Israel marked its 75th Independence Day on Tuesday under the pall of societal fissures exposed by the hardline government’s contentious policies, with a national ceremony taking place in Jerusalem and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging unity, while protesters demonstrated outside the main event and the coalition’s opponents held a dueling rally in Tel Aviv.
At the main state event at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, government officials, security leaders and other prominent Israelis gathered for a ceremonial torch-lighting that honored citizens for their contributions, and sacrifices, to the country.
The event included speeches, choreographed marches by soldiers, musical performances and fireworks, and went off without a hitch, despite concerns that politics could mar the national celebration.
Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who was overseeing the ceremony, was said to have decided that the live broadcast would give way to a recording of a rehearsal should the event be disrupted by anti-government protesters. She later clarified that a recording would only have been aired in case of “extreme malfunctions.”
Speaking in a prerecorded message broadcast at the ceremony, Netanyahu called for unity amid widespread divisions and protests against his government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary, and other policies. Opponents say the judicial legislation will give the governing majority unrestrained power, threaten Israel’s standing as a democracy and leave individual rights unprotected. The plan’s supporters say it will rein in an overly activist court system. The initiatives have sparked massive, nationwide protests for over four months.
“Let’s stop all the noise for a moment, let’s look for a moment at the great wonder that is called the State of Israel. How many miracles have we achieved here in the last 75 years as one people?” Netanyahu asked in the broadcast, speaking over a montage of Israel’s accomplishments.
חג עצמאות שמח אזרחי ישראל ???????? pic.twitter.com/I8yEbfGt2I
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) April 25, 2023
“As one people,” he said, “we rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to the summit of rebirth.”
“As one people,” he continued, Israel won its wars, absorbed millions of immigrants, built a thriving economy, achieved historic peace agreements, developed the cities and infrastructure of the nation, and built the IDF, “with the world’s best male and female soldiers, protecting us all.”
“There are still miracles ahead of us — achieving security, strengthening our economy and widening the circle of peace,” he said. “All these miracles and many more are only possible when we march together. ”
Netanyahu noted that when the biblical tribes of Israel left Egypt they argued over “whether to go left or right” and “wandered for 40 years in the wilderness until we reached the Promised Land. Then we understood that only together can we reach our goals.”
“And just be sure, we invented Waze,” he joked.
“To do it together is to cry together on Memorial Day and celebrate together on Independence Day,” he said. “To do it together is to know that we have one people and one country and we will never have another land.”
Netanyahu was in the audience at the Mount Herzl ceremony, sitting alongside his wife Sara and Regev.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid boycotted the ceremony, citing the deep societal divisions over the now-paused judicial reforms and plans to cut away from the live broadcast if protesters interrupted.
Despite the tightly choreographed proceedings and celebratory atmosphere, there were reminders of the nation’s fraught politics and social schisms as the torchbearers addressed the audience.
The famed former IDF general Avigdor Kahalani said he was lighting the torch for “my country, that I love so much, Jewish and democratic, that I was born into your light.”
Prof. Avi Rivkind, a general surgeon in Jerusalem and a pioneer in shock trauma medicine, and Dr. Khetam Hussein, an infectious disease control expert who broke ground in the field of medicine as a Druze woman, spoke together at the podium. Israel’s hospitals are seen by some as a bastion of coexistence, where Arabs and Jews work together to treat the sick and injured.
Both Rivkind and Hussein told The Times of Israel ahead of the ceremony that they could not ignore the fact that they were celebrating the honor at a time when the country is divided and tensions are high. However, they each expressed the important role that medicine plays in uniting people.
Hussein said she was lighting the torch for “our friends, the women and people in the field of health, friends from all of society’s communities, all origins and with all opinions, that work day and night for patients with humanity and morality.”
Sylvan Adams, an Israeli-Canadian billionaire philanthropist, lit the torch as the representative of Diaspora Jews.
In his address, he highlighted “the people who tell the world the true story, the unbelievable story, of the land of Israel. A happy country, tolerant, pluralist, with good and warm people whom I love so much.”
“Even if we argue, we’re united,” Adams said.
Switching from Hebrew to English, Adams said, “I chose to live here in the homeland of the Jewish people, the homeland that belongs to all of us, Israelis and Diaspora Jews. We are one people.”
Rabbi Leo Dee, who lost his wife and two of his daughters in a terror attack earlier this month, recited the Yizkor memorial prayer during the ceremony.
Israel’s Independence Day begins as Memorial Day comes to an end. The abrupt switch from national grief to jubilation can be jarring, but it is viewed by many as celebrating the state and its achievements while remembering the sacrifices that made them possible.
As the main Independence Day ceremony took place, anti-government protesters held competing events in in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In Jerusalem, several hundred demonstrators gathered at an event titled, “Fighting for democracy, freeing Mount Herzl.”
The protesters sang Israel’s anthem, Hatikvah, or “the Hope,” as Netanyahu’s address was broadcast inside the venue.
In Tel Aviv, thousands gathered on Kaplan Street for a “protest party,” waving Israeli flags and dancing to upbeat music.
Other demonstrations took place in several cities around the country.
Earlier in the day, there were some political disruptions at Memorial Day events as ministers attended ceremonies in cemeteries.
Several coalition lawmakers were greeted with protests and heckling by bereaved families, some of whom had previously called on ministers to stay away from the ceremonies, especially members of the government who did not serve in the military.
Emotions ran high as far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attended a ceremony at a military cemetery in Beersheba. Shouting erupted as the minister began to speak, he was applauded and hailed by some and castigated by others when he finished, and scuffles broke out outside the cemetery.
Ben Gvir, who was not drafted into the military due to his extremist activities, had refused efforts to keep him away from Memorial Day proceedings, including pleas from the leader of a group representing bereaved families.
Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel of Netanyahu’s Likud party was blocked from entering a military ceremony in the largely Druze town of Isfiya.