Anxiety Ahead of Independence Day: Will Israelis Celebrate?
May 12, 2024

By Atara Beck

(May 11, 2024 / JPost) This year, as Independence Day approaches, many of us, who usually look forward to the annual festivities, are feeling somewhat anxious, not knowing if and how to celebrate Israel’s 76th anniversary. 

On a personal note, Independence Day has always been my favorite day of the year. Yet how can I be joyful amid all the tragedies? How can I party amid so much suffering?

Indeed, Independence Day immediately follows Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism, which in itself is a challenging transition. Certainly, Remembrance Day will be more intense this year, to say the least, and the transition will be all the more difficult.

The Magazine interviewed people from diverse backgrounds to ask about their perspectives.

“This reminds me of the dilemma after the pinui [evacuation], when people questioned celebrating Independence Day,” said Susie Shaul, who was among the approximately 9,000 Israelis forced to leave their homes in Gush Katif during Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. 

“Ultimately, we did [celebrate], but a bit differently than we used to. I think we must celebrate this year as well but still remember October 7 and all its implications. We must remain united and vigilant. Our enemies are waiting to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness. Chag sameach!”

 “Of course, Remembrance Day will be very, very powerful this year,” said Anita Tucker, who was also evacuated from Gush Katif. “There are so many more soldiers for us to remember and to pray for their memories. I’m grateful that my many grandchildren who served in the IDF are alive, although one was wounded,” she said, adding that she hoped they would not experience too much trauma after all they saw and did. 

“Independence Day is, more than ever, a holiday of prayer and praise to God for saving our precious State of Israel, as we all know that Hamas’s plan was to continue to attack from the North and to erase Israel from the map,” she continued. “Fortunately, they did not succeed. That is surely a reason to celebrate.

“Both Remembrance Day and Independence Day will obviously place emphasis on prayers for the return of the hostages… Our independent, strong state must put much more pressure on Hamas to release them via military action and by giving the land in the northern part of Gaza to the residents of the kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope and Sderot, Netivot, and Ofakim. This plan should be declared on Independence Day, and the implementation should begin immediately after the holiday.”

Yael Pedhatzur, 74, described herself as “a third-generation Sabra, a staunch Zionist, and a proud Jew.” Noting that just recently we celebrated the festival of Passover “with mixed feelings” and then Holocaust Remembrance Day, she believes that this year, “Remembrance Day and Independence Day will be more meaningful and poignant, as this generation has experienced collective trauma, the same trauma that had followed us for millennia. We will appreciate what we have and hopefully understand that this wonderful little country of ours needs all our love and protection. Am Yisrael chai!”

Akiva Fuld, a resident of Kiryat Arba, a suburb of Hebron, will be celebrating “the same as always, thanking all those who have enabled me to live in Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel], i.e., the State of Israel, the IDF soldiers, and those before us.”

Tom Nisani, the executive director of Beyadenu – Returning to the Temple Mount, announced that hundreds of people are planning to march on the Temple Mount with Israeli flags on Independence Day. It remains to be seen whether the authorities will allow that to happen.

‘A day of introspection’

“Independence Day, like all the other Jewish holidays, is a day of introspection, when we think about the past and how Hashem [God] has saved us once again from utter destruction,” said Nomi Gutenmacher, a Jerusalem-based software engineer whose sons had served in the IDF and were called up in the current war.

“We recite the Hallel prayer to give thanks for the miracles that make our lives possible while we pray for further help. As Jews, this is a time to examine what we need to do to be worthy of Hashem’s further help. On other Jewish holy days, we say the Yizkor prayer, remembering those we have lost; and similarly, Yom Ha’atzmaut was established together with its twin, Yom Hazikaron, the day we remember the fallen Jewish soldiers and the civilians murdered by our terrorist enemies,” she continued. 

“These days have always been a time when sadness, fear, joy, and hope for the future are mingled together, and this year is no different. Unlike previous generations, we cannot but appreciate being in a position where we can defend ourselves against the evil being perpetuated against us; but, as always, our continued existence is precarious. 

“On a final and related note, the very notion of atzmaut – independence – is something to think about on this day. Are we truly independent yet, or are we, as a people, allowing ourselves to be pawns in the hands of those who do not have our best interests at heart?” 

She concluded with a blessing: “May we soon all be able to celebrate a joyous Independence Day with everyone returned safely to their own homes in a strong and viable Eretz Yisrael.”

Dilemma ‘as ancient as the Jewish people’

“So deep is our trauma from October 7 and the horrors of the war since then, that celebrating anything at all seems inappropriate and out of step with the national mood and our own feelings,” said Julie Morris, who made aliyah from London 37 years ago. 

