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Analysis

The demise of fireworks: How PTSD awareness changed Israel’s Independence Day

Widely considered a ‘must’ for Israel’s birthday until now, fireworks canceled this year in many cities and towns out of respect for military veterans suffering from post-trauma

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: People watch fireworks during a show to mark Israel's 71st Independence Day in Jerusalem on May 8, 2019. For May 5, 2022's Independence Day, numerous municipalities scrapped fireworks displays out of concern for people with PTSD. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: People watch fireworks during a show to mark Israel's 71st Independence Day in Jerusalem on May 8, 2019. For May 5, 2022's Independence Day, numerous municipalities scrapped fireworks displays out of concern for people with PTSD. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After two years of scaled-down celebrations due to the pandemic, Israel was in party mode on Wednesday evening to mark the start of Independence Day. But in much of the country, one staple of the holiday was conspicuously absent.

Fireworks are a traditional high-point in traditional proceedings, but this year, many municipalities scrapped them. The state also made a change, for the main national ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, using what organizers called “quiet pyrotechnics” instead of the regular noisy display.

In Tel Aviv, where the Declaration of Independence took place back in 1948, this year cafes and bars were packed, and street parties abounded, but there were no fireworks.

The decision in Tel Aviv, and many other areas, was made for the sake of the many Israeli veterans — and others — who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“We’re attentive to the hearts of the public, and after much thought, much reflection, and a comprehensive survey, I decided that there will be no fireworks this year at the Independence Day ceremony,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announced this week.

He explained: “One of the things that influenced this decision was requests from soldiers with post-trauma that asked to cancel the firework display, as well as for people with disabilities.”

Illustrative image: Israeli soldiers who suffer from PTSD protest against the state’s treatment outside the Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv, on July 14, 2019. (Flash90)

More than 20 other municipalities also canceled displays, including Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Kiryat Ono, Herzliya, Ra’anana, Hod Hasharon, Ramat Hasharon, Eilat, Binyamina-Giv’at Ada, Shlomi, Nahariya, Karmiel, Ramla, Kiryat Motzkin and Pardes Hanna-Karkur.

Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, which has also become a day to focus on the suffering of veterans, is marked immediately before Independence Day. Because the date changes in the Jewish calendar in the evening, as night sets in the country transitions from mourning to celebration.

The juxtaposition is traditionally seen as a fitting way to acknowledge the sacrifice that has gone into guaranteeing the continued extend of the state, but some bereaved families and veterans say the transition is too jarring.

And there have been veteran voices saying that the emotional challenge of the day is intensified by the booms of fireworks, too similar for comfort to sounds from war. Psychologists report that the noise of fireworks can actually make some veterans feel they are back in situations that triggered their trauma.

But the complaints were ignored by organizers of celebrations, until now. Why the change this year?

There is a tragic background. A year ago, just before Memorial Day, a veteran suffering from PTSD arrived at the IDF Rehabilitation Department’s offices in Petah Tikva with a bottle full of a flammable liquid, doused himself with it, and then set himself on fire in the entryway.

IDF disabled veteran Itzik Saidyan. (Facebook)

Itzik Saidyan, who had PTSD as a result of the 2014 Gaza War, was angry that he wasn’t getting the appropriate care. Immediately, the plight of soldiers with PTSD started to receive unprecedented attention.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said at the time: “Among our soldiers and our reservists there are those whose injuries cannot be seen and they carry in their hearts the scars of battle for many years. The IDF and the people of Israel owe a great debt to those who endanger their lives and their minds for the sake of protecting the country, and we must do everything to fight for them.”

Soon afterwards, the Defense Ministry pledged to improve its services for disabled army veterans. Defense Ministry director-general Amir Eshel called the self-immolation a “wakeup call.”

Saidyan’s progress in recovering from his debilitating burns has been closely followed by the nation, and empathy with others suffering from PTSD has increased.

In March, an Israeli soldier who was injured during the 2014 Gaza war and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder died by suicide. Reuven Magen, 27, served as an armored corps fighter in the conflict known as Operation Protective Edge. He was badly injured in an attack in which five comrades died.

Reuven Magen. (Courtesy)

Two other factors played into the rethink this year on fireworks.

One is the fact that the pandemic already interfered with Independence Day traditions, preventing fireworks in most places in 2020 and causing the cancellation of displays in some places last year. The fireworks tradition was no longer untouchable.

Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper at the Theatre in Jerusalem, on February 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The other is the change in government. Two years ago, Chili Tropper, a social worker turned politician with the centrist Blue and White party, took over from hardline traditionalist Miri Regev as culture minister.

He helped put the issue on the agenda, changed the national ceremony and encouraged the scrapping of local displays.

Suddenly, municipalities are being called by the public to justify themselves if they do organize fireworks, while until now, they were expected to justify themselves if they didn’t, inevitably getting labeled as killjoys.

This is just the start — it’s inevitable that next year more municipalities will skip fireworks. Israel’s Independence Day is becoming a kinder and more sensitive occasion.

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