Reporter's notebookSeparately, tens of thousands attend Tel Aviv hostages rally

In foil to official state event, those hit hardest by Oct. 7 lead torch-dousing ceremony

Independence Day gathering in Binyamina features survivors of Hamas onslaught and hostages’ families putting out flames in protest; critics say symbolism sends wrong message

Canaan Lidor
Charlie Summers
Participants douse torches at an alternative Independence Day ceremony in Binyamina on May 13, 2024. (Flash90)
Participants douse torches at an alternative Independence Day ceremony in Binyamina on May 13, 2024. (Flash90)

Occurring on Israel’s 76th Independence Day, the ceremony at Binyamina’s Jabotinsky Park on Monday night had many of the markings of a garden variety patriotic celebration.

As in most of Israel’s Jewish-majority towns and cities, the Binyamina event featured a sea of Israeli flags, major celebrities and singers performing on a stage with burning ceremonial torches and even stands selling junk food, water and yet more flags at exorbitant prices.

That’s where the commonalities ended, though.

Like the national Independence Day ceremony, the Binyamina event also featured 12 torches, but these were already lit. Once the alternative service started, each torch was extinguished, one at a time, in a reversal of the annual Jerusalem ceremony.

The opposite of a party, the Binyamina event was a protest action designed to serve as a foil to the state’s official Independence Day celebrations. The Binyamina organizers of the “torch-dousing ceremony” said traditional events were illegitimate this year. The government that presided over the deadliest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust — and the continued failure to secure the release of the 132 hostages still held in Gaza — had no legitimacy to preside over the first Independence Day ceremonies since October 7, they maintained.

The organizers conveyed this sentiment in the event’s first display when they handed the 1,400 people in attendance signs reading: “No hostages, no independence” in yellow block letters printed on a black background. Participants were instructed to hold the signs up for video cameras that broadcast the amphitheater event on social media.

The speakers included survivors of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught; relatives of hostages; bereaved parents of soldiers killed in Gaza; and Israelis who were forced to evacuate their homes along the northern and southern borders due to the fighting against Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively.

Participants at an alternative Independence Day ceremony hold up sings reading “no hostages, no independence” in Binyamina on May 14, 2024. (Flash90)

A hopeful slogan in Hostages Square

Separately on Monday night, tens of thousands (100,000, according to organizers) gathered in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square for an Independence Day edition of the weekly rally organized by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

Among the speakers at the latter demonstration was Sharon Sharabi, the brother of Eli and the late Yossi Sharabi, who were both abducted from Be’eri by Hamas terrorists on October 7. He expressed a sentiment shared by many speakers in Binyamina.

“We don’t feel independence tonight, but we feel each other and that everyone here is looking at the person next to them and respecting them,” he said.

Those participating in the rally, united by the plight of the 132 hostages still languishing in Hamas captivity, were nevertheless gathered under a hopeful slogan taken from Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah”: “Our hope is not yet lost.”

Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, on the eve of Israel’s 76th Independence Day, May 13, 2024 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Rabbi Zvi Hasid, the director-general of the ZAKA rescue service, said that although this moment may be one of “mourning, crying, tears,” there was still a place for hope, assuring the crowd that from the “despair and destruction… the Jewish people will grow and fulfill its glory.”

Rabbi Tamir Granot, who led the crowd in a prayer for the safety of the hostages and soldiers, concurred with the rescue organization head.

“When everything is good, when there is no anger or pain, one doesn’t need hope; it’s possible just to live well,” he said. “It is precisely when it hurts, when we are angry, when the heart burns, when there is tension, when our children are captives under cruel enemies, that we need that material called hope.”

About 3,000 Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel on October 7 and abducted 252 amid widescale atrocities. Israel invaded Gaza in a bid to topple Hamas, whose health ministry in Gaza accuses Israel of killing about 35,000 people, a toll that cannot be independently verified. The UN says some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The rest of the total figure is based on murkier Hamas “media reports.” It also includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Hezbollah has fired thousands of rockets into Israel from Lebanon in solidarity with Hamas in Gaza, prompting Israel to evacuate some 60,000 residents from areas near the border and strike back at Hezbollah.

