Israel abruptly crossed over from grief to jubilation at nightfall Monday, as Memorial Day came to a close and the country’s 69th 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. At the military on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the transition was marked with an extravagant state ceremony featuring a speech from Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, the lighting of torches by 12 people who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society, and much singing and dancing.
The juxtaposition of the two days is a key element of Israelis’ experience of national independence, ensuring that no commemoration completely excludes the achievement wrought by 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 often seen as a difficult transition for bereaved families.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recorded a short video that was screened at the start of the ceremony.
אין כמו המדינה שלנו. אין כמו העם שלנו. חג עצמאות שמח, ישראל! There is no country like ours. There is no people like ours. Happy Independence Day, Israel!
Posted by Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו on Monday, May 1, 2017
“For thousands of years we dreamed of having our own flag, an army to watch over us and a state of our own,” he said. “Israel has never been so strong. What a tremendous change in the destiny of our nation… Who would have believed?”
The prime minister also posted an English-language message on his social media accounts.
Happy Independence Day to all of our friends around the world! pic.twitter.com/IgXycgqPAL
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) May 1, 2017
Edelstein spoke on the theme of the evening, “Jerusalem: the Eternal Capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish People,” marking 50 years since the reunification of the city during 1967’s Six Day War.
“Jerusalem is the source of strength and spirit of the Jewish people. So we must protect the unity of Jerusalem, but no less we must protect Israeli unity,” he said. “Not every right-winger is a fascist and not every leftist is a traitor.”
Eli Amir, 79, a Baghdad-born author and civil servant who immigrated to Israel in 1950, lit the first torch on behalf of all those who immigrated to Israel from around the globe.
Yaakov (Yaki) Hetz, who served in the Paratrooper Brigade during the campaign for Jerusalem in 1967, lit the second torch. He dedicated it to the families who lost relatives in Israel’s wars.
Miri Ehrental, 67, who along with her husband, Chaim, founded Zichron Menachem, a children’s cancer support center set up in memory of their son Menachem who died of the disease at the age of 15, lit the third torch on behalf of those who choose to do national service outside the IDF.
— Jacob Kornbluh (@jacobkornbluh) May 1, 2017
Michael Steinhardt, a 76-year-old American philanthropist who co-founded Taglit-Birthright Israel along with Charles Bronfman, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the US, lit the fourth torch together, the first non-Israelis ever to light a torch as part of the official celebration.
The torch was “in honor of the partnership among Jews all over the world in the fulfillment of our historic mission,” they said. “In honor of the generations, that despite all of their suffering, never stopped dreaming of Jerusalem.
“In honor of the educators in Jewish communities, our emissaries in the most important and noble of all pursuits. And in honor of those who combat anti-Semitism, who lead the struggle for human dignity. In the fervent hope that we shall never lose our way or our identity,” they added.
US-born Rabbanit Chana Henkin, a trailblazing educator of religious Jewish women, whose son Eitam was murdered by Palestinian gunmen in October 2015 along with his wife, Naama, dedicated the next torch to the scholars.
“I light this torch in honor of the Torah scholars who, in their study, continue the chain of tradition and participate in building the spiritual strength of the State of Israel,” she said.
Eli Mizrahi, 65, owner of one of the best-known coffee shops in Jerusalem’s iconic Mahane Yehuda market, lit his torch on behalf of the shopkeepers of Jerusalem.
The seventh torch was lit by Professor Ahmed Eid, head of Hadassah Hospital’s Department of General Surgery. He dedicated his lighting to the shared future of Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Betar Jerusalem soccer player Uri Malmilian, 59, dedicated his torch lighting to his neighbors, family and friends, the people of Jerusalem.
— Ronit Su (@ronits1) May 1, 2017
Professor Amnon Shashua, co-founder of the Mobileye and OrCam startups, dedicated the ninth torch to the start-up nation and technological advances of the Jewish state.
Dina Simata, 19, a new immigrant from India who is a student in Jerusalem’s Jewish Institute for the Blind, recited her speech while reading it in braille.
Yehoram Gaon, a 78-year-old Jerusalem-born singer, actor, director, producer, and TV and radio host, dedicated his torch to the spirit of Jerusalem, “which spreads throughout the world,” and to poets, singers and artists across the globe.
The final torch was lit by two soldiers: Ethiopian-born Major Yarus Yerushalayim, 30, who came to Israel when she was 4-years-old and serves in the Education Corps, and Lieutenant Dean Argil, 22, a third-generation Israeli serving in the Paratroopers. His grandfather served in the Paratrooper Brigade during the campaign for Jerusalem.
— Tzippy Yarom-Diskind صِپورة (@zpyarom) May 1, 2017
Iranian-born Israeli diva Rita performed “Jerusalem of Gold” wearing an enormous white dress that had lights and graphics projected on it.
Daytime independence celebrations will officially begin at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday with a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. VIPs and political leaders will be in attendance.
A flyover of combat planes and helicopters will mark the beginning of the festivities, including a first appearance by Israel’s new F-35 stealth jets. The president, IDF chief of staff, prime minister and defense minister will sing their favorite Independence Day songs with an IDF band and an accompaniment of singers. The Outstanding Soldier Award will also be presented.