Tonight we begin the celebrations of Israel’s 69th Independence Day called Yom Haatzmaut in Hebrew. Eight PM also marks the end of Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers. On this day Israelis stop twice to honor those who gave their lives so that we could live in an independent Jewish State.
Last night at 8PM sirens rang throughout Israel to mark the formal start of Memorial Day. The sirens rang for one minute and people stopped and stood in silence wherever they were. This morning at 11AM the sirens rang again, this time for two minutes, and people once again stood in silence to honor the fallen.
Yom Haatzmaut is celebrated on the anniversary of the end of British rule over Israel and the declaration of Israeli independence. Israel chose to hold its Memorial Day on the eve of its Independence Day celebrations.
But one group of Israelis will not be celebrating tonight, nor did they honor the moments of silence — the ultra-orthodox known as Haredim. Why? Well because they say that it is not really in keeping with Jewish laws and customs and because Israel is not a theocratic state based on the Tora, but really because they want to place a wall between themselves and the rest of Israeli society.
Things do seem to be changing with the younger generation of Haredim, though. Each year more and more of them can be seen around town at the public Independence Day celebrations.
Could there be a different date on which we can celebrate the establishment of the Jewish State and the realization of the Zionist dream?
So why do the Haredim object so much to these two days? Well their main argument is that Israel is not a Tora state, but a secular one. As such its existence cannot truly be the manifestation of God’s will. But as a great rabbi once said – so what?
The Haredim benefit from the existence of this secular nation. It is only because of it that they have had somewhere to rebuild their communities and their institutions. They are free to practice their religion as they wish and to study Tora full time.
The majority secular population of Israel – as well as its non-Jewish citizens – pay the taxes which are used to subsidize their yeshivot and their lifestyles. This money is used to provide most of them with financial aid in the form of welfare payments and government subsidies in the building of new housing in their communities.
The Haredim also complain that Yom Haatzmaut falls out during the counting of the Omer. I do not wish to bore you with all of the details, but we count the 49 days from the second day of Passover until the giving of the Tora on Mt. Sinai. To honor the memory of many yeshiva students who died from a plague thousands of years ago during the Omer we adopted the custom of mourning during these seven weeks. The form of the mourning varies, but all agree that no live music should be played nor any public celebrations held.
The plague ended on the thirty third day of the Omer which we now celebrate as a holiday called Lag Ba’Omer and the mourning ends.
The Haredim have other reasons for refusing to recognize Yom Haatzmaut as a holiday. They also say that nothing actually happened on this day. When I was a student in Jerusalem more years ago than I care to admit here I had Shabbat dinner at the home of an American Haredi couple the week before Independence Day. They said that the holiday only marks the arbitrary date on which the UN chose to end the British mandate over the country which happened to fall on May 15, 1948.
I remember vividly the wife saying over and over again, “nothing happened that day. Ben-Gurion gave a speech. That’s all, Ben-Gurion gave a speech and that’s what people are celebrating.”
Did she have a point? Well yes, and no. OK so it took over a year of fighting until the final cease fire was implemented and even then the final armistice ending hostilities had yet to be signed. But as that rabbi said, so what?
America celebrates its Independence Day on the date when the Declaration of Independence was signed – July 4, 1776. The war was going terribly for the colonists at the time, Washington would soon be badly defeated and embarrassed by the British in New York, and there would be more than five years of fighting thereafter. So maybe Americans should really celebrate the day on which the Constitution was finally ratified instead because it can be argued that that was when they truly declared themselves to be one nation, instead of just a union of sovereign states.
But on July 4th 1776 the American people declared themselves for the first time to be just that; a new nation, no longer colonists or subjects of the British Crown.
This is what happened on May 15th 1948, the Fifth of Iyar, 5708. For the first time in more than 2,000 years Jews joined together to declare that an independent Jewish state had come into existence in the Land of Israel. For weeks a diplomatic effort, led by America’s Secretary of State George Marshall, tried to get the Jews to agree to a new plan and delay their independence. But we did it anyway and what is more President Harry Truman extended recognition of the New Jewish state immediately after it was declared.