“Whereas this feeling is raw and still fresh, the essential dilemma is as ancient as the Jewish people. In each generation, we mark joy in parallel with grief – e.g., the smashed cup under the huppah and the bitter herbs during Passover, our Festival of Freedom. 

“I will celebrate Independence Day this year as a reminder of the miracle of the State of Israel – the fact that we are immensely privileged and grateful to God to live in the Jewish state.

“And we are immensely grateful to God for miraculously saving our son Yonatan and his comrades from a bomb that a terrorist placed by his tank. My family includes three boys in the IDF, and while suffering stress, we have received so much support from our community.

“In the midst of this Independence Day celebration, we will pray for the victory, safety, and recovery of our nation’s courageous soldiers, the return of our hostages to their homes, and that we should be blessed with redemption – to happy, peaceful times for our nation.”

‘I don’t think the country is independent’

Seth Frantzman, senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post, is less optimistic.

“I don’t feel positive about celebrating,” he told the Magazine. “I don’t think a country that leaves 133 of its people in Gaza held by Hamas, only a mile from the border, including women soldiers it knows are being abused, is an independent country. The fact is that the country has outsourced the hostage talks to a country that hosts Hamas, and for the first time in Israel’s history it relies on others to safeguard the lives of Israelis rather than safeguarding them [itself]. It’s unconscionable to abandon people in Gaza. And that is what has happened. 

“I don’t think the country is independent, so it’s hard to celebrate. What’s to celebrate? The country left an entire border open to Hamas to massacre people like it was a pogrom in the 18th century but much worse in terms of death toll. Israel was supposed to protect people, not abandon them and let them be taken hostage.”

Arnie Draiman, a Jerusalem-based philanthropic consultant, concurred. “Remembrance Day will be the worst – the saddest and most depressing – since 1974, in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when we lost 2,656 soldiers.

“Independence Day will be a day off, but not one of celebration if the hostages are still in captivity. People will enjoy the day at leisure but no real energy for the big parties, no fireworks.”

“Without the hostages’ return home and with so many in Israel suffering, displaced, and mourning loved ones, I think the day will be more of a reminder of the work we still need to do,” opined Jerusalem resident Elisheva Silver Aarons, a digital marketer and mother of six.

‘It’s very hard to celebrate’ away from home

“Kibbutz Nirim has a very rich tradition for Independence Day. Our kibbutz is one of the 11 dots,” said Adele Raemer, a resident of the kibbutz, referring to the 11 settlements established by pioneers in 1946, immediately after Yom Kippur, most of them in the southern Negev region. 

Nirim “was one of the first kibbutzim attacked by the Egyptians on the day that the country was declared a state,” said Raemer, a prominent blogger and educator who also carries out public diplomacy, explaining Israel’s situation to the world.

Located 2 km. from the Gaza border, Kibbutz Nirim was one of the Hamas terrorists’ main targets on October 7. Most of the 450 residents are residing in temporary homes in Beersheba.

Remembrance Day and Independence Day “will be very different this year, of course,” Raemer said. “The whole atmosphere of not being at home, not living at home, not being able to do it from our home base. From our kibbutz, there will be a few names added to the fallen…

“It’s very hard to celebrate independence when we’re not all free and independent,” she said, adding that no one knows if or when the hostages will be freed or if they are even alive. “This is not a very joyful Independence Day. I don’t intend to do anything on Independence Day itself, but I certainly do intend to participate in the ceremonies for Remembrance Day and transitioning into Independence Day. 

“On Passover we say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Hopefully, next year Independence Day will be in Nirim, and we will be truly free and independent and not under existential threat because it’s never been as bad since the beginning of the state as it is now.”

‘A major change is called for’

Eva Etzioni-Halevy, professor emerita of sociology at Bar-Ilan University and writer of biblical novels, is a Holocaust survivor. She told the Magazine: “Based on much sociological theory and research, I would say that national symbols and ceremonies play a major role in cementing our nation and in emphasizing our common values and solidarity. They enable us to dip into our past to gain strength for the future. They carry special importance in times of crisis and internal rifts so that arguments can proceed without tearing our nation apart. Independence Day brings to the fore our central symbols and ceremonies. So, on no account should we let it slide by without giving it a central place in our existence.

“But symbols and ceremonies also change and encourage change, and this year a major change is called for. In reverence to our beloved hostages, soldiers, and victims of the massacre and of the war, we should mark the holiday strictly without any expressions of joy. Let us have get-togethers but without cheerful music, dancing, or fireworks. This type of observance of the day will imbue us with more strength and hope than any boisterous celebrations could bring about. 

