Searching for Meaningful Yom Ha’Atzmaut

By Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon | Issue Date: March 2000

…an even greater perplexity persists concerning the very meaning of Israel’s existence, its raison d’être, that prevents the free flow of creativity and ritualized celebration with the propagation of a clear message.

The State of Israel was born on the fifth of Iyar 5708, May 14, 1948. Fifty-two years have passed and the absence of a meaningful spiritual observance or celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, both in Israel and the Diaspora, is striking.

In Israel, celebrations take place in the form of parties in public and private spaces, picnics and folkdancing gatherings. An official candlelighting ceremony occurs and the prestigious Israel Prize is awarded that day. Following years of ambivalence, a portion of the observant population includes special prayers and readings in the regular daily liturgy. These additions are timid and disappointing, the celebration in the synagogue doesn’t come close to Shabbat or any of the holy days and festivals. Yom Ha’Aztmaut never achieved the halakhic and spiritual status of other significant days in our calendar. Perhaps one of the most meaningful and moving aspects of Yom Ha’Atzmaut comes the preceding day. On Yom Hazikaron, those who died fighting for the State of Israel are remembered. A profound mood of sadness and reverence mark the day as people light memorial candles, visit the cemetery and devote the day to reflection and memory. At the end of the day, a siren sounds for a few minutes inviting the whole country to stand still. Following that pause, Yom Ha’Atzmaut begins.

In the Diaspora, Yom Ha’Atzmaut observances have generally been pathetic. Suffice it to say that Tisha Be’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and again in 70 C.E., attracts by far more Jews to the synagogue than the celebration of the birth of the modern State of Israel. We Jews have found the way to commemorate the salient events in both the cycles of nature and in our history through glorious rituals and exquisite celebrations. The fact that Yom Ha’Atzmaut comes shortly after Pesah with its weeklong joyous and elaborate celebration, makes the absence of significant ritual even more obvious. In New York, the Salute to Israel Day Parade (curiously not held on or near Yom Ha’Atzmaut but rather in May or June when it is more convenient) is an expression of communal pride that has become exclusionary and divisive. The parade has more to do with nostalgia and with our own American Jewish agenda than with the realities and needs of Israel.

It is true that 52 years is a relatively short time since the events of Israel’s birth. Many of the events surrounding Israel’s origins and history are still clouded in mystery and there is still a great deal of controversy regarding the interpretation of crucial historical data. The 100-year-old Arab-Zionist conflict has been approached in biased ways by both sides; the connection between the Holocaust and the emergence of Israel has long been a subject of debate; criticism of Israel’s policies has been suppressed and blind loyalty asserted. These are just some of the contributions to our general confusion regarding Israel Independence Day.

I believe, however, that an even greater perplexity persists concerning the very meaning of Israel’s existence, its raison d’être, that prevents the free flow of creativity and ritualized celebration with the propagation of a clear message. Most Jews will agree that Israel represents the most significant collective undertaking of the Jewish people in our time and that political independence has brought us the dignity and freedom that we had lacked for two millennia. We also generally agree that, even in the absence of a causal connection with the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel by our people so shortly after having emerged from the depths of tragedy, horror and despair represents the great triumph of hope. Not only did we think that we would never again be degraded, but we embraced the opportunity to build a nation that would reflect the accumulated dreams, ideals and aspirations of the Jewish people for justice, human dignity and peace.

Some even envisioned that Israel would restore our status as a holy nation that would shine our light as an example for the rest of humankind. But the constant daily preoccupations and, indeed, the significant challenges of building the nation have caused their weight to be felt and for the most part the dream gave way to “let us just be kekhol hagoyim – like the other nations, that is without the added pressure of having to be morally better.”

A “new historiography” has recently emerged thanks to the opening of archives that were heretofore secret and thanks to the courage of a small number of scholars. It has exposed horrible truths about the creation of the Jewish State and the suffering of the Palestinian people who had been residing in that land for centuries, as well as the suffering of many Jewish immigrant groups. Expulsions, murder, discrimination, torture, were concepts that we thought did not belong to the story of Israel’s rebirth. The story of hope and heroism is tarnished by the disturbing inequalities that survive to this day. When we were closer to 1948, the establishment of Israel was nothing short of a miracle. Israel represented the struggle of good against evil. Today we know that the Jewish State has failed many of its citizens, particularly the Mizrahim – the immigrants from the lands of Islam; the Palestinian Israelis – who represent 20 percent of the population; and the Jews of Ethiopia. These groups have been denied a fair share in the achievements of Israeli society. Israel has not yet succeeded in being both Jewish and democratic. Today Israel is secure and prosperous, peace is on the horizon, but we know that Israel is far from the perfection we so desperately sought to attribute to it. How do we then celebrate? What do we celebrate? What about Israel’s rebirth can still move us and capture our imagination?

It would be unfair to judge Israel by prophetic standards and demand that it be “holier than thou.” At the same time it would be an act of betrayal of our Jewish legacy not to hope and expect that Israel would seek to implement the dreams and aspirations of our past and the highest values of Judaism. It would be arrogant to make those demands of Israel while sitting back and judging from a distance. That is why Yom Ha’Atzmaut can be reconceived as a day of searching for the meaning of the State of Israel and of exploring the place of Israel in our Jewish identity and in our Jewish vision. For some, Israel represents reshit tzmihat ge’ulateinu – the dawning of our redemption – while for others, Israel has no religious or eschatological meaning whatsoever. For some, Israel must be or lagoyim – a light unto the nations, for others kekhol hagoyim – like the other nations. Must Israel remain a Jewish state (after all there is only one Jewish state) implying some exclusion of its non-Jewish citizens or become a state of all its citizens (since Israel has never achieved being Jewish and fully democratic)? Imagine a day where thousands upon thousands of Jews join in study, discussion and debate, in either Beit Midrash or town meeting style. Imagine the crossing of boundaries secular-religious, Ashkenazi-Sephardi / Oriental, Jewish-Palestinian, right-left. Imagine a significant financial investment so that Diaspora Jews can travel to Israel and Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians can travel to the Diaspora to share in this experience. Imagine teleconferences hooking up schools, JCC’s and synagogues across the ocean. Imagine the creativity that could be unleashed by bringing together artists, social activists, intellectuals, students, etc. People of all ages and diverse backgrounds spend hours at the Pesah seder discussing the meaning of freedom and liberation in a multiplicity of formats. Perhaps the time has come to create a haggadah that will allow us to gather at a Yom Ha’Atzmaut Seder in order to celebrate, to debate, to sing, to learn, to dream, to mobilize. A time to seriously grapple with the meaning of Israel in our time. The new questions and truths that have emerged may then yield the new meanings and the renewed connection that the State of Israel deserves.