Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Sunday hosted the outstanding individuals who have been chosen to light torches at Israel’s 70th Independence Day ceremony this week, telling them that their contributions to Israel will continue to shine for many years to come.
“You have been lighting torches for many years, in your lives… In your songs, in your discoveries, in your lives, you have illuminated the State of Israel in a great light that will burn for many years after the torches of the ceremony are extinguished,” Edelstein told the assembled guests at a special reception in the Knesset.
Notably absent was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to light a torch on behalf of all the governments of Israel since the founding of the state following a compromise deal reached with Edelstein last week. The speaker had initially rejected the prime minister’s insistence to speak at the event, citing the precedent for the ceremony to be non-political, but eventually agreed to allow Netanyahu to deliver a brief address as a torch-lighter.
The torch-lighters, who normally number 12, are traditionally figures who are selected for their outstanding contributions to Israeli society. It is considered one of Israel’s highest honors. This year, there will be 13, including the prime minister.
Singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi is to light on of the torches. “In his unique style, Artzi expresses the experience of Israeli life in his songs, writings and radio broadcasts,” Culture Minister Miri Regev, who also attended Sunday’s Knesset reception, said earlier this month in her announcement of this year’s honorees.
Artzi said he was “very honored” to have been selected, but regretted that “my [deceased] parents and sisters will not get to share this moment with me.”
Veteran actor Leah Koenig, 89, will also light a torch. “Koenig became one of the symbols of the Habima national theater where she played many central roles,” Regev said.
General (Res.) Yeshayahu (Shaike) Gavish, the 93-year-old chairman of the Palmach Veterans Association, will also light a torch. “Gavish was among those who planned the Sinai Campaign and served as commander of the Southern Command during its glorious victories in the Six Day War,” the selection committee said.
Paralympic gold medalist Captain (Res.) Noam Gershony was chosen by the committee to light a torch. He was injured after the helicopter he was piloting collided with another helicopter during the Second Lebanon War, killing his copilot, and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He won gold in the 2012 London Summer Paralympics for Quad Singles and shared a bronze in Quad Doubles. “Gershony expresses the legacy of disabled and injured IDF soldiers who proudly and courageously carry the price of the state’s revival on their bodies,” the committee said.
Racheli Ganot, CEO of Rachip, a high-tech company that integrates ultra-Orthodox women into the workforce, was also chosen to light a torch.
Moroccan-born comedian, movie actor, and director Ze’ev Revach, 78, was selected to light a torch. “In his unique artistic way he created a multi-colored space in Israeli reality, using laughter and emotion,” the committee said.
Bible expert and linguist Avshalom Kor, 68, will light a torch. “He has written numerous books, hosted countless radio and television programs, quizzes and plays dedicated to Hebrew,” the committee said. “It renewed the legacy of the Hebrew language and became a symbol of the love for the precision and the connection of the language of Israeli speech to its ancient origins.”
Margalit Zinati, the 86-year-old sole Jewish resident of the Druze village of Peki’in in the Galilee, will light a torch. Her family has lived for centuries in Peki’in, and she takes care of the town’s synagogue, said to contain stones from the Second Temple. “Throughout her life she worked to preserve the ancient synagogue in Peki’in, and convey the history of Peki’in and her family’s experiences to future generations,” the committee said.
Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, is to light a torch. A resident of the northern village of Julis, his family has been leading the local Druze community since 1753. He has led his community “in a time of many challenges, while constantly attempting to preserve its unique heritage as it adapts to changing times,” the committee said. “Sheikh Tarif is a central personality in the interfaith dialogue in Israel and works tirelessly to build a bridge of tolerance and understanding among members of different religions and cultures.”
Marcelle Machluf, an award-winning biotechnologist at Haifa’s Technion University, was selected to light a torch. “Her innovative research has led to many breakthroughs, which enabled more precise and targeted treatment of cancer without harming healthy cells,” the committee said.
Mathematician Aviezri Fraenkel, 88, who in 2007 was awarded an Israel Prize for his work on combinatorial game theory, will light a torch. In 2014, one of his grandsons, Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists.
Hearing-impaired 15-year-old schoolgirl May Korman, who patented an idea to prevent children being forgotten in cars, will also light a torch.
It had been initially been announced that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez would attend the event and light a torch, but he ultimately decided not to come, following outcry over his country’s human rights record.
Also missing from this year’s event will be a torch-lighter from the Diaspora, a tradition only initiated last year.
Top American filmmaker Steven Spielberg was approached to light the Diaspora Torch at Israel’s Independence Day ceremony, but turned the honor down because of previous commitments. Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik, who had even publicly expressed her wish to be nominated and asked her Facebook fans to help, was also forced to turn down the offer because Israel’s invitation was issued too late.
Several additional names were also reportedly considered and approved — among them actress and singer Barbara Streisand, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks — but, in the end, the committee decided not to have a Diaspora representative at all this year.