Most holiday celebrations offer opportunities to reflect on the themes of the day, the passing of time — momentous events and regrets. Observing Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israel Independence Day, provides the same opportunities. Sh’ma invited a rabbi, a publisher, an academic, and an activist to speak about how they personally observe the day and how we might re-envision the holiday for contemporary times.
Susan Berrin: To celebrate Israel means more than simply supporting it. For so long, what we celebrated about Israel were its political achievements: its establishment as a country, and its David and Goliath-like wars, especially in 1967. For many Jews today, including many who remain deeply committed to Israel, the news is overwhelmingly gloomy. There is a Netanyahu government that has not found a way to keep meaningful peace talks moving forward; a foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who proposed a bill that Israelis take a loyalty oath or lose their right to vote; and a letter signed by some 50 Israeli rabbis urging Israeli landowners not to rent to Arabs or other non-Jews — among other things. Does this leave an impact on the ability of Jews not only to support Israel, but also to celebrate it on Yom Ha’atzmaut?
Gary Rosenblatt: We are celebrating more than the current events or the most recent headlines — we’re celebrating the transformation of Israel from a prayer and an idea into a reality, and all the good and bad that goes with a real state, a real army, and a real government. We don’t want to lose sight of what many consider to be a miracle — the creation of the Jewish state.
Ariel Beery: There is a flawed assumption that the celebration of Israel should exist in one way or another. Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut might mirror how parents celebrate the birthdays of their children. As time goes on, we often don’t remember our 19th or 23rd birthdays. And as Israel becomes more of an integrated part of our lives, celebrating its birthday becomes less special.
Jarah Greenfield: In the Diaspora, we’re so geographically distant from Israel and yet often so close to the issues of justice in the state. It is much more important to establish a celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut based on connections between people — Diaspora Jews, Israeli citizens who cover the spectrum of political belief, and Israel’s non-citizen population, including the Palestinians — than it is to celebrate a day that reinforces a feeling of love for the state. By developing loving — if complicated — relationships, we come to better understand and challenge one another, emerging from those exchanges with a deeper understanding of the complexities that remain alive for us in American and Israeli society. If we could change the nature of the stories we tell about the state, and the way we tell those stories at Yom Ha’atzmaut, I think we as a people would be better at maintaining a sense of kavod (honor) for the history of Zionism and its evolution while also hearing and telling stories that are complicated and challenging, such as how those events have impacted the lives of Palestinians.
Shaul Kelner: Any Israel Independence Day celebration will have at least two levels of celebration: the official state commemorations and the unofficial family celebration. They don’t necessarily convey the same meaning. The family celebration isn’t necessarily about grand national themes. I think it would be too narrow to insist that Diaspora Jews only use Yom Ha’atzmaut to focus on grand political themes. Let it also be about getting together with loved ones for a good barbeque, like the Israelis do and like the Americans do on the Fourth of July.
Ariel Beery: The Diaspora still looks at Yom Ha’atzmaut as the celebration of a political state rather than a celebration of Israel as a platform for the collective action of the Jewish people and an opportunity for the Jewish people to impact the world as we’ve not been able to do over the course of the past thousands of years. Yom Ha’atzmaut could be seen as a way to celebrate the independence of the Jewish people to act as a people in the world.
Jarah Greenfield: Observing Yom Ha’atzmaut as a way to cultivate a sense of spiritual peoplehood would be a welcome transformation of the day. Imagine what it could look like for Jews who live in so many different kinds of communities and who hold such divergent world views to express their perspectives on independence without fear of reprisal. This is essentially the work of becoming an am kadosh, a holy people that wrestles with all of our divergent parts.
Ariel Beery: The early Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am might have suggested that we celebrate our independence through the theater and plays; it could be a wonderful day for public storytelling and recreation of narratives. It could be a wonderful day for service events in which Jews take on social challenges in their communities. It could be a wonderful day to remember that the ideas of state and citizenship are a human invention of the past 200 years. What binds us together really is shared purpose, shared fate, and shared destiny. We might remind ourselves that the state’s borders are humanly created, but the bonds we share with one another across history have lasted for countless generations.
