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A Mixed Bag

by | May 15, 2024 | Special Days | 0 comments

Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) has always been a mixed bag.  Yes, for most Israelis, it is a day of unalloyed celebration, of mangals, plastic hammers and silly string. It is a day that marks the return of Jewish self-determination in their ancestral homeland after almost two millennia where Jews were not self-determined and (mostly) not in their ancestral homeland. For most Israelis, to borrow a phrase from President Joe Biden, “it’s a big f***ing deal.”

But if you zoom out a little, and consider a broader context, there are a not-small number of Israelis who look upon the day with mixed feelings.

The Zionist calendar itself is designed to mix sadness with gladness – or at least blunt the latter with a little of the former. Eight days before Yom Ha’Atzmaut (or a week before Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Day), Jewish Israeli society commemorates the Shoah. There is a two-minute siren, and the entire country comes to a standstill. There are ceremonies all over the country. A week later, Yom HaZikaron is marked by two sirens – one on the eve and one in the morning. Flags are flown at half-mast and, again, the entire nation stops to remember those who died defending Israel and those who perished in terror attacks. Family members visit graves of their fallen loved ones around the country. There are ceremonies all over the country.

And then, with the setting of the sun on Yom HaZikaron, a switch! The flag on Mount Herzl, which had been flying at half-mast for the past 24 hours is raised to full. There are speeches of congratulations, a parade of soldiers and a torch-lighting ceremony. And then… party!  But who can make such a switch so completely with the lighting of a torch? And who, having just reopened the wound of loss so palpably, can heal in the time it takes to raise a flag? It takes much more time than that… Sadness cannot but bleed into gladness.

And for a small minority of haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), never is the time to celebrate Israel’s independence. For them, the Israeli state is a blasphemous attempt to usurp God’s role in history. Though they believe that Jews have a right to the land and to be self-determined in it, that should only come about at God’s appointed time, not Herzl’s or Ben Gurion’s. For hundreds of thousands more, secular Zionism is the problem. Although haredim vote in the Israeli elections, send representatives to the Knesset and accept Israeli government funding, they do so “to save from the mouth of the lion” and protect the haredi way of life. At the same time, they do not send their teens to serve in the IDF, nor do they celebrate any of the State’s official holidays or even recite the Prayer for the State of Israel. Haredim make up about 13% of Israeli’s population.

And then, for Palestinian Israelis who make up more than 21% of Israel’s population, Yom Ha’Atzmaut is an odd experience. (For those keeping track at home, we’re up to ~34% of Israel’s population…) To many in the “Arab minority,” the birth of a state that proudly describes itself as exclusively Jewish is exclusionary and discriminatory. Even singing the national anthem “Hatikva” evokes discomfort. Israel’s first Palestinian permanent member to the Supreme Court, Salim Joubran, refused to sing Hatikva at formal ceremonies, choosing instead to stand in silence.  When asked about this practice in his retirement interview, he said: “I cannot sing an anthem that includes the words ‘Beats true a Jewish heart.’ …If the state expects all of its citizens, including the Arab ones, to respect its national anthem, it needs to respect them and their rights.”

And then, zooming out more, there are the people on the other side of the conflict, the men, women and children who were on the losing side of the War of Independence. By conservative estimates, 750,000 people were displaced from their homes, never to return. They were consigned to a less than optimal fate of living as refugees, dispersed to neighbouring lands and kept apart in camps, awaiting a resolution to the conflict that has not come for over 75 years that might fairly address their predicament.

For these people, our Independence Day is an occasion for sadness.  For us, it’s a party. For them, it’s a nakba – a disaster.

(Incidentally, as a result of a 2011 Israeli law “Fundamentals of Finance – Amendment No. 40,” it is a fineable offence (as in, funding will be withdrawn) for a state organization (as in schools or universities) to refer to the Israeli Independence Day or the founding day of the country as a day of mourning. Uh oh…)

And though it’s a bit of a buzzkill to talk of our historic happiness in this light, we cannot rightfully pretend that what transpired in 1948 was all doughnuts with blue and white sprinkles for everyone. And we cannot fairly lay all of the blame for bad leaders on a civilian population that paid the real price. (Woe upon us if that standard applied to us as well!)

So where does that leave us and our feelings this week? And especially in light of the events of October 7? What cause do we have to celebrate, to truly let loose with the plastic hammers and silly string – when for so many, for wholly different reasons, it’s not really a sibah l’m’sibah (lit. “reason to party”)?

Observing the muted festivities across Israel on Monday night and Tuesday, it seems I’m not alone in pondering these questions…

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