The government of the United States recognized that Israel existed on that day. (Interestingly, President Truman did not know what the new country would be called and so his declaration of recognition did not refer to Israel.)
If this is not enough to answer the critiques of the Haredim, then perhaps a Tora based religious argument will. It is to be found in Megilat Esther.
Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser lived in Ukraine in the Nineteenth Century and wrote a commentary on the Tanach. He is better known as “The Malbim.”
The Malbim had something very interesting to say about the date on which we celebrate the holiday of Purim, the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar. In Megilat Esther it says that the evil hater of the Jews Haman conducted a “Pur,” a lottery, to decide on which day he should kill all of the Jews in the world. This is why the holiday is called Purim.
Haman chose to pick the day in this way because he believed that his pagan god would choose the most auspicious date for him. He did not see the date Adar 14, but whatever date it corresponded to that year on his pagan calendar.
But as the Malbim brilliantly explained, it was really God who picked the date. Unbeknownst to Haman, of course, God had always intended that the 14th of Adar should become a new holiday for the Jews. Haman was just a pawn in God’s plan.
The same can be said about the Fifth of Iyar. The U.N. may have had its reasons for selecting May 15th 1948 for ending the British Mandate and allowing the new Jewish State to be established, but it was really God who chose that date because he wanted the Fifth of Iyar to be a new holiday for the Jews. And how could Israel have even come into existence, instead of being strangled in its crib by multiple armies, if it was not God’s will?
This also solves the problem of the day falling during the Omer. If God chose it then it was meant to break the period of mourning.
It is doubtful, however, that most Haredim will be responsive to such an argument. They follow what their leaders tell them and their leaders tend to make Tora arguments based on their pre-existing political interests.
Also at issue is that Yom Haatzmaut if not always observed on the Fifth of Iyar. When that date falls on a Friday it is moved up one day to the fourth of the month. This is because the religious leadership feared that should the holiday be observed on the eve of Shabbat then it would lead to a desecration of the Sabbath.
Up until recently everyone in Israel had a six day work week. Secular Israelis would have preferred a long weekend, but for decades needed to go back to work for a half day on Friday between Yom Haatzmaut and Shabbat because of this practice.
This year the day has been delayed until the sixth of Iyar. This is because the fifth fell on a Monday and so Memorial Day would have begun on a Saturday night. The religious leadership worried that beginning Memorial Day’s observance right after the end of the Sabbath could also lead to people desecrating Shabbat by travel to events before the day ends.
Haredim love to mock the fact that Yom Haatzmaut is not always observed on the Fifth of Iyar. “You don’t even know what day it is on,” they say. Well the change in date was only agreed to under these circumstances at the insistence of Israel’s Rabbinate.
I’m not a rabbi, nor do I play one on TV either, but I had a thought about something which might just satisfy everyone. What if we were to celebrate Israel Independence Day on Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day? This is the day on which we celebrate the reunification of our sacred capital.
After the War of Independence ended in 1949, the Old City of Jerusalem including the Temple Mount was left under the control of Jordan which formally annexed it along with the entire West Bank.
This year it will be celebrated from the night of May 23 through the day of May 24. On the Hebrew calendar it falls on the 24th of the month of Sivan which is the 43rd day of the Omer. So it comes after Lag Ba’Omer. Hopefully this might placate some of the people who object to holding such a big celebration during the Omer.
But more importantly, the day on which the Old City of Jerusalem was retaken, the day on which for the first time in more than 2,000 years – since the last of the Hasmonean Kings lost our previous brief period of national sovereignty in our own land to the Romans – that we became masters over our holiest site, the Temple Mount.
So no one can make the argument that nothing actually happened on the day on which we celebrate our independence. Yom Yerushalayim can truly be called the real date on which the Zionist dream was realized and when we once again became the sovereigns over Zion.