Written by: Erin Parfet

Yom Ha’atzmaut

israeli flagYom Ha’atzmaut in Hebrew, or Israel’s Independence Day in English, is a festive day of jubilation commemorating Israeli independence from British rule. It occurred eight hours before the end of the British Mandate of Palestine. In this historic moment, members of the provisional government gathered in Tel Aviv and signed a Declaration of Independence, granting sovereignty to the modern State of Israel as we know it today.

This was the great moment in history that David Ben Gurion famously said: "By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel."

Similar to the United States, Israel’s Independence Day is an official state holiday. Yom Ha’atzmaut is celebrated on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, corresponding with the original date of May 14, 1948. With the variable Hebrew calendar from a western perspective, this may correspond to a date in either late April or early May in western societies.

Michael Oren, Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, commented on the celebrations occurring outside Ben Gurion’s private residence on May 14, 1948,  "The Jews of Palestine…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."

Yom Ha’atzmaut immediately follows Yom Hazikaronwhich parallels Memorial Day in the United States, where Israeli citizens honor the soldiers who fought and gave their lives for Israel’s independence. In many other countries, the equivalent celebrations of Memorial Day and Independence Day fall on separate occasions and are not linked the way they are in Israel.

"The State of Israel wouldn’t be able to celebrate its existence if it weren’t for those who gave their lives for it," the Israeli Defense Forces once explained. "We wouldn’t be able to have one of those days without the other one. We honor their memory and everything they fought for, so that today we can celebrate our independence."

A state ceremony usually occurs at Mount Herzl on the eve of Yom Ha’atzmaut in which the flag is raised from half-staff (from Yom Hazikaron the day before) to full staff and often includes musical performances, patriotic speeches, and the ceremonial lighting of twelve torches that symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel (a "hadlakat masuot" ceremony), usually at an evening parade.

The President of Israel will often host a reception for the Israeli Army, Navy, and Air Force. Some military facilities are open for civilian tourists to view at this time, highlighting the latest and greatest scientific advancements in military technology deployed by the Israeli Defense Forces to date.

Yom Ha’atzmaut is marked by fireworks, concerts, hikes, barbecues, picnics, military parades, and family gatherings. There are often also nighttime events, such as free public shows or gatherings where citizens dance Israeli folk dances or sing Israeli songs in the public square. There are not really any specific foods, prayers, religious services, or music associated with Yom Ha’atzmaut other than the singing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. The day concludes with a special ceremony where the Israel Prize is presented to Israeli citizens for their various remarkable contributions to society.

Per the Israeli Defense Forces, border crossings with the West Bank and Gaza Strip will close for the duration of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, though exceptions would be granted for humanitarian and other exceptional reasons with the approval of the Defense Ministry. While God promises in Jeremiah 16:15, "I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors," and this is such a joyful time for Israeli citizens, it is interesting that this occasion is known as "Nakba" or "catastrophe" to the Palestinians.

The religious aspects of Yom Ha’atzmaut are diverse and debated among different sects of Israel’s Jewish faithful. The Chief Rabbinate of the State, primarily reflecting the theology and worldview of the Orthodox rabbis, believes Yom Ha’atzmaut should be marked by chanting the Hallel (Psalms 113–118) following a reading of the haftorah. However, many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe it is appropriate to chant the Hallel and that the haftorah reading is unnecessary.

There is also controversy over whether special additions to the liturgy are acceptable and whether Yom Ha’atzmaut should be considered a holiday on the same level of spiritual significance as Chanukah and Purim on the basis that all three holidays share a common thread of Jewish victory over their enemies despite their enemies’ superior military prowess. Some religious sects, however, do not view Hom Ha’atzmaut as having any religious significance whatsoever and rather view the day as a solely secular, albeit important, holiday.

Many Jewish communities in the Diaspora also honor Israeli Independence Day, though some Jewish communities around the world choose to celebrate on the Sunday following the official celebration in Israel in order to draw larger crowds to the local events and festivities without being limited by work and school schedules. This contrasts with Israel, where Yom Ha’atzmaut is an official state holiday, so people have the day off from work and school anyway. The ceremonies honoring the anniversary of Israel’s independence anniversary are usually broadcast on television.

"In the sweep of history, there have been greater battles, larger transfers and emigrations of populations, bigger construction and technological projects, and more eminently impressive displays of might," Ambassador Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Herzog once said in light of Yom Ha’atzmaut. "So, in secular terms, Israel is not that big a deal. But as vindication of spirit, as validation of tenacious faith, and as proof of the Jewish people’s right to return to their indigenous home, Israel’s establishment and advancement are indeed very big deals.

"History knows no parallel to the prophecies of the Bible, which foretold the break-up of a people into a thousand pieces across the world yet were destined to persevere for centuries and return to their indigenous homeland," Herzog continued. "This is a defy-all-odds saga of metaphysical union spanning centuries between a people, their God, and a land.

"This is the celebration of a nation that, at the moment of its ultimate nadir, the devastating Holocaust, rose from the ashes, armed with little more than conviction and a historical consciousness that promised renewal, to stake claim to their ancestry. This is redemption, providential consolation."

In summary, Yom Hazikaron is a day of solemn remembrance, while Yom Ha’atzmaut is a festive celebration of Israel’s independence. Together, these two observances form a unique and interconnected existence.

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