As a Religious Zionist, the first act of my Yom Ha’atzmaut is usually the Tefilla Chagigit that takes place outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem with thousands of people praying, singing and dancing. So this year, I was understandably upset to be staying at home.
So for the first time since my Aliyah in 2013, I watched the national state ceremony for Yom Ha’atzmaut, pre-recorded at Har Herzl, the highlight of which is when 12 people, each nominated for their outstanding contributions to the state, light a torch. I expected to be underwhelmed. Instead, I was overwhelmed with pride, joy and emotion. In fact, this state ceremony reinvigorated my passion for what the State of Israel stands for, has achieved and still dreams about.
Let’s start with torch-bearer Idan Reichel, a famous musician. Everyone knows his name. But as is traditional, the acceptance speeches start with an acknowledgement of one’s roots, naming one’s parents and in this case, grandparents. Holding back the tears, he opened: “I, Idan Reichel, son of Rochele & Yoav Reichel, Simtat Tidhar in Kfar Saba, grandson of Miriam & Pinchas Yarkoni, leaders of the convoy to break the siege of Jerusalem…”. There is no personal grandstanding, no self-congratulation (even though we’d forgive them for it) – just a deep appreciation for the sacrifices of others, the founding generation of the state and for family roots and values. If anything symbolises what a Jewish national cultural event should look like, it’s this. No ego, only appreciation for others.
Between the nominees, the following were honoured: The IDF; the founding and now elder generation of Israel; Holocaust survivors; grandparents who can’t spend time with their grandchildren, Olim who have brought their heritage and culture to this land; MDA; educators and madrichim, volunteers throughout Israel; doctors, nurses and the entire Israeli health service, those who never give up and change the world; and the Holy One Blessed Be Here, King of Kings. Is there a more appropriate list of people (and deity!) that should be appreciated in a Jewish state?
Then there are the stories. Some torch-bearers beautifully symbolise the epic story of the revival of the Jewish people. Take Prof. Galia Rahav, representing Israel’s health workers, and a world leader in infectious diseases: Her Grandmother served as a surgeon in the forests during the Holocaust; her father as a doctor in a unit of partisans, and two of her children are working and learning in the field of medicine.
If children are watching, they can only have been inspired to dedicate their lives to these values and ideals. Indeed, Adi Altshuler, social entrepreneur and founder of various national projects, had a message for young girls who sit at home and dream of changing the world: let no-one clip your wings and tell you that you can’t, because you can do anything you want.
And if that isn’t awe-inspiring, one of the lighters was a Christian MDA volunteer, aged 18, who also works in preserving the memory of the Holocaust among Jews, Christians and Muslims. She represented the youth of Israel and called on more people to volunteer throughout the country. Another was Ahmed Balauna, an Arab representing nurses in Israel. With his family smiling from the edge of the podium, is there a better symbol for how Israel can truly be a place of equal opportunity for all its citizens, whether Jewish or not? Indeed, the whole event was peppered with references to the phrase “regardless of religion, race or gender”. With one of the torch-bearers a Charedi (at least by appearance), this ceremony, themed around the idea of connections within Israeli society, certainly did just that.
And how can we forget Renee Abitbul, a 92 year old olah from Morocco, who takes two buses and a train to volunteer weekly at Shaarei Tzedek hospital. She has 41 grandchildren, 42 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild (bli ayin hara, announced the presenter!). Words can’t describe the pride with which she lit her torch.
And for me, the most emotional moment, was seeing each one of these incredible people – native born Israelis and olim, young and old, Jewish, Christian and Arab, secular, Religious Zionist and Charedi, all ending the speeches with three words, all said with an intense, tearful, emotion: L’Tiferet Medinat Yisrael (for the glory of the State of Israel).
If you worry that Israel is headed down the path of being an extreme right-wing authoritarian regime, don’t underestimate the societal, cultural strength needed for an event like this to take place, and for speeches like this to be written. This wasn’t jingoistic nationalism, rather this was how the Jewish state does patriotism: staying true to our roots, respecting all types of people, honouring those who deserve the honour, and above all, empowering the next generation with a love for our wonderful country.
I can only imagine how much bigger the audience for this ceremony was this year, especially among religious people who couldn’t go to shul. It could not have come at a more pertinent time.
Yom Ha’atzmaut 72 will certainly live long in the memory as the year we celebrated in our own homes. But if we can build on the spirit of togetherness brought on by facing a common enemy in coronavirus, and if we can build on the passionate calls, character traits and values of these 12 torchbearers, this year could yet be a turning point in creating a better, more unified society so that we can continue to say, with ever increasing pride, L’Tiferet Medinat Yisrael!