The day before yesterday, we celebrated Israel’s 60th birthday. For a long while, I hesitated about writing a special entry for Independence Day. I thought about the corruption scandals surrounding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, about the money being wasted on extravagant celebrations which could have been better spent on providing protection for the citizens of Sderot against the almost daily rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, about the widening gap between rich and poor, about the rising rate of draft-dodging among Israeli youth, about our kidnapped soldiers, for whom we fought a war the summer before last. Last Monday, the newspaper headlines loudly proclaimed former Finance Minister Hirschson to be a thief and edified us with the news that he would shortly be indicted for embezzlement, fraud and money laundering. I felt sick to my stomach. The very next day’s headlines screamed that dramatic developments were expected in the latest investigation against the Prime Minister. I am not ashamed to say that I began to cry – literally. Not for Olmert. For all of us. I asked myself, has it come to this? This is what we have to show for 60 years of independence? And I was certain that I could not write a celebratory article for Independence Day.
Came the day itself. The celebration of Independence Day in Israel has traditionally revolved around three major events. The celebrations open with a semi-military ceremony on Mt. Herzl on the eve of Independence Day, marking the end of Remembrance Day, when 12 beacons, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, are lit by 12 citizens carefully chosen for their contribution to Israeli society. At this ceremony, the flags of the Israel Defence Forces are paraded in an elaborate display of marching and counter-marching, while a choir sings a selection of songs which has remained more or less unchanged for as long as I can remember.
Independence Day closes, the following evening, with the presentation of the Israel Prize at the Jerusalem Theatre in the Capital.
Prizes are awarded for contributions to Culture and the Arts, Science, Humanities, Jewish Studies and Social Sciences and, last but not least, for Lifetime Achievement/Special Contribution to Society. A very worthy ending to the day.
In between, at 11 o’clock in the morning of Independence Day, the Jerusalem Theatre hosts the final stages of the International Bible Quiz for Jewish Youth. Jewish youngsters from thirty-seven countries (37) took part this year, from Israel, North and South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The Quiz was broadcast live, as it is every year, on the radio and on Israel Television’s First Channel. I watched those kids and felt my heart swell with pride. Their knowledge was prodigious – and it is they, and others like them, who keep alive the flame, for it is the Bible that connects us to our past, connects us to this Land of Israel and reminds us who we are and where we came from. Other nations celebrate their national day with military parades, or with huge floats, brass bands and drum majorettes in minimal costume. We celebrate ours with a Bible Quiz that brings together Jewish youth from all over the world and gathers them here – if only for a few days – in this one little spot that will always be the heart of the Jewish People. Jerusalem.
And then we end the day with the awarding of prizes to those who have contributed to making this a country to be proud of. Because despite the failures, despite the scandals, despite everything our enemies can and have thrown at us, despite all the troubles we have brought on ourselves, we are here. Sixty three years ago, Europe was littered with our corpses. We were broken, an army of dry bones in the Valley of Slaughter. The pitiful survivors of the Holocaust were penned-up in displaced persons camps. Sixty years ago, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, numbering no more than 600,000, proclaimed a State. Surrounded by hostile Arab armies, we fought them off, absorbed many times that number of Jews from all over the world, built schools, hospitals, cities, developed an economy, pursued international trade, became leaders of high-tech, medicine, agriculture, won Nobel prizes. Yes, there are many things that still need to be corrected. We are not perfect. But we can strive to be. It’s just like the Avis slogan says – "We Try Harder".
The celebrations have ended. Tomorrow, it’s back to work. There is much yet that needs to be done to make this country all that it was meant to be in time for our 70th birthday. So, let’s get cracking.