Israel abruptly crossed over from mourning to celebration on Wednesday night, as Memorial Day came to a close at sundown and Israel’s 68th Independence Day began.
Mourning and somber speeches gave way to fireworks, concerts and parties across the country as the nation transitioned to Independence Day, with flags raising from half-staff back to full.
At the country’s official cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the state ceremony marked the transition with a speech from Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and the lighting of torches by 12 Israelis who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society.
The juxtaposition of the two days is a key part of Israelis’ experience of national mourning, ensuring that no commemoration completely excludes the achievement wrought by the sacrifice, and that the elation of independence is never far removed from an awareness of its cost.
The sudden switch is often seen as a difficult transition for bereaved families.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recorded a short video that was screened at the start of the ceremony, just ahead of the speech by Edelstein. President Reuven Rivlin was also in attendance.
In his message, Netanyahu said that the creation of the State of Israel ended the Jewish people’s dependence on others for its protection.
“Sixty-eight years ago the State of Israel was founded; it was a tremendous historic event. For thousands of years, the Jewish people longed to regain their independence and sovereignty. Today, we have it. We control our destiny, we protect our lives,” he said.
Netanyahu also posted a video of his speech in English to the prime minister’s Facebook page.
Acting as the official host of the ceremony, Edelstein warned against the divisions in Israeli society.
“The grave phenomena of denigration and incitement have not, to my regret, passed the Israeli public by,” he said. “The tensions that characterize us, and which are often healthy, have exceeded the boundaries of good taste. Widespread freedom of expression, the lifeblood of democracy, is often characterized by offensive discourse. Utterances have become more and more extreme: sector by sector, belief against belief and worldview against worldview.”
Rona Ramon, the widow of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, was selected by the Culture Ministry along with 11 others to light ceremonial torches during the ceremony, whose theme was “civil heroism.”
Four torch lighters were chosen for acts of heroism carried out during recent terror attacks: Herzl Biton, a Tel Aviv bus driver who fought off a Palestinian terrorist during a stabbing attack last January; Alison Bitton, a Border Police officer who prevented a deadly attack on a fellow officer in the northern West Bank in October; and IDF soldier Osa Roberto, who thwarted a terror attack at the Etzion Junction in the West Bank last month.
Avi Toibin saved Israel’s canoe champion from drowning in a Tel Aviv river in 2009.
Three of the torch lighters were women who have led the fight for equal rights in various realms of Israeli civic life: Rotem Eliseva, an 18-year-old women’s rights activist, started a national dialogue about rape and sexual assault by publicly sharing her own story; Dr. Anan Fala, Israel’s first female dentist from the minority Druze community, and a longtime advocate of women’s rights; and Jerusalem single mother Fainy Soknick, the founding director of a group dedicated to helping ultra-Orthodox women going through a divorce.
The final torch lighters were chosen for their contribution to society through NGOs and volunteering programs they founded: Modi’in-based couple Nili and Moshe Levy, who have worked extensively with a project entitled “Gvanim in Education,” an initiative to promote Jewish pluralism in Israeli high schools; Sderot high school junior Hillel Bareli, a community activist who volunteered to help local kindergarteners and elderly people find shelters during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza; and Yaakov Ehrenfeld, a deaf and mute Holocaust survivor who has worked extensively with the Association of the Deaf and the Deaf Institute for Advancement.
Father Gabriel Naddaf, an Israeli Greek Orthodox priest and head of an initiative aimed at integrating Israeli Christian Arabs in the IDF, also lit a torch. Naddaf’s choice as a touch lighter was brought into question this week following allegations he sexually harassed young people and demanded sexual favors in exchange for helping them. Naddaf has denied the charges and Culture Minister Miri Regev said that despite public outcry, he would not be removed from the ceremony.
Daytime independence celebrations will officially begin at 9:30 on Thursday morning with a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. VIPs and political leaders will be in attendance.
A flyover of combat planes and helicopters will mark the beginning of the festivities. The president, IDF chief of staff, prime minister and defense minister will sing their favorite Independence Day songs with the IDF band and an accompaniment of singers. The Outstanding Soldier Award will also be presented.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.