Hundreds of Israeli flags are in place; the Air Force has been rehearsing its formation fly-by routine for days; platforms and sound systems stand ready in the main squares in town; groups of tourists mill about and there’s a discernible festive air. But before Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations of the nation’s 65th birthday take place on April 16, Israel has to pay tribute to those who fell in battles and terror attacks that continue to claim lives even until today.
Officially known as Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron takes place the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut, and the piercing siren brings the country to a complete standstill at 8 p.m., then again at 11 a.m. the next morning for two minutes of silent remembrance.
The abrupt change in atmosphere between the two days is stunning and uniquely Israeli.
On Yom Hazikaron, all Israeli places of entertainment, cafes and restaurants are closed. Authorities estimate that more than 1 million Israelis visit Israel’s military cemeteries during the day.
Coming one week after Yom HaShoah commemorations marking the systematic murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, on Yom Hazikaron the state of Israel pauses to remember not the mass victims of yesteryear’s death camps, but those Israelis who have died and continue to die, defending the state and its citizens.
Bereavement itself makes up a complete social class in Israel—23,006 soldiers and civilians have died in the 65 years of statehood, leaving 10,550 families to join the ranks of the bereaved.
The central memorial ceremony takes place in Jerusalem as evening falls, and hundreds of bereaved families gather in the Western Wall plaza.
The flag at half-mast flutters in the brisk wind, and the memorial flame flickers boldly in front of the subdued crowd. The Kotel is bereft of the usual worshippers, replaced by rows and rows of men and women with profound sadness in their eyes and pain etched into their faces.
Apart from the ultra-Orthodox, who do not serve in the army in significant numbers, the full spectrum of Israeli society is represented at the service—national religious and secular; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; rich and poor; old and young.
As the siren sounds marking the beginning of the ceremony, a young child drops her head along with the formal honor guard standing at attention across the plaza. The culture of grieving and remembering is ingrained at an early age in Israel.
Lighting the memorial flame together with President Shimon Peres a few years ago was Tziona Netanel, the young widow of Yehonatan Netanel, 27, the last soldier killed in the line of duty in Operation Cast Lead. Radiating strength and dignity, the young mother struggled to retain her composure as the light of the flame illuminated her pain.
At the end of the formal program, Peres and the IDF chief of staff passed among the families, offering brief words of comfort. The gesture reinforces a remark made by Peres during his address to the gathering—that each loss is a national loss, felt keenly by the entire country.
Towards the close of Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen, the heavy mood slowly begins to lift as Israelis emerge from the somber day to celebrate Israel’s birthday.
As night falls, bringing relief from the pain of remembrance, hundreds of Jerusalemites dressed in blue and white stream into synagogues all over the city for special prayers of thanksgiving in honor of Independence Day.
The close of the brief prayer service is the ancient call, “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem,” followed by a prayer of gratitude for living in the period of the beginning of the redemption and a joyful rendition of the “Shir Hama’alot” psalm sung to the tune of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
As the congregations pour out onto the street, it’s as if a cork has been released from a bottle—all the pent-up feelings from the difficult day of remembrance give way to celebration of our continued existence in this land.
Just an hour after dark, stages are activated in neighborhoods all over the city featuring a variety of music and entertainment. Streets downtown are closed off for the night, and are taken over by the pre-teens whose idea of fun is spraying every passerby and storefront with white sticky spray.
Two main stages set up in Independence Park and in Zion Square feature Israel’s most popular groups. The plaza in Safra Square, home of the municipality, is set aside for traditional Israeli dancing.
In the meantime, the official Independence Day opening ceremonies are getting underway at Mount Herzl, adjacent to the military cemetery that was the scene of the bereaved grieving over the graves of their loved ones only hours earlier.
The Independence Day ceremony is the closest Israel gets to a military parade. Dozens of representatives of Israel’s armed forces take part in a meticulously choreographed march set to patriotic music. The formality of the ceremony is very un-Israeli.
Buildings all over the city are adorned with massive Israeli flags. Cars sport flags flapping from every conceivable opening.
Around 10 p.m., crowds start to congregate on King George Street in anticipation of the main fireworks display that is set off from the roof of the Leonardo Plaza Hotel. In two 10-minute sessions, the sky lights up with an awesome array of pyrotechnics.
Many of the non-teen revelers head down to the Jerusalem Theater after the fireworks. The lobby is packed as hundreds join a free sing-along of Israeli classics.
The next morning, most regular folks head out to the parks and beaches for the traditional “mangal,” or barbecue. Regular radio updates report on the traffic gridlock. By mid-day, several national parks are closed because there’s just nowhere to squeeze in another vehicle.
Yom Ha’atzmaut is the one day of the Israeli year that feels like an American Sunday (Sunday is a regular work day in Israel)—a day of pure recreation with no religious obligations. No newspapers, banks or mail to take the mind off the all-important task of finding the best place to set up the portable barbecue.
When Israelis finally get to celebrate Independence Day 2013 after a somber Memorial Day, it will be with the usual mix of emotions that accompany every holiday in the State of Israel—joy and sadness, appreciation and remembrance, and above all, incredulity that Israel has made it to 65.