Israel at 50: Israelis Look Beyond Flags to Find Meaning in Jubilee

Blue-and-white flags are sprouting from the antennae of Israeli cars, just as they do every Independence Day.

But after a year of haggling over 50th anniversary celebrations, and amid mounting tensions within society, Israelis are preparing for next week’s jubilee celebrations with mixed feelings.

As Yom Ha’atzmaut approaches — the holiday this year is April 30, the Hebrew day Israel was declared an independent state — pride of accomplishment coexists with fears over the divisions that fracture Israeli society.

In recent weeks, the government has been trying to rally Israelis around the celebrations with television and radio advertisements accompanied by a pop- music jingle titled “Together with pride, together in hope.”

But as pre-Independence Day events showed, unity cannot be artificially imposed.

On the second day of Passover last week, peace activists clashed with police during the event that kicked off the commemorations — an event marking the 30th anniversary of the controversial Jewish settlement in the West Bank town of Hebron.

The event, advertised under the togetherness banner and attended mostly by Orthodox and fervently Orthodox Jews who support settlement in the West Bank, was granted more than $80,000 by the official jubilee celebration committee.

Police arrested more than 30 Peace Now activists who were on their way to Hebron to stage a counter rally. Demonstrators were angry that the town, which symbolizes the deep divisions over Israeli policy in the West Bank and is home to some of the most extremist Jewish settlers, had been chosen as the venue to launch the anniversary celebrations.

Peace Now, an activist group opposed to such settlements, has petitioned the High Court of Justice because its 50th anniversary event has been denied funding.

Such debates — over politics, religion, society — echo throughout Israeli society. At restaurants, on park benches and around family dinner tables, individuals are engaged in intense discussion over just what this anniversary means.

In front of a fast-food Chinese restaurant on Jerusalem’s pedestrian mall, Shlomi Chen, 47, the restaurant owner, is engaged in a vocal debate over religion and state with Shraga Cohen, 18, a fervently Orthodox yeshiva student and a kashrut inspector.

Chen says Memorial Day, the day before Independence Day when Israelis honor their fallen soldiers, is a key part of the holiday for him, especially since several of his friends and relatives have died in the country’s wars.

He is offended by the fervently Orthodox, many of whom refuse to observe the moment of silence when a siren sounds in memory of the fallen.

Cohen, with his thin, adolescent mustache and a black kipah, listens to Chen’s complaints, but insists that the moment of silence is not a Jewish way of respecting the dead.

Studying Torah, he says, “protects the State of Israel no more and no less than the military.”

The 50th anniversary, says Cohen, is important because it commemorates the birth of the Jewish state.

“But I don’t like the fact that the state is being stripped of its Jewish character, even though it was explicitly established as the Jewish state,” he says.

On Independence Day, Cohen will study at the yeshiva as usual, he says, adding that he might recite a chapter of Psalms from the Bible to honor the soldiers killed in battle.

Chen, heavyset and wearing a gold necklace, plans to celebrate the jubilee. But he is bitter at the allocation of celebration funds, which he says mostly support cultural programs that mean little to the average Israeli.

“We still don’t feel anything special about the 50th anniversary,” he says. “Perhaps during the holiday the feeling will come.”

He also mocks the government’s slogans promoting togetherness: “It’s a nice slogan, but it doesn’t reflect the reality. When there is such extreme polarization in Israeli society, how can you say we are together with pride?”

Down the block, four elderly men who participated in the battles that paved the way to statehood are sitting around a table in front of an ice cream parlor.

They too, are divided over the celebrations and the significance of this year’s milestone holiday.

Arye Gur, 75, was a fighter in the Palmach, which was part of the prestate militia, and later in the nascent Israel Defense Force during Israel’s War of Independence.

The euphoria that swept across Israel when the state was announced is still fresh in his memory. Gur also recalls the contrast of Israel’s subdued, first Independence Day in 1949, when a battle-scarred-yet-united nation mourned 6,000 people who had died during the War of Independence.

The divisions within society today disturb him — especially the widening gap between Israel’s rich and poor. “I wanted us to build a just society, and a society in which the state was above all,” he says.

“It is difficult to feel that we are together with pride,” he says. “Society must change if it is to be worthy of the pride that I wanted to feel so deeply. But it is difficult for a country that takes in immigration to remain cohesive.”

But Gur will still celebrate Independence Day this year. “For me, it is an important holiday,” he says. “Despite all the problems, we emerged victorious.”

Across the table, Gur’s comrade-in-arms Ya’akov Levinsky — who was severely wounded during the battle for Jerusalem in the War of Independence — is not looking forward to the holiday.

Levinsky, born in British-mandated Palestine in 1918, still exudes the physical strength of his youth, when he helped build the Jewish state by guarding fields, paving roads and working on construction sites.

“After all that, what’s going on here is disappointing,” he says. “Even though there is no other country that has accomplished so much in 50 years, I’m not celebrating. I have a bad feeling about what’s going on here. There’s no reason for such big celebrations.”

He is disturbed that Israelis still do not feel secure in their own country after 50 years and is angry that Israeli governments have become “extremely partisan — they only take care of their own.”

“In ancient times, we had 12 tribes and the kings tried to unite them into a nation,” he says. “Today we have 12 tribes again, and each one is pulling in a different direction. If we didn’t have a tough security situation holding us together, there could easily be social unrest within Israel.”

Several younger Israelis interviewed — perhaps not as disaffected as those who built the state — said they are gearing up for a party.

A red-headed student of international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who gave her name only as Keren, said she is ready to celebrate.

“There is tension in the air, but we’ve learned to live with it,” she says. “Israel has achieved much more than was expected, and we shouldn’t let that pass by.”

Avi Minyoav, a 25-year-old Ethiopian Jew who immigrated to Israel during Operation Moses in the 1980s, says he is proud to be Israeli, even though many Ethiopian Jews believe their absorption into Israel society has been far from perfect.

“There are problems, and there is racism among Israelis,” he says. “But we must deal with those issues separately.

“I feel a part of this country, and that’s why I served in the army. There definitely is reason to celebrate.”

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