Shaul Kelner: It’s also a great time to call and reconnect with friends and family in Israel.
Gary Rosenblatt: How many Americans celebrate July 4th in a way that really connects us to the meaning of the day of freedom and liberty? It’s become a day off and a time to barbeque or go shopping for department store sales. In New York, the emphasis has been on the Israel Day Parade. Having attended it for a number of years, one concern I have is that there are fewer and fewer people who come out. Today, primarily the family and friends of day school children who are marching come, and, by the way, we need our own Jewish marching band! Mostly, the crowd consists of observant people, lots of yarmulkes; it’s become a much more parochial event. The Jewish rituals that seem to endure most are those that take place at home — a seder, watching films, a book group, Shabbat dinner.
Shaul Kelner: American Jews celebrate holidays that tend to emphasize nostalgia or attract families; holidays that don’t do this tend to draw less participation. Considering that most American Jews don’t trace their immediate ancestry to the modern State of Israel, the nostalgic memories from childhood of Israel are simply not strong enough to build on. It’s no surprise that Yom Ha’atzmaut isn’t a popularly celebrated holiday in American-Jewish life.
Susan Berrin: Gary, you mentioned that most of the people attending the Israel Day Parade are day school families or friends, people wearing kippot. If this a true, to what extent does this indicate that the celebration of Israel is overwhelmingly the province of religious Jews and does this say anything about Orthodoxy and the liberal streams of Judaism?
Gary Rosenblatt: Israel Day Parades and rallies — like those in front of the United Nations — are embarrassingly small and almost exclusively drawn from the Orthodox community. But it makes sense that in the Orthodox community there is a great deal of involvement with Zionism. People travel regularly to Israel; they have relatives there. Their children often study for a year in an Israeli yeshiva. They are more aware of Israel as a daily reality; they pray for Jerusalem three times a day. My question: Where are the other segments of the Jewish community?
Jarah Greenfield: Peter Beinart’s popular article in The New York Review of Books last year, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” speculated on the relationship of young Jews to Zionism. He describes American Zionism as having become irrelevant to young non-Orthodox Jews who envision an Israel that strongly opposes the occupation. Their relationships with Israel are based in commitments to activism, to questioning the policies of the government, and to a strong desire for peace.
The small turnout at Israel Day rallies doesn’t necessarily reflect apathy as much as it reflects a “disconnect” between traditional Zionists and those who are redefining their relationships to Israel. It points to our need as a Jewish people to greatly expand the number of seats at the table. We need to find ways to develop greater understanding between people on both ends of the spectrum — folks who pray three times a day facing Jerusalem, and those whose prayers consist of being an activist and supporter of human rights and social justice, and whose criticisms of Israel come not through hatred but through a very strong sense of justice.
Shaul Kelner: In Israel, there is a progression from Holocaust Remembrance Day to Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers) ten days later, and only then, the next day, to Yom Ha’atzmaut. Part of the symbolic power of the holiday in Israel comes from that sequencing. The same sequencing occurs in the physical space of Jerusalem’s Har Hazikaron (“Mountain of Memory”): Yad Vashem at the bottom of the hill, the military cemetery on the slope up, and Herzl’s tomb on the top of the hill. In the U.S., there is very little attention paid to Yom Hazikaron, and that may be why in the States, Yom Ha’atzmaut loses the symbolic power and weight that is structured into the progression of celebrations in Israel. Lacking the ashes-to-redemption narrative, the holiday here simply doesn’t pack that much punch.
Susan Berrin: In view of the fuller, more complicated understanding provided by Israeli historians and others in the last couple of decades regarding the events of 1947-48, which led to Israeli independence, how, if at all, do you feel that the marking of Yom Ha’atzmaut ought to be altered?
