Israel dispatch: in the shadow of another war, Israelis mark a somber Independence Day Dispatches
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Israel dispatch: in the shadow of another war, Israelis mark a somber Independence Day

Sharon Basch is an Israeli American who lived in Israel before starting her JD at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where she is currently a 3L.

War cast a long shadow on Israel’s 76th Independence Day, which officially began on the evening of May 13th. Far more quiet and certainly more somber than usual, the day bore very little resemblance to celebrations past.

Typically, Israel spends a full two days in commemoration. The first day is “Yom Hazikaron” – Memorial Day. Memorial Day is somber, commemorating fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Every year, a siren sounds across the country and everything stops. Following the sirens, television and radio stop typical broadcasts, and spend the next 24 hours reading lists of names of the fallen. Har Herzl, Israel’s National Cemetery, is full of mourners who have come to visit their family and friends. Many will sit around their loved-ones’ grave site, chatting, sharing cookies, other sweets, and drinks – including with other passersby, sharing their stories with each other – in which operation their son died, in which terror attack their sister was caught, and so on. Mothers arrive at their children’s graves with their youngest; the Israeli military allows surviving siblings to decide whether or not to serve in combat positions, shielding their parents from losing more than one child (women included – the Israeli military allows women in combat units). This year’s Memorial Day was more difficult than ever, commemorating over 1,200 people who died in the October 7 terror attack, and another 300 or so soldiers who have been killed since. Some families don’t know whether they should be mourning – it is unclear if their kidnapped friends and family (currently 132 of them) are alive or dead.

As the somber and quiet day winds down, Memorial Day flips into Independence Day – a celebration of the nation’s freedom from over two thousand years of control – be it under the Romans, Arab Conquests, the Ottoman Empire, and/or finally, the British Mandate of Palestine. Having spent time remembering the over thirty thousand lost in the previous three-quarters of a century, darkness comes and barbecues dot the entirety of the nation. Music and dancing is typical, and have been since Independence was officially declared eight hours before the end of the British Mandate. Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States writes in an essay,

They were dancing because they were about to realize what was one of the most remarkable and inspiring achievements in human history: A people which had been exiled from its homeland two thousand years before, which had endured countless pogroms, expulsions, and persecutions, but which had refused to relinquish its identity—which had, on the contrary, substantially strengthened that identity; a people which only a few years before had been the victim of mankind’s largest single act of mass murder, killing a third of the world’s Jews, that people was returning home as sovereign citizens in their own independent state.

He continues in a more serious tone, describing the response of David Ben-Gurion (a founder of the modern Israeli state and its first Prime Minister):

And so they danced, filling the streets; but Ben-Gurion wasn’t dancing. Instead he sat alone and wrote in his diary about his fears, confiding doubts about the Jews’ ability to withstand the onslaught of the combined Arab armies, and about the world’s willingness to accept a permanent Jewish state.

This year, Israel’s citizens felt more like Ben-Gurion than the first modern Israeli citizenry. More than seven months on from the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, stuck in a war they did not start against an enemy who seeks nothing but to destroy Israel and murder all Jews, this year’s Independence Day was a quiet, somber affair. Barbecues were few and far in between, and celebrations were small, if they happened at all. Every year there is a televised celebration broadcast to the entire nation – awarding 120 soldiers with special commendations for their excellent service, singing and other performances, the “Israel Prize” (Israel’s highest cultural award, akin to the US National Medal of Arts) is awarded, and a ceremony where twelve influential people, hailing from all segments of the community (military members, surviving families of terrorist victims, founders of important civic organizations, star athletes, and more) light twelve torches representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

This year, the ceremonies were pre-recorded, for fear of disruption by protestors. Anti-government protestors who for over a year prior to October had been marching in the streets of Israel against judicial reforms, protestors who blame the government for the ongoing war, protestors who believe the government has not attacked strongly or swiftly enough, protestors pushing for a return of the hostages, and many others were feared to disrupt the ceremony. Israel’s silent fireworks show (changed from regular fireworks in 2023 for the sake of PTSD sufferers) was canceled, concerts and massive parties were canceled, and many simply stayed inside. A gathering in the north of Israel held a torch dousing ceremony in which some 1,400 gathered citizens held signs reading “no hostages, no independence.”

In spite of all of this, Israeli citizens held small gatherings focused on their children and communities. Notwithstanding the undercurrent of existential fear in the nation’s mood, Israelis from all walks of life display remarkable resilience. Finding themselves in an eerily similar situation to that in 1948 – awaiting a looming attack by nations hell-bent on the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state and only democracy in the Middle East – and still doubting the world’s willingness to accept a Jewish state – the nation still marked its 76th Independence Day.