Israel abruptly crossed over from grief to jubilation at nightfall Wednesday, as Memorial Day for the country’s fallen soldiers and terror victims came to a close and its 71st Independence Day began.
Mournful and somber speeches gave way to fireworks, concerts and parties across the country, with flags promptly raised back from half-staff.
The juxtaposition of Memorial Day and Independence Day is a key element of Israelis’ experience of their country’s anniversary, ensuring that no commemoration completely excludes the sacrifice of the fallen and their families, and that the elation of independence is never far removed from an awareness of its cost.
The sudden switch is seen as a difficult transition for many bereaved families.
The main event kicking off Independence day was the annual state ceremony, which was taking place at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, featuring a speech from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the lighting of 12 torches — which symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel in the Bible — by people who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society, and much singing and dancing.
“One of the highlights of the torches this year are people who succeeded against all odds,” Edelstein said. “Some faced enormous challenges and some had to deal with an extremely cruel fate, but they never gave up. Today they are here, writing another chapter in our story — against all odds!
“This country arose thanks to men and women who, in the face of an impossible reality, succeeded in achieving tremendous achievements. They were not extraordinary geniuses and had no superpowers, but they believed they could succeed. Keep believing that you are part of a wonderful story that began in this country against all odds, and its continuation depends on you.”
Jeff Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — where 11 Jewish worshipers were murdered in an October 2018 synagogue — was the representative of Diaspora Jewry at the torch-lighting ceremony. He lit the Diaspora torch, which was originally nixed by Culture Minister Miri Regev in March. She walked back her decision several days later and reinstated the relatively new tradition, which she herself had started in 2017.
Among the other torch-lighters were Col. Shai Siman-Tov, who was critically wounded during the 2014 Gaza war but recovered and returned to service; veteran singer Yehuda Poliker; film director Avi Nesher, who lost his son several months ago in a traffic accident; Paralympic swimmer Moran Samuel; Holocaust survivor Marie Nahmias, 92, who was a foster mother to 52 handicapped children; and Dr. Hodaya Oliel, who has become the first medical doctor in Israel with cerebral palsy.
Also honored were high school student Gil Shlomo who lives in Sderot, a town frequently targeted with rockets from Gaza; Dr. Hila Hadas, chairwoman of the Enosh NGO that supports people with psychiatric disabilities; Menashe Zalka, an Ethiopian Israeli soccer player in the Premier League team Hapoel Hadera and a former IDF combat soldier; and Dr. Salman Zarka, director of Ziv Medical Center in Safed, who oversaw the establishment of a field hospital for Syrian civil war victims.
Completing the roster were philanthropist Morris Kahn, whose SpaceIL this year unsuccessfully attempted to land the Beresheet spacecraft on the moon; Kfir Damari, a SpaceIL co-founder and Iris Yifrach, Bat-Galim Shaer, and Racheli Fraenkel, the mothers of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in 2014.
Kahn veered way off his scripted brief speech before lighting the torch, saying he had confirmed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would fund Beresheet 2.0, SpaceIL’s next moon-landing project. Kahn already announced the project a month ago. Ceremony organizers eventually turned off his microphone before he was done talking and continued to the next torch-lighter.
On Thursday, after a night of fireworks, concerts and parties, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will flock to beaches and national parks, lighting grills, waving flags and celebrating around the country.
A highlight of the day is the traditional cross-country flyover of military jets and helicopters, which for the third year will include Israel’s fleet of F-35 jets, considered the most advanced plane in the world.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.