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Israel celebrates 75 years of independence

The struggle for unity and social cohesion has been ongoing since its modern founding. But the country remains a light unto all nations.

Pedestrians and drivers stand still as a siren sounds across Israel to mark Yom Hazikaron, the country's Memorial Day, which commemorates fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror, in Jerusalem on April 28, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Pedestrians and drivers stand still as a siren sounds across Israel to mark Yom Hazikaron, the country's Memorial Day, which commemorates fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror, in Jerusalem on April 28, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Israelis are celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary and mourning the loss of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. From grief to joy, the Jewish state uniquely pairs Memorial Day and Independence Day together. Many Israeli customs memorializing fallen heroes and celebrating independence are similar to American traditions on these revered holidays.

Israel celebrates Memorial Day and Independence Day together because the two events are closely linked in the country’s history and national identity. Memorial Day commemorates the sacrifices of soldiers and civilians who died defending Israel, while Independence Day celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel and its sovereignty after 2,000 years of Jewish statelessness.

The decision to hold the holidays back-to-back was made in 1951 to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in the struggle for independence, as well as to emphasize the connection between their sacrifice and the country’s founding. Israel acknowledges the deep sense of loss and grief that accompanies the celebration of independence.

The joint observance reflects the unity and solidarity of the Israeli people, as they remember the fallen, honor their sacrifices and celebrate the country’s achievements while looking to the future. Celebrating Memorial Day immediately before Independence Day underscores the idea that freedom and national sovereignty come at a price.

Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism (Yom Hazikaron) is marked by ceremonies and observances throughout the country. At 8 p.m. on the eve of Memorial Day, a siren sounds throughout Israel, marking the beginning of nationwide mourning. During the siren, all activity comes to a halt, and people stand in silence to honor the memory of the fallen. Video from an El Al flight to France shows passengers standing in the aisle.

This year, Israel mourns 24,213 who died during military service and the 4,255 killed in terrorist attacks in the land of Israel dating back to the mid-1800s; with 59 soldiers added to the list since last year. Throughout the day, televised ceremonies are held at military cemeteries, schools and community centers to honor the heroism and sacrifice of the fallen. Families and friends of the fallen visit graves to honor their memories. Israeli TV airs special programming, including listing the names of all those killed, documentaries about fallen soldiers and interviews with bereaved families.

Israeli flags are flown at half-mast, while many Israelis also display black ribbons or flags to signify the loss of a loved one. As the sun sets to mark the end of the day, a national ceremony is held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The ceremony includes the lighting of a memorial flame and the recitation of prayers and poems in honor of the fallen.

In stark contrast, Israel’s Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) is a festive, national holiday. The Israeli government holds official ceremonies, including a torch-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem that honors individuals who have made significant contributions to Israeli society. One of the most significant events is the official state ceremony, held on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

The Israeli Air Force conducts air shows over major cities, with fighter jets performing acrobatic maneuvers and aerial displays. Israelis celebrate with parades, concerts and fireworks. Barbecues are another popular tradition, much like Americans celebrate the Fourth of July. Israelis gather with family and friends in parks and open spaces to grill food and enjoy the outdoors. The United States celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1851, shortly after California became a state.

Points to consider:

  1. Israel’s freedom comes at a high human cost

For two minutes of silence, the siren pierces the heart. It reminds Israelis that they have a shared fate that unites them. These two minutes, year over year, are a reminder of the heavy price paid to be a free people in the Jewish homeland. Virtually every Israeli has felt the loss of a loved one in either a war or terrorist attack. Israel’s declaration of independence was met by armed force when neighboring Arab countries attacked the Jewish state. Its enemies repeatedly call for Israel’s destruction. A strong Jewish state is necessary because history has shown that time and again, countries that once welcomed Jews turn on their Jews. For “never again”—a vow to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust from happening again—to truly mean “never again,” there must always be a place that Jews can call home.

  1. Israel is a young, growing democracy.

Seventy-five years is young in the lifetime of a democracy—a relatively new concept—and America is by far the oldest standing democracy. When the United States turned 75 in 1851, Millard Fillmore was president, The New York Times and Western Union were founded, the ice machine was patented, and the Gold Rush entered its fourth year in the new state of California. There are many cultural groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that make up the rich tapestry of Israeli society. They offer a glimpse into the diversity and complexity of a country that is both ancient and modern, rooted in tradition and constantly evolving. Israel’s population, at its founding in 1948, was 806,000; today, it approaches 10 million.

  1. Israel is a diverse society.

Israel is the nation-state of the Jews but also includes non-Jewish citizens—Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Baha’i—altogether about 20% of the population. Many Jews who lived in exile in the Diaspora for centuries, including Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, returned to Israel after its independence. Israel has made significant strides in building a shared national identity and sense of community. Hebrew is the official language of the country, and Jewish holidays and traditions are widely observed. Israel also values the religious and cultural rights of its non-Jewish communities, and Arabic is recognized as an official language. Israel’s rich cultural tapestry is a source of strength as the country continues to work towards building a more inclusive and cohesive society.

  1. Creating a more unified country continues.

The struggle for unity and social cohesion has been ongoing since its modern founding. There are divisions within Israeli society over ethnicity, religion, politics and socioeconomic status, much like in the United States. These have been highlighted in recent years by protests over issues, such as economic inequality and judicial overhaul. Despite these challenges, there also have been efforts to promote greater economic integration, unity and social cohesion in Israel. Many organizations and initiatives are working to build bridges and promote better coexistence. Independence Day allows Israelis to come together as a nation and reaffirm their commitment to the ideals of freedom and democracy. The holiday is a source of pride and celebration for Israelis, as they reflect on the accomplishments of the country and the challenges that have been overcome to achieve independence and build a thriving democratic society.

  1. Israeli innovation is making the desert bloom.

Israel is the little country that could, overcoming a lack of natural resources in a tough neighborhood. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had a bold vision for the Negev Desert in southern Israel. He believed its development was essential for a thriving and prosperous future. Israel has developed innovative ecological technologies, becoming a global leader in drip irrigation and water desalination. Israel’s success in innovation is attributable to its highly educated workforce and entrepreneurial culture, despite having to spend a disproportionate amount of its budget on defending Israelis. In the high-tech industry, Israel excels in cybersecurity, fintech and artificial intelligence. The country is a hub for multinational companies seeking to tap into its talent pool and innovative culture. Israel shares its innovations, fighting at the forefront of food insecurity in Africa and Asia. The sacrifice of Israel’s defenders allows for Jews to continue to be a light unto all nations.

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