It is one of those things, isn’t it? We know that Israel means a great deal to us. We know that our bonds to Israel are complex, knotted, and strong. Many of us could not even imagine our Jewish lives without Israel, and yet we also know that the Yom Atzmaut party just isn’t going to cut it. The cold felafel, the ubiquitous blue-and-white, that short historic (histrionic?) video with dramatic drum-rolls and melodramatic Hatikvah riffs — all celebrations of where we are not, and what Israel once was but is no longer.
The UK Jewish community knows Israel very well — in terms of the Bible, politics and in the sensual sense. What with visits to family, Israel tour, first crushes, campus crises, weddings in Tel Aviv and barmitzvahs in Jerusalem, UK Jews have a deep familiarity with Israel that US Jewry, for example, lacks. But we’re still rubbish at Yom Atzmaut like the rest of them.
May 14 1948 was more than another date in the annals of the UN. It was the day that Judaism changed completely.
A religion forged in powerlessness and developed on the run suddenly had to come to terms with power being wielded in defence of its physical borders. A people expert in low profiles and minority status suddenly had to come to terms with a loud and proud batch of Israelis in their midst. Concepts such as “Jerusalem” had to emerge from the perfect world of the spirit, and human agency challenged fate and won.
Israel completely changed what it meant to be a Jew. And we’re still trying to get our balance.
What if we were to address Yom Atzmaut as something more than a birthday party? What if we admitted that dancing a rusty sha’avta mayim once a year is not enough of a response?
Let’s turn celebration of Israel’s independence into something more resembling a Jewish festival — a chag. Let’s acknowledge that, like every Jewish festival, Yom Atzmaut involves study as well as party, reflection as well as ritual, meaning as well as feeding.
Let’s admit that the establishment of the state of Israel led to a brand new interpretation of four crucial Jewish values comprising being a free people in our land. Until now, we’ve only been celebrating and reflecting upon the first of these values: being — survival, in other words. We count the years, as if continued existence were the only thing important to us.
It is true that Israel’s survival was once in question. Threats still exist. But Israel also challenges and celebrates new understandings of freedom, of peoplehood, and of land. Let’s make sure we address them, too.
Perhaps the time has come for us to continue to extend the length of our independence festival, which already lasts two days, not one. As we know, Israel’s Independence Day and Memorial Day were once marked together during the same 24-hour period. Until 1951, people marked the establishment of the state, and the price they had paid for it, on the same day. It was Ben-Gurion’s genius to separate Yom Atzmaut from Yom HaZikaron — but only by one day. The other side of the coin of independence, the loss of loved ones who fought for it, will always immediately precede the fireworks.
So if our festival of independence already effectively lasts two days, why not extend it a little further?
This might give us room for some genuine political debate — asking questions we rarely ask during the year. Current affairs; explorations of Israelis’ search for social justice; films exploring Israel’s diversity and challenges; genuine Israeli dance — created by the genius of Batsheva Dance Company, for example.
And music! How can we celebrate without music? Music that expresses the new Jewish east-west mash-up that only Israel could have produced.