Independence Day

April-May Illustration: Masha Manapov

What is Independence Day?

Independence Day (in Hebrew, "Yom Haatzmaut") celebrates Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, which established a Jewish, democratic state in the Land of Israel and terminated the British Mandate for Palestine. It was declared a national holiday in a law enacted in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) in 1949. Independence Day is immediately preceded by Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron.

When is Independence Day?

Independence Day is on the 5th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, (April-May), the day on which David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared the country’s independence in 1948. In order to avoid conflicts with the Jewish Sabbath, if the 5th day of Iyar falls on a Friday or Saturday, the celebrations are moved up to the preceding Thursday. If the 5th of Iyar falls on a Monday, the festival is postponed to Tuesday, in order to avoid the potential violation of Shabbat by preparing for Yom Hazikaron or Yom Haatzmaut on the Sabbath. As with Jewish holidays, Independence Day begins at sundown and ends the following evening.

Independence Day 2015 – April 22 to 23

Independence Day 2016 – May 11 to 12

Independence Day 2017 – May 1 to 2

Independence Day 2018 – April 18 to 19

Independence Day 2019 – May 8 to 9

How do we observe Independence Day?

Special ceremonies marking the transition from mourning to celebration take place on the evening when Memorial Day ends and Independence Day begins. The linkage between the two holidays sends a clear message that the existence of an independent Jewish state is dearly bought.

The main ceremony marking the transition takes place at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery. In the presence of the president of the state and other officials, the national flag, which flies at half-mast during Yom Hazikaron, is raised to full mast. Soldiers representing the different branches of the Israel Defense Forces parade with their flags, followed by a torch-lighting ceremony to honor those who have made significant contributions to the country in various spheres, from science to charity work.

In most towns and cities in Israel, the main streets are closed off on the evening of Yom Haatzmaut to allow people to enjoy folk dancing and open-air shows. These festivities often go on far into the night, culminating in spectacular fireworks.

The next day, many Israelis take to the country’s many parks and nature reserves for barbeques and hikes. Others attend cultural events, open-air concerts, and children’s carnivals around the country. Many military bases hold an “open day” for the public, while the Israel Air Force conducts aerial shows for citizens to enjoy. The World Bible Quiz is held in Jerusalem and broadcast live on television.

Most businesses are closed on Yom Haatzmaut, but because the holiday is not a religious holiday, cafes, restaurants, and other places of entertainment are open.

Yom Haatzmaut closes with a ceremony announcing the winners of the prestigious Israel Prize, which honors individual Israelis for their unique contribution to the country’s culture, science, arts, and the humanities.

Is Independence Day a religious holiday?

Although not originally a religious holiday, Yom Haatzmaut has religious significance for many. The rebirth of Israel is the culmination of centuries of longing for the return to Zion (Jerusalem) and the fulfillment of prophecies which foresaw the eventual return of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.  

In 1951, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate ruled that Yom Haatzmaut be given the status of a minor Jewish holiday on which Hallel (a compilation of psalms of thanksgiving) is chanted, but without the traditional blessing. This decision is contested by the ultra-Orthodox, who objected to imbuing the day with any religious significance whatsoever, and by religious Zionists who believe that not only should Hallel be recited, but that it should be recited with the blessing.

The Religious Kibbutz Movement (Hakibbutