‘I just can’t do it this year’

Amid war and infighting, Israelis hit pause on Independence Day festivities

The Oct. 7 Hamas atrocities cast a shadow over the holiday as citizens decline to celebrate while many of their countrymen are in mourning or have relatives held hostage in Gaza

A muted Independence Day celebration at Zichron Baruch synagogue in Tel Aviv went on, leaders said, because of a religious obligation to mark the holiday, May 13, 2024. (Deborah Danan/JTA)
A muted Independence Day celebration at Zichron Baruch synagogue in Tel Aviv went on, leaders said, because of a religious obligation to mark the holiday, May 13, 2024. (Deborah Danan/JTA)

JTA — While crowds still gathered to commemorate Israel’s 76th Independence day, an unmistakable pall hung over this year’s celebrations, overshadowed by the lingering effects of the devastating October 7 Hamas onslaught and the ensuing war in Gaza.

After some deliberation, Richard Binstock, a British-Israeli from Rishon Lezion, decided to attend a rooftop party in Tel Aviv but noted that the roads into the coastal city were unusually empty. “I’m sad to say there’s no traffic,” he said. “It’s been one of my quickest journeys ever.”

Nicole Barrs from Kiryat Ono said she had declined an invitation to a party. “I didn’t feel like going out to celebrate so I’m with family, having a small gathering,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Nataly Peleg from Tel Aviv said she was staying indoors this year because she was “in no mood to go out at all. I just can’t do it this year.”

Worshipers at a synagogue in south Tel Aviv voiced similar sentiments. “It’s not a celebration this year,” Itzik Cohen, a leader of the Zichron Baruch synagogue, told JTA. “We don’t want to celebrate it but we have to. I don’t have the privilege of saying, ‘I’m not doing it this year.’ It’s a religious obligation, much like Passover.”

Cohen said the leaders of the synagogue had held several discussions about how to mark the holiday, which took place just over seven months after thousands of Hamas-led terrorists killed 1,200 people in southern Israel and kidnapped 252 to the Gaza Strip.

Ultimately, said Cohen, synagogue leaders decided to proceed with the annual plans for a communal prayer followed by festivities, albeit a more toned-down version without bringing the music and dancing outside to the street as in previous years.

Yasmin Ishbi and her children attended an Israeli Independence Day event but said she lacked the holiday spirit, Tel Aviv, May 13, 2024. (Deborah Danan/JTA)

“It’s hard to admit this but I’m not feeling anything. I’m emotionally disconnected,” Yasmin Ishbi, who is not religiously observant but who brought her children to the synagogue’s event, told JTA. “Some people like living the ups and the downs in deep ways. I prefer not to feel the ups so that way I don’t have to feel the downs.”

According to Moshiko Balas, a municipality director, major celebrations all over Tel Aviv, including two events that between them attract nearly 20,000 attendees, were canceled this year in light of the war. Even silent fireworks shows — which last year replaced the city’s traditional fireworks extravaganza out of deference to military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — were scrapped. The country also axed a traditional nationwide Independence Day flyover of military planes.

“Nobody is in the mood to celebrate,” Balas told JTA. But she added, “Having said that, we knew that even if we’re not celebrating Independence Day, we still have to mark it.”

To that end, the municipality conducted a poll in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Jaffa to gauge how people wanted to mark Independence Day this year. Fifty percent of those polled said they did not want to attend the large event that was planned and that included a concert by Israeli pop star Zahava Ben. The event, held in Davidoff Park in Jaffa, was modified and Ben’s appearance was nixed.

Instead, a small, unknown band took to the stage as did several representatives from local security and medical authorities, who were honored for their roles in the war. Balas noted that young singles and older people were noticeably absent from this year’s event and that several people had raised concerns about the possibility of rocket sirens, which also affected turnout. In the end, about 1,000 people showed up — half of last year’s crowd — and most were families with small children.

“Ultimately, people wanted it to be kids-oriented, to have a more community and unifying feel that was more intimate,” Balas said.

An Israeli Independence Day celebration in Jaffa was more sparsely attended than usual because of dampened spirits amid the Israel-Hamas war, May 13, 2024. (Deborah Danan/ JTA)

The event attracted people from Jaffa’s diverse communities — Bulgarian, Russian, Ethiopian, and Arab — though Arab attendance was lower than in previous years. One Arab Israeli, who asked to be referred to only by his initial K, expressed frustration over the low Arab turnout and over the fact that in the school he teaches in, a rare integrated school for Arab and Jewish Israelis, none of the Arab teachers stood during the memorial siren earlier in the day honoring Israel’s fallen.

“It hurts me that my sector doesn’t identify more with the country, especially after October 7,” he said. “I’ll never understand it. I also have family in Gaza, but still.”

Another teacher, Doron Sabah, said that he had “cried a whole lot” during the Memorial Day ceremony at his school earlier in the day.

“After that, my kids wanted to go buy Israeli flags and stuff but it felt weird. And friends invited us to a concert, but that also felt weird so we didn’t go. So we’re here,” he said. Referencing the war and the political turmoil reemerging in the country, Sabah went on, “The depressing thing about all this is that there seems to be no end in sight. Like, how do we get out of this mess?”

Doron Sabah, a teacher who attended an Israeli Independence Day party in Jaffa, said he had cried during the Memorial Day ceremony at his school, May 13, 2024. (Deborah Danan/ JTA)

Maor Damasia said it was “hard not to feel guilty” about the families of victims of October 7. “They can’t celebrate because they’re in mourning or because they have loved ones in Gaza. But I guess everyone is affected in this war. Please God, next year we’ll be in a different time and it will be happier.”

Around 100,000 people gathered at an Independence Day rally in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square to hear speeches from survivors of October 7 as well as those with family members still being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.

Another alternative Independence Day ceremony under the banner “no hostages, no independence” was held in the northern Israeli town of Binyamina. Organized by Noam Dan, whose cousin Ofer Kalderon is a hostage in Gaza, the ceremony included extinguishing torches, conveying a somber counterpoint to the official state ceremony in Jerusalem in which torches are lit.

An alternative Independence Day ceremony held by relatives of Israeli held in the Gaza Strip, in Binyamina, on the eve of Israel’s 76th independence day, May 13, 2024. (Flash 90)

In a controversial move, the government-organized torch-lighting ceremony was pre-recorded on Wednesday, without an audience. This year’s torchligh ters include soldiers, medical personnel and civilians who saved lives on October 7. One of the honorees is Youssef Ziadna, a Bedouin Arab who saved 30 people from the Nova music festival massacre.

“It was very very emotional. I can’t believe I was privileged for such a thing to happen to me. I’m very proud,” a teary-eyed Ziadna told JTA. “I’m thankful to the state for choosing me to light an Independence Day torch. We’re one people, Arabs and Jews, and please God we’ll live in peace and quiet in our country soon.”

Demonstrators call for the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza and against the current Israeli government on the eve of Israel’s 76th Independence Day at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, May 13, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At the synagogue in south Tel Aviv, Anne Dubitzky said that this year, the celebrations were largely in deference to Israel’s children. “If we don’t celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, then our enemies have won. And if the kids don’t celebrate, they won’t have the basis for loving and eventually defending the country,” she said, using the Hebrew term for Independence Day.

For radio personality Omer Ben Rubin, it was also all about the kids. “It’s just like on October 8: we felt we needed to just get on with it for the kids. Is it natural to be celebrating? Of course not,” he said. “But you know what they say, happiness is infectious. So maybe our kids’ happiness will infect us also, you know? If it wasn’t for them, we’d all be in bed with the covers pulled over our heads.”

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