Israeli Independence Day Reflections
This past week, Israel marked its War Memorial Day and celebrated its 59th Independence Day. Coming a week after Holocaust Memorial Day and two weeks after Passover, the Festival of Freedom, Independence Day is a reflective time when many Israelis, both publicly and privately, think about the state of their nation, and their relationship to it.
A particularly interesting “journalistic debate” could be seen in Haaretz over the past two weeks, when two distinguished left-wing columnists, Gideon Levy and Avirama Golan, offered contrasting perspectives on patriotism, and what it means to fly the Israeli flag on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut (as Independence Day is known in Hebrew). In a provocative piece, Gideon Levy explains that he cannot bring himself to fly the flag, as the settler movement had essentially defiled it by hoisting it in the name of their extremist nationalism. Levy writes: “How can I hang at my home the same flag that flies over the homes of the Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron, which has expelled nearly 20,000 residents from their homes?”
Although agreeing with much of Levy’s analysis, Avirama Golan reaches a different conclusion. Explaining, “Why I flew the flag,” Golan acknowledges that the Israeli flag, “has served as a belligerent instrument in the hands of those who received a license from the government to exclusively and one-dimensionally represent nationalism. Mutely, the flag was raised by those who overturn peddlers’ stalls in Arab cities.” However, Golan insists, “a normal people is not supposed to let those with power and authority snatch their symbols from them.”
Another difficult issue that comes up anew every Independence Day is the State of Israel’s relationship to its Palestinian Arab citizens, who make up no less than 20% of the country’s citizenry. Haaretz publisher, Amos Schocken, issued a challenge to the State of Israel: To make next year’s Independence Day celebration, the 60th, an event that offers more than a one-sided Zionist perspective. By now, he argues, Israel should be secure enough in its existence to also recognize the Arab experience in the country’s formation: “the Nakba – the Palestinian ‘Catastrophe,’ as the Arabs call the events of 1948 – the loss, the families that were split up, the disruption of lives, the property that was taken away, the life under military government”. (Hadash MK Dov Khenin similarly remarked that, “the time has come for the state to recognize the Palestinian people’s tragedy.”) For a start, Schocken proposes amending the national anthem, “HaTikva” so that it addresses all Israel’s citizens, not only Jews.
YNet focused on this theme as well, interviewing an array of Israeli Arab intellectuals and political leaders, who argued that the Israeli Arab demand for equal rights and full partnership in the country should not be regarded as a threat to Israel’s existence, nor to the Jewish right to self-determination.
In a somewhat similar vein to Schocken’s, esteemed author A.B. Yehoshua suggested this week that, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israelis and Palestinians should establish a joint memorial day: “to honor the deaths of all non-combatant civilians who fell at the hand of war on both sides of the border.” Yehoshua believes that, “the ability to also identify with the pain of our enemy’s civilian bereavement, regardless of who caused it, would further contribute to the effort of preventing the next war.”
Preventing the next war was also on the mind of Gershon Baskin this week, who bemoaned the mutual fear and suspicion that exists between Israelis and Palestinians: “When they see us, they see in us exactly what we see in them. Enemies. Brutal enemies who kill without remorse. The dead have no names for the other side…” Like Yehoshua, Baskin suggests that the healing begin with each side acknowledging the pain and sorrow of the other side.
Notwithstanding the confidence that (as Amos Schocken believes) Israelis should have in Israel’s strength and existence, various indicators suggest that this is still not the case. Nehemia Shtrasler argues that, in practical terms, Israel’s independence is “just an optical illusion”, since Israel remains completely dependent, politically and economically, on the support of the United States. The average Israeli might be even more pessimistic: According to a poll in the Yediot newspaper, a full 47% of those surveyed believe that Israel will not make it to its centennial year in 2048. Perhaps to reflect the recent upsurge in Israeli pessimism, YNet this week published an op-ed by an Israeli ex-pat in Australia, who called on Jewish Israelis to declare the country a failed project and emigrate. In contrast to such post-Zionist sentiments, Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern lengthily reflected on the importance of a Jewish state as a vehicle for realizing such progressive Jewish principles as “tikkun olam”, charity, tolerance and social solidarity.
But not everyone is so blue. Journalist-cum-politician-cum journalist, Tommy Lapid, submitted that “Life is good here,” arguing that the Israeli media is responsible for creating feelings of “dejection and despondency”, and that – despite Israel’s many problems – things are much better than the way the press likes to depict them. Although not as unrestrainedly upbeat, Haaretz editorialized this week that, despite the problems, the implementation of a two-state peace agreement still held out the chance to right the ship of the Israeli state. (In the same editorial, Haaretz also applauded Jews outside Israel who, rather than giving Israel “blind support,” are sober and caring in their criticism of Israeli government policy.)
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