Israel crossed over from mourning to celebration on Monday night, as Memorial Day came to a close at sundown and Israel’s 66th 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-mast back to full.
At the country’s military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, an official annual ceremony marked the transition with a speech from Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and the lighting of torches by 14 women selected by a special committee.
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 no 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.
Both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered video messages to diaspora Jewish communities in honor of Independence Day.
“The year ahead will present us with many challenges,” said Peres. “The shifting sands of the Middle East generate a sense of insecurity in what tomorrow holds. Change, however, can also present opportunities for new and better prospects that should be seized. With this in mind, Israel strives to become a significant contributor to the development of our region and to the world at large.”
Israelis have “ingathered into our homeland a people that had been scattered around the globe,” Netanyahu said in his own message. “We have defended ourselves against the attacks of hostile neighbors, overcoming threats faced by no other country. We have built a vibrant democracy in which freedom is sacrosanct, guaranteeing equality under the law and the rights of every citizen. We have created a robust economy, a global technological superpower. We have signed peace treaties with two of our Arab neighbors, while we quietly talk with many more.”
A time for women
The official Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl is placing the accomplishments of Israeli women at the center of the national celebrations.
Each year, torch lighters are selected to represent some community or aspect of Israeli society to light 12 symbolic torches representing the 12 ancient tribes of Israel.
At the behest of Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, the focus of this year’s ceremony is “A time for women – achievements and challenges.” The 14 torch lighters this year are all women, each with remarkable achievements and an inspiring life story.
- Tennis star Shahar Pe’er, Israel’s most successful tennis player ever, once ranked 11th in the world.
- Dr. Kira Radinsky, 27, is considered one of Israel’s most promising young scientific minds. She immigrated from Ukraine at the age of four, began studying at the prestigious Technion at the age of 15, and opened a technology start-up in 2012.
- Belaynesh Zevadia is Israel’s first female ambassador to Ethiopia. She is also the first to have been born in Ethiopia. Zevadia immigrated to Israel with her family at the age of 17. She has served as a consul in the United States.
- Maxine Fassberg is the CEO of Intel Israel and a vice president of Intel international.
- Miriam Zohar immigrated to Israel in 1949 after surviving the Holocaust in Europe, launching a decades-long career as one of the country’s best-known stage actors, for many decades at Tel Aviv’s Habima theater.
- Miriam Peretz, an educator and mother of six, lost two sons in the IDF and went on to invest many years in helping wounded soldiers and bereaved families.
- Hindiya Suleiman, of the Galilee village of Bu’eine Nujeidat, is the widowed mother of four sons, all of whom served in the IDF. She is the founder of Pninat Haemek women’s arts center, where local women produce traditional folk art.
- Adina Bar Shalom, besides being the daughter of beloved – and controversial – former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is one of Israel’s best known ultra-Orthodox social activists. She founded a haredi technology college for women in Jerusalem and has worked to integrate haredim into the workforce.
- Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, who commands the IDF’s Manpower Division, is the first woman ever to achieve the right of major general in the IDF.
- Carmela Menashe, for 25 years Israel Radio’s military correspondent, has won all the major journalism awards an Israeli journalist can win, including the EMET prize and the Sokolov Prize. She is famous for being an address to which soldiers can turn when they face problems during their IDF service.
- Tali Peretz-Cohen is an activist for women who have faced sexual assault. A resident of Kiryat Shemona on the Lebanese border, she runs the regional support center for victims of sexual assault and has worked on legislative initiatives to help victims realize their rights.
- Pascal Berkovich, an immigrant from France, has represented Israel at the Beijing and London Paralympics, taking second place in rowing.
- Geula Cohen served 19 years as an MK for the Likud and won the Israel Prize, Israel highest civilian honor, for her contributions to Israeli society.
- Gal Yosef, a high school junior, chair the national high school student council.