Basketball coach Blatt, ex-general Kahalani tapped to light Independence Day torches

After delay, minister names honorees chosen to ignite beacons at annual ceremony, including philanthropist Sylvan Adams, comedian Shalom Assayag and head of Duvdevan commando unit

Maccabi Tel Aviv's former head coach David Blatt poses for photographers with the Israeli cup, European club champions cup and the Israeli club champions trophy after a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel,Thursday, June 12, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Maccabi Tel Aviv's former head coach David Blatt poses for photographers with the Israeli cup, European club champions cup and the Israeli club champions trophy after a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel,Thursday, June 12, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)

Basketball coach David Blatt, former top general and cabinet minister Avigdor Kahalani and Canadian-Israeli billionaire philanthropist Sylvan Adams were named Sunday as torch-lighters at Israel’s annual Independence Day ceremony slated for next week.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev named 14 individuals tapped to light 12 ceremonial torches for the event at Mount Herzl, which traditionally marks the transition between Israel’s day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and Independence Day marking the country’s founding in 1948. Being chosen to light a torch, meant to symbolize the 12 biblical tribes, is considered among the highest honors Israel bestows.

Among the other figures named to the roster of torch-lighters was teen anti-bullying advocate Ofek Rishon, comedian and actor Shalom Assayag, Rambam Medical Center Infectious Diseases czar Dr. Khetam Hussein, Israel Scholarship Education Foundation President Nina Avidar Weiner and the shadowy commanding officer of the Israel Defense Force’s elite Duvdevan unit, who must keep their identity under wraps for security reasons.

The announcement of the identities of the torch-lighters came later than in past years, with fewer than 10 days until the ceremony, scheduled for the evening of April 25, though no reason was given.

According to the Hebrew-language media reports, the delay was caused by the fact that the cabinet had not yet approved Regev’s role shepherding the public committee tasked with nominating torch-lighters.

The ceremony is usually managed by the Culture and Sport Ministry, of which Regev is a former minister. The current minister is Miki Zohar, also of Likud. However, Regev was tasked with organizing thew national ceremony for Israel’s 75th Independence Day.

According to reports, Regev’s office said there was a record number of applications — said to be nearly 5,500. The theme of this year’s ceremony is “pioneering,” her office said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman were heavily involved in the process, the Ynet news website reported, pointing to rumors that the government had dragged its feet until the last minute to ensure no candidate would use the platform to speak out against the controversial judicial overhaul it is pushing.

Avigdor Kahalani (right) and his crew pictured on a Syrian tank years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (Courtesy: IDF)

Kahalani, who has been recognized repeatedly for his actions during his military service, including in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, has expressed support for changes to the judiciary and spoke out against reserves troops refusing to volunteer as part of massive nationwide protests against the plan.

The retired brigadier general first served in the Knesset with the Labor party, and later worked as public security minister during Netanyahu’s first stint as premier in the 1990s. He later joined Netanyahu’s Likud, but never entered the Knesset with the party.

Both current Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and former defense minister Benny Gantz praised the decision to tap Kahalani for the honor.

Assayag also steered clear of controversy when remarking on the honor, telling Channel 12 news that he was dedicating his light to “Peace between us. That’s the most important thing. This should all be behind us.”

Protesters take part in ongoing demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on April 8, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The US-born Blatt told Ynet that he would use the spotlight not to talk politics but to spread awareness about multiple sclerosis, the disease he was diagnosed with in 2019, which led him to quit coaching.

Blatt has had a decades long career playing and coaching winning basketball in the US, Israel, Russia and elsewhere, including several seasons as head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Israel’s national team. In 2015, he helped the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers reach the finals.

Adams, who splits his time between Canada and Israel, has also made a name for himself in Israel through sports, sponsoring Israel’s pro bike team and bringing the Giro d’Italia bike race to Israel’s streets. He has also given millions to non-sports causes in Israel and elsewhere.

The lieutenant colonel at the head of the Duvdevan Brigade cannot be named or his face shown, meaning he will likely light a torch and deliver a short address while keeping his face covered up, as has been done in the past.

Commander of the Yamam police counter-terrorism unit lights a torch at the 74th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, on May 4, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The IDF said the commander was tapped for the honor of lighting the torch for his “sense of mission and giving for the common good… and pioneering reflected in his role.”

A father of six, the commander initially began his military career in the Paratroopers Brigade. He was wounded during the 2014 Gaza War while commanding a company, but insisted on continuing to serve in combat roles. As the commander of Duvdevan, he is in charge of training new soldiers, as well as leading operations, the IDF said.

Rounding out the roster of torch-lighters is:

  • Sivan Ya’ari, head of Innovation Africa, which seeks to bring Israeli innovations in agriculture, water, energy and more to remote areas of the continent.
  • Vered Ben Saadon, founder of the Tura winery in the West Bank.
  • Dr. Avraham Rivkind, head of the general surgery unit at Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital and a pioneer in trauma medicine.
  • Yehudit Negosa, founder and head of the Chance for Change pre-army preparatory academy, which seeks to rehabilitate youths rejected by the military for behavior issues or criminal histories.
  • Reut Amichai, a 17-year-old volunteer with the Hashomer Hachadash youth group. A statement from the group gave her name as Reut Levy.
  • Eliyahu Salah, who moved to Israel from Kurdistan, fought in the IDF and later founded the northern border community of Shtula.

The Independence Day ceremony is typically an apolitical event formally overseen by the speaker of the Knesset, and prime ministers have not traditionally been invited to speak. However, reports last month indicated Netanyahu was considering attending and speaking at the ceremony, either in person or through a prerecorded speech.

Last month, Regev sought to coax opposition leader Yair Lapid into co-signing a statement declaring the upcoming national holidays, including Independence Day, as off-limits for anti-government protests.

Lapid refused to sign Regev’s expansion of the protest-free zone to include Independence Day, saying that to do so would be to “pretend” that the current situation was acceptable.

Emmanuel Fabian, Ash Obel and JTA contributed to this report.

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