“National symbols and ceremonies may be used to enhance power, and politicians may well try it. Let us show them that such an attempt, rather than adding to their popularity, will put them to shame.

“It is not by chance that Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism, and Independence Day are close on our calendar. Moving abruptly from sorrow to joy is always difficult, and it will be especially painful this year, when much of this sorrow is fresh. As a sociologist who is also a Holocaust survivor, I believe that an Independence Day that expresses togetherness and hope, but no joy, may ease the transition. 

Barbecuing for soldiers

“We were debating what to do and decided to use the opportunity to go to the soldiers guarding and protecting us and do a barbecue for them, wherever they are stationed, as opposed to our usual barbecue and DJ party in Jerusalem,” said Lizzie Noach, co-director of the Michael Levin Base, a nonprofit that provides emotional and practical support to lone soldiers and young women performing National Service. 

Voices from the Diaspora: Advocating for Israel

When asked how he would be spending Independence Day, Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, gave a truly activist response.

“I’m giving a major lecture at a synagogue pushing back on the lies that (1) Israel is occupying Arab land; (2) Jerusalem is holy to Muslims – it’s not; (3) a Palestinian Arab state will bring peace; (4) Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is a moderate, seeking peace; (5) Israel is committing genocide; (6) Israel is an apartheid state; and (7) Jews have no right to live in or build in Judea and Samaria.

“And I’ll explain that Palestinian Arabs were offered a state eight times in the last 80 years and turned it down. I’ll explain that the Palestinian Arab culture promoted violence and murder of Jews in their media, schools, sermons and speeches, and pay-for-slay policy. I’ll explain that we Jews have overcome challenges and threats for thousands of years, and we will overcome this challenge. 

“God promised that the Jews are an eternal people and that we will keep our eternal homeland, and unlike politicians, God keeps his promises.”

‘To be better Jews, we must become Zionists’

Responding to the Magazine, William C. Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, did not comment on how he personally would be observing Independence Day, but he was perfectly clear about his Zionism and the need for unity between Israel and the Diaspora, especially while the latter is experiencing an alarming rise in antisemitism.

“This Yom Ha’atzmaut, like the first one 76 years ago, comes as the State of Israel is confronting enemies seeking to extinguish both Jewish sovereignty and the Jewish people,” Daroff said. “Since the dark day of this past October 7, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah have waged a relentless war against the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

“In workplaces, public squares, and college campuses across the United States, supporters of those seeking the destruction of Israel have sought to marginalize, intimidate, and, in some cases, violently attack Jews. But for a supermajority of American Jews, support for Zionism constitutes a pillar of our identity. 

“As justice Louis Brandeis noted over 100 years ago, ‘To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.’ In the face of rising antisemitism, the ties binding Israel and Diaspora Jewry in the United States must be strengthened and renewed.”

‘More important than ever to celebrate’

“I think it is more important than ever to celebrate Independence Day, said Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. “We will be doing so here in our synagogue. This year will be especially difficult for us. Still, our joy and celebration of Jewish freedom and self-determination is especially poignant this year, with the rise of antisemitism in America and the attacks on Israel. Zionism thrust the Jewish people, as a people, back into history as actors rather than passive victims. 

“With all the pain and tragedies of this past year, we should acknowledge the miracle of Jewish survival and rejoice in the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.”

From 1977 to 1980, Hirsch served as an IDF tank commander.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve been wondering how to approach this year’s Independence Day. Gil Karsenty, a neighbor and community activist, solved my dilemma.

Winner of the Teacher of the State award in 2023, among other achievements, Karsenty told the Magazine: “This year, unfortunately, the pain is long-lasting and does not seem to end. Our society, or group, consists of distinct and isolated components. 

“As an individual in a group or community, and as the parent of a son who serves as a paratrooper in the reserves, I, along with many others in Israel, have been experiencing unbearable pressure and anxiety. As an individual, I need the group to support me. However, you look left and right, and you see that the mood is getting gloomier. The group does not strengthen you. Sometimes you feel that the group is sinking along with you. 

“That’s why I decided, despite all the complexities, to celebrate Independence Day. We are planning a neighborhood feast of thanksgiving to foster mutual strength among individuals and the community. The hostage families, the wounded, and the bereaved especially need support. We need the community to raise our morale. As a special education teacher and teacher for the State of Israel, I believe that setting a personal example in these difficult times is extremely important.

“Everyone will do what they think is right. Any contribution to the general public, in any way, will be a source of strength,” he asserted.

So, my husband and I decided to participate in Karsenty’s gathering. We, too, need community. During the day, we’ll volunteer to pick fruit on a moshav. As the song goes, “Ein li eretz aheret” – I have no other country.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and can be viewed here.

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