Israel opens 70th Independence Day festivities with Jerusalem extravaganza
After somber Memorial Day, torch-lighting ceremony kicks off anniversary; Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Edelstein make speeches after public spat; show ends with dancing, fireworks
Israel abruptly crossed over from grief to jubilation at nightfall Wednesday, as Memorial Day came to a close and the country’s 70th 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 cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the transition was marked with an extravagant state ceremony featuring speeches from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the lighting of 12 torches by people who are seen to have made an outstanding contribution to society — as well as one by Netanyahu himself, and another by Edelstein — and much singing and dancing.
The ceremony featured an elaborate musical flashback of Jewish history, with actors singing and dancing through events dating back to the biblical era.
In one scene representing the Holocaust era, child actors dressed in clothing badged with yellow stars quickly gathered their belongings as Nazi soldiers could be heard marching with barking dogs in the background.
A later scene showed pioneers arriving Israel, and young workers beginning the construction of the revived Jewish state.
The scenes were notable for featuring a diverse range of performers, representing Jews of European, Middle Eastern and African origin.
Next was a performance by Netta Barzilai — who will represent Israel in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, with betting sites listing her as the favorite to win — followed by more festive performances by Israeli artists.
Preparations for the official ceremony were shadowed this year by a bitter row between Edelstein and Culture Minister Miri Regev over Netanyahu’s determination to attend the event and address the invited guests. Traditionally, the Knesset speaker is the most senior official at the event and it is kept free of politics. Edelstein, who initially wanted to to boycott the event, reached a compromise deal allowing Netanyahu to light a torch on behalf of all the governments of Israel since the founding of the state and make a short speech.
Netanyahu and Edelstein walked side by side as the ceremony, hosted by journalist Danny Kushmaro and actress Yael Abecassis, began with solemn performances by a youth choir and by singer Sarit Hadad, ending the sober Memorial Day.
Edelstein used his speech to hail Israel’s diverse populations, calling the bonds between them “the secret to the Israeli magic.”
Israeli society is a “wonderful mosaic of tribes and colors, beliefs and opinions, countries of origin and ways of life. The diversity is the source of our power and is what fuels our engine of growth,” he said.
Edelstein highlighted the country’s growth over the past 70 years.
“Together we once grew Jaffa oranges and together we now raise engineered cherry tomatoes,” he said. “Together we have developed a democratic oasis, and together we have transformed our tiny country into a global technological power that is led by justice and morality.”
Netanyahu lit a torch after a fiery speech in which he declared that Israel is turning into a rising world power.
Addressing adversaries of the Jewish state, Netanyahu proudly stated that “in another 70 years, you’ll find here a country that is 70 times stronger because what we’ve done until today is just the beginning!”
He thanked US President Trump for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy to the holy city. Calling the relationship with the United States a historic one,” Netanyahu says: “Thank you President Trump! Thank you America!”
Netanyahu said “admiration for Israel” was finally beginning to be felt in the Arab world. and that Israel stretched out its hand in peace to those neighbors that seek peace.
If required to do so, Israel will always rise to meet the challenge of defending itself against its enemies, he said. The capacity to defend itself, by itself, said Netanyahu, is “the essence” of independence.
After Edelstein and Netanyahu lit their torches, 14 others were honored in lighting the remaining 12 torches — which symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel in the Bible.
Among the torch-lighters were veteran singer Shlomo Artzi, actors Leah Koenig and Ze’ev Revach, former IDF general Yeshayahu Gavish, and Racheli Ganot, an ultra-Orthodox woman who established a company which trains religious women for various jobs.
Also lighting torches were wheelchair tennis player Noam Gershony, an IDF chopper pilot who was wounded in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and won gold in the 2012 Paralympics; Margalit Zinati, whose family has been preserving the Jewish presence in the Galilee region for 2,000 years; Ruth Kahanov, Israel’s ambassador to Japan, who lit the torch on behalf of Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s department for international coordination; and Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community.
The roster was completed with torches lit by Prof. Marcelle Machluf who developed cancer treatments; Prof. Aviezri Freankel who fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948 and pioneered computer science studies in the country; 15-year-old May Korman who developed a device meant to prevent parents from forgetting their kids in cars; Roy Levy, a commander of the IDF’s elite Egoz unit who was seriously injured during the 2014 Gaza war; and veteran linguist and radio persona Dr. Avshalom Kor, who for decades hosted the annual International Bible Quiz on Independence Day.
After the playing of “Hatikvah,” the national anthem, the ceremony ended with Israelis and flag-waving supporters of Israel at 32 locations worldwide singing “Hallelujah” — not the Leonard Cohen song, but the tune with which Israel won the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest, followed by more dancing and fireworks.
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 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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.