Israel transitioned from grave heartache to celebratory joy Wednesday evening, as the nation ushered in its 74th Independence Day, with calls for unity attempting to cut through political disputes that marred solemn events earlier during Memorial Day.
“Right now, between these two days, with the transition that is so tough and so Israeli, we manage but for a moment to truly be one,” Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said in a keynote address at the main state ceremony marking the start of Independence Day at Mount Herzl.
“We manage for a moment to not let any division get between us. And if we could do it yesterday, and we can do it tomorrow, I believe we can manage to do it every day; to choose to see the good in each other, to choose to brighten people’s faces, to choose partnership over division, to be together in this home for us all.”
The comments echoed similar calls for unity that have marked the holiday period, including from President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett, who was heckled by anti-governmental protesters during the state’s main Memorial Day remembrance event for terror victims, said that while Israel is well-equipped to handle outside threats, it is still menaced by internal polarization.
“We cannot let hate trap us, rule over us. We need to see each other in the best light, to believe that others also want what is good for the nation, even if their ideology is totally different,” he said in a statement released by his office.
Maskless and crowded together with few coronavirus restrictions for the first time in two years, Bennett and thousands of others gathered at Mount Herzl for the ceremony, including recent arrivals fleeing Ukraine and Russia, as well as government leaders and other dignitaries.
As in past years, the highlight of the evening was a traditional torch-lighting ceremony honoring extraordinary citizens and others who have contributed to the country and Jewish communities.
Among those lighting beacons were Elizaveta Sherstuk, the head of the Jewish community center in Sumy, Ukraine, who helped hundreds escape the Russian invasion and is continuing to provide critical support in the devastated border city.
“This is the acknowledgment of the importance of what we do,” she told The Times of Israel, ahead of the ceremony.
The parents of Shira Banki, killed by a religious extremist in 2015 while marching in Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade, also lit a torch, dedicating it to “those who choose to teach what is good, rather than condemn what is bad, who work toward bringing people closer and not pushing them away, connecting and not separating, fixing and not taking revenge.”
Also among the torchlighters was the commander of the police’s Yamam anti-terror unit, his face hidden by a mask. The man, whose name was also kept under wraps, was chosen to represent members of Israeli security forces working undercover or in sensitive posts and unable to reveal their identities — a first.
- Kalman Samuels, a Canadian ex-pat who founded Shalva, an organization which helps people with disabilities.
- Yael Sherer, a leading activist for victims of sexual violence.
- Simcha Gathon, who immigrated from Ethiopia and today leads the Center for the Legacy of Ethiopian Jewry.
- Angel Alon, a Netivot resident who was a foster parent to 217 at-risk children for over 30 years.
- Asael Shabo, who lost his mother and three siblings in a 2002 terror attack in which he also lost part of his right leg, and went on to become a wheelchair basketball athlete.
- Mounir Madi, who heads a pre-army academy in Dalyat al-Carmel for Druze and Jewish youth.
- Hadar Cohen, who leads an IDF unit for new immigrants needing both basic training and Hebrew instruction.
- Rita Yehan-Farouz, a Tehran born Israeli pop singer better known as just Rita.
- Idan Kleiman, who heads the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization.
- Yoram Yair, an ex-general who leads programs to provide support for soldiers, youth leadership training and substance abuse rehabilitation.
The glitzy ceremony was accompanied by what organizers called a “quiet pyrotechnics” display instead of the usual fireworks that light up the night sky. Many cities have chosen to forgo such displays this year out of respect to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Tel Aviv, which also did away with its annual fireworks display, crowds still came out to celebrate. At Habima Square, hundreds of revelers sprayed foam “snow,” blew horns, and danced around to celebrate Independence Day, scenes repeated in town squares throughout the country.
“This is what it means to be Israeli,” said Tal, 32, who came to the square with her two children.
Nationwide street parties, concerts, and general merrymaking were expected to continue into the night.
More celebrations are planned for Thursday, when Israelis traditionally pack parks, beaches, nature sites, and other open spaces for barbecues and other festivities.
On Thursday morning and early afternoon, Air Force aircraft will do a flyover of much of the country, a popular and iconic feature of celebrations.
The flyover will include F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighter jets; Lavi training aircraft; C-130 cargo planes; a Boeing refueling plane; Black Hawk, Sea Stallion, Panther and Apache helicopters; and Israel Aerospace Industries Heron drones. It will be the first time IAI drones participate in the flyover.
This year, the military will add a flyby over the West Bank city of Hebron and the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba. It will be the first time the flyby passes over that particular area, but not the first time for all West Bank communities. The IDF said the move was not a political statement, but related to the size of the community.
In the US, where many Jewish communities were also marking the Israeli holiday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said bonds between the countries remained “unshakeable,” mentioning efforts to counter Iran and forge ties between Israel and its neighbors.
The statement came a day after Israeli diplomats held a special Memorial Day ceremony for the country’s fallen in Abu Dhabi, a first for any Arab country.
Israel on Tuesday night and Wednesday stopped to honor its 24,068 fallen servicemembers and thousands more terror victims killed in Israel and its pre-state precursor over the last century and a half.
Fifty-six soldiers died during their military service since Israel’s last Memorial Day. Another 84 disabled veterans died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service.
Thirty-three names were added to the list of terror victims who perished in attacks in the past year. Another four victims with disabilities died due to complications from serious injuries they sustained in attacks, bringing the total to 3,199 since Israel was established in 1948.
Counting from the “early days of Zionism” in 1851, the total number of terror victims stands at 4,216, according to Israel’s National Insurance Institute.
Memorial Day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, was set for the 4th of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, the day before Independence Day.