Israel celebrates 52nd birthday


JERUSALEM, May 9 (JTA) — With fireworks and military marching bands, Israel ushered in its 52nd Independence Day at a torch-lighting ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl.

Tuesday night’s ceremony also marked the transition from the somber mood of Memorial Day, when Israelis honored the memories of the men and women who fell in defense of the state.

By linking the two holidays, Israel underscores how the sacrifices of its fighters were essential to the state’s existence.

The theme of the Mt. Herzl ceremony was “Different but Equal.” The individuals chosen to light 12 torches — one for each of the 12 tribes — reflected this idea in their activities and deeds.

They included two Israeli girls, a Jew and an Arab, who participate in a co-existence program for youth in northern Israel. They jointly lit the final beacon.

Other torch-lighters included a Druse military officer, an immigrant from Russia who will represent Israel in gymnastics at the upcoming Sydney Olympics and the founder of a center for troubled youth.

Independence Day celebrations were to continue Wednesday, when families flock to public parks and picnic areas for traditional holiday cook-outs.

Israel’s population numbers 6.3 million, according to statistics released on the eve of Independence Day. Of that total, 4.9 million are Jews, 891,000 Muslims, 110,000 Christians and 99,000 Druse. Another 300,000 people were listed by the Central Bureau of Statistics as immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not registered as Jewish.

Earlier Tuesday, memorial ceremonies were held at military cemeteries throughout Israel to honor the memories of the 19,109 men and women who fell in defense of the state since the 1948 War of Independence.

For the first time, a state ceremony was also held for victims of terrorist acts.

Memorial ceremonies were also held in Lebanon, where Israeli troops remained on alert amid heightened tensions in the north.

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