Thirty-four years ago, I attended my first Yom Ha’atzmaut—Israel’s Independence Day celebration—in Jerusalem. The city’s streets turned into one giant party—people dancing, singing, playfully bopping each other with soft, blue-and-white inflatable hammers. It was great fun, of course, but I also swelled unforgettably with pride to be part of the Jewish people, most of whom deeply love and support their homeland.
Last week, fulfilling a personal goal, I returned to Jerusalem for Yom Ha’atzmaut. This year was different for two reasons. First, because of COVID-19, the celebration was more subdued. Second, the contrast between Israelis’ irrepressible, optimistic patriotism and the bitter cynicism of so many U.S. citizens has never been starker.
Israel’s 73rd Independence Day celebrations last week were less boisterous due to the pandemic. Despite more than 55 percent of the Israeli population being fully vaccinated, the typical all-out events in town centers throughout the country—with music, dancing and fireworks—were limited or cancelled.
Nevertheless, the usual outpouring of pride and patriotism—with blue-and-white flags hanging from every building, car and hand—were on display. On this day in particular, the nation’s people are united in celebrating their country, whether left or right, religious or secular, Jew or non-Jew.
In this generation of wokeness, with its frequent emphasis on division and disdain for one’s country and history—a tendency in many Western countries toward disavowing nationalism—it is refreshing how the State of Israel is bucking the trend.
Israel is unique in the world in that it commemorates its Independence Day one day after its Memorial Day (full name: “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism”). On this memorial day—Yom Hazikaron—sirens are sounded, and the whole country comes to a standstill. The sight of highways and busy streets coming to a complete standstill—as Israel’s diverse citizens stood with heads bowed, unified in sadness and steely determination—was awe-inspiring.
As I joined them on a Jerusalem street last Wednesday morning, sadness then tears welled up, and began streaming down my face. I wasn’t alone.
The nation’s military cemeteries were full—not just of friends and relatives of the fallen, but also of entire student bodies, who come and pay their respects to soldiers and civilians who made the ultimate sacrifice. Almost all normal TV and radio programming was replaced with somber songs about fallen soldiers and Israel’s wars, replete with personal stories of those who fought valiantly but fell in battle.
I was acutely aware that this was no American Memorial Day, where thoughts are more likely focused on where to pick up extra hot dogs for the BBQ. On Israel’s Yom Hazikaron—literally “Day of Remembrance”—most stores and restaurants are closed, reducing distractions, so we could actually remember.
The stories of Israel’s victories against the odds—fighting for its existence against implacable enemies who sought its destruction—are relayed from kindergartens through the entire education system. Politicians, artists, celebrities, workers, religious and atheists, attend and appear at events ripe with a sense of sacrifice and solemn Jewish destiny. This ensures Israel’s history and sacrifice are imbued into Independence Day the following day—which is energized by abject celebration.
These two days, back-to-back, infuse an understanding of the hard, miraculous work it took to build a country out of people whose ancestors spent 2,000 years dispersed and dispossessed, culminating in the Holocaust. Holocaust Remembrance Day—Yom Hashoah—was commemorated in Israel exactly a week before. In these three events, Israelis are annually reminded of both the costs and the joy of their achievement—reestablishing their nation on its ancestral, indigenous soil.
On the eve of Israel’s 71st Independence Day, 82 percent of the Israeli public expressed pride in their country and its achievements. Both among the Jewish and Arab interviewees, the overwhelming majority view their country extremely positively, though the positive majority among Jews is larger than among the Arabs (85 percent vs. 68 percent).
Still, over two thirds of a minority population expressing pride and positivity towards their country is a very welcome statistic. These statistics have remained steady over the last decade regardless of circumstance.
There is a sense of duty in Israel whereby when your country needs you, you step up. It is not unusual in the face of recent military threats for Israel Defense Forces army combat units to be at over 100 percent capacity. It’s because many who are not even called up for reserve duty—because of their age or other reasons—still turn up, ready to go into battle.
The Israel Defense Forces is the most trusted institution in Israel because its role in defending the country and its people is clearly understood. When asked which institutions the Israeli public trusts the most, 88 percent of respondents say they have full faith in the IDF.
Many of these emotions would be criticized in the United States and other parts of the world, where pride in one’s country and its history is seen as regressive or naive. Some progressives want to break down the nation-state and borders, erasing national identities. However, in most of the world, the state is built around one identity, whether national, ethnic or religious.
That is not to say that minorities should not have full rights in nation states, but that the state is built for a specific rationale. Whether it is to instill freedom for those escaping tyranny or persecution—including the opportunity for prosperity and success, as in the United States—or to provide a national home for the Jewish people, every nation has one.
That is why, in 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which enshrines the Jewish nature of Israel.
This was necessary because of threats to redefine national character at the beginning of the 21st century. As is the case everywhere, there are those in Israel who seek a different nation, bereft of any specific identifying ethnic or religious features, which would lead to the end of pride and patriotism.
Israel’s Independence Day is a great reminder of the huge value of showing pride in and appreciation for one’s country. It instills patriotism in its citizens—ensuring that its legacy is preserved, and its mission and history are not forgotten. May this unifying spirit also soon return to the American people.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.