‘Total abandonment’

In Binyamina, Eyal Eshel — the father of Roni who was killed at a military base on October 7 — extinguished a torch signifying “the sin of conceit,” which he said marked the government and the army, whose leaders, he argued, should leave their posts immediately.

Sharon Sharabi, brother of Hamas hostages Eli and the late Yossi Sharabi, speaks onstage at an Independence Day rally in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on May 13, 2024. (Screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

David Agmon, a reserves brigadier general who fought terrorists near Be’eri, described “total abandonment” by the government on October 7 before extinguishing his torch.

Galit Dan, whose daughter and mother, Noya and Carmela, were murdered by Hamas in Nir Oz, said Israel’s government “is responsible for this murder” after “creating in me and other residents of the Gaza Envelope area an illusion of safety.” She snuffed the torch of what she called “total abandonment of personal safety.”

Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan is believed to be held hostage in Gaza, struck a slightly more hopeful note as the only speaker who lit a torch, instead of dousing one: “We have amazing people, but we don’t have leaders,” she said, receiving a standing ovation.

One member of the audience, Ofer Gelmond, 49, told The Times of Israel: “There’s nothing to celebrate this year.”

“I feel mostly anger and failure and disappointment, and I think this event will express that,” he added.

Tali Biron, another attendee, said the alternative event highlighted a growing divide between the various tribes of Israeli society, who are increasingly less likely to overlap even on days that are supposed to bring the country together.

“There’s something scary about this disconnect, which is wider than ever,” she said.

Biron sees no way of reconnecting. Far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir “would suffocate me if they have their way. And I suppose they feel the same way about my tribe,” she said, referencing secular liberals, “though I disagree that that’s the case.”

Rona Keinan, a singer famous for her dovish views, was the Binyamina event’s musical headliner. Its two emcees were journalists Jacky Levy, an observant, right-leaning Jew with several relatives kidnapped in Gaza, and Lucy Aharish, a left-leaning Arab Israeli television presenter and actress.

Biron praised Aharish’s role at the event as a “symbol of coexistence” between Jews and Arabs.

“While the government is holding an ostentatious parade which is cowardly, contemptuous, disconnected and without an audience, families of the hostages and concerned citizens hold a dignified and appropriate ceremony that’s plugged into the public sentiment,” the organizers wrote in a statement about the event.

Woman holds up a poster of Avinatan Or at a protest outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea on March 30, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Yaron Or, whose son Avinatan is thought to be held hostage in Gaza, disputed this characterization of the Binyamina event, which was co-organized by Noam Dan, an activist whose cousin Ofer Kalderon is believed to be held hostage as well.

Asked for his take on the event — which he did not attend — Or told The Times of Israel that its dousing of flames was “a shocking gesture.”

“If lighting torches celebrates the successes, then extinguishing is the opposite message. We don’t extinguish torches. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Yaron said.

His brother, Shimon, said that the alternative ceremony represented a cultural clash in Israeli society that runs deeper than any dispute over whether to cede to Hamas demands in the ongoing talks to secure the hostages’ release.

David Agmon speaks at an alternative Independence Day ceremony in Binyamina on May 14, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Liberal Western culture centers around the individual and views the state’s role as facilitating the individual’s well-being,” said Shimon Or, whose family is Orthodox. “The Jewish national one sees the individual as part of a people, whose vehicle for realizing a collective interest is the state.”

Taken to its extreme, “the collective approach leads to fascism,” Or said. But the extreme individualistic attitude, he argued, “is also dangerous, certainly in our context. Ceding to Hamas will lead to thousands dying and terrible consequences for Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Everyone knows this, but the extreme individualistic approach either ignores or accepts these prices.”

Levy, the observant journalist, addressed some of the criticism during the event. “We didn’t extinguish for the purpose of extinguishing. We extinguished to light up the hope of celebrating our Independence Day wholeheartedly, with no more empty chairs,” he said, prompting applause and calls of “amen.”

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