Jarah Greenfield: Including the story of the Nakba into the narrative of Yom Ha’atzmaut would be a position of strength at the international table and would do great good toward building a just foundation for peace. The ability of the Jewish Israeli population to acknowledge the voice of a Palestinian narrative as part of its own story has tremendous healing power.
Gary Rosenblatt: For the more than 20 percent of the population who are Arab citizens, enduring Yom Ha’atzmaut without any kind of recognition of their stories must be very difficult.
Ariel Beery: This is a complex question — really two questions. There are questions associated with the narrative of Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel. And there are questions that stem from the challenges posed by the creation of the State of Israel on its minority populations. The celebration of the Jewish people’s ability to govern itself without having to play the loyal minority is a legitimate celebration. At the same time, it is worth recognizing the political challenges and the human cost that statehood created. Let’s remember that we do not mix memory for the fallen British soldiers and British loyalists within the U.S. with celebrating American independence. Both Israelis and Palestinians should be able to have empathy for the other. But one can’t celebrate a child’s birthday by remembering that there were complications at the birth. The complications need to be remembered, but the celebration of life is above and beyond the most sacred.
Jarah Greenfield: Historical comparisons are flawed and often complicate the points we’re trying to clarify. I do believe that learning to hear the story of the other, even during moments when we wish to celebrate our collective accomplishments, allows us to expand our perspective. One textbook that does this hard work, Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative: Palestinians and Israelis was created and published by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (see Sivan Zakai essay, page 3). An excerpt of the book could be a resource for more fully understanding a very complex moment in history that has had tremendous ramifications for us as Jews and as part of the human family.
Shaul Kelner: I take some lessons from the tradition. First, I’m guided by the notion that “to everything there’s a season.” I do believe that there is a time for self-critique, and I believe there is a time for unmitigated celebration. Yom Ha’atzmaut should be a time of unmitigated celebration. We need a moment for basic, unadulterated hakarat hatov, “recognition of the good.” To use Yom Ha’atzmaut as a time for self-flagellation or mourning our failings represents, to my mind, a basic failure to appreciate and give thanks for the good with which we are blessed. Precisely because we engage in so much self-critique throughout the year — some of it warranted — we need a moment to step back from it lest it overwhelm us and lead us to lose sight of the goodness that exists. On Shabbat, do we focus on how the world is broken, or do we try to recognize how many miracles surround us?
The other lesson I take, this one from the Passover seder, is that the rabbis have often been ambivalent about unmitigated celebration. Even as we’re celebrating our exodus to freedom from Egypt, we remove drops of wine from our glasses to recall the suffering of the Egyptians in the ten plagues. Then we refill our glasses, feast, and sing the praise songs of Hallel. By including the wine ritual in the way that they do, are the rabbis encouraging us to acknowledge that our freedom came at a price to others, or are they establishing clear boundaries to contain the critical impulse lest it overwhelm us and prevent us from actually expressing joy at our liberation? If Passover is a model for Yom Ha’atzmaut, then those on the right would do well to remember the former, and those on the left should try to remember the latter.
Jarah Greenfield: My reading of the seder is that our liberation comes in stages; we’re required to relive our struggle toward liberation every year. By the time we sing Hallel, we are celebrating a greater measure of freedom than we had the year before. However, we offer that praise right upon the heels of Elijah’s cup so that we recognize that complete redemption has yet to come. What we can celebrate without mitigation at Yom Ha’atzmaut is our active participation in bringing about a freedom that does not diminish the selfhood of another people.
Ariel Beery: If we were to understand Yom Ha’atzmaut as a day of empowerment, then it would open up many ways for our educators, artists, public figures, and community members to create their own ways of adding to the observance and celebration — where appropriate, to mix the pain with the pleasure, the liberation with the responsibility. When the Temples were destroyed and the Israelites were exiled a second time, questions about how to celebrate Shavuot — which, as Chag Ha’Bikkurim, was a time to bring first fruits to the Temple — were raised. New rituals and associations were created for the holiday, including Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Shavuot. I think it is incumbent upon us to come up with that ritual, that myth, that platform to be able to express what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls our shared fate and faith.
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