors who somehow endured there, all while flying the Israeli flag, sends a powerful message to the world that we will never forget. ‘Never forget’ is the guarantee of ‘never again’.”

At celebrations, the soundtrack was Israeli, but the sights were universal. The country’s home-grown talent zipped around the country to perform big outdoor gigs at carnival-style gatherings. As audiences watched the singers perform in Hebrew, they engaged in that sacred Israeli tradition: buying cheap Chinese-made electronics items – anything with flashing lights from necklaces to beach balls – that have somehow become a theme of the holiday.

On military bases, ice-cream sellers did a roaring trade, and thousands of people licked their treats as they watched planes race and perform acrobatics overhead that could, within a few weeks or months, be bombing Iranian targets. This was a possibility that Netanyahu pointed towards in his Independence Hall speech.

He said: “We hear the threats from Iran. The fighters of the IDF and the security services are prepared for any development. We will fight against whoever tries to harm us. We will not be deterred by the cost and we will exact a price from those who seek our lives. The IDF is up to the task, and the people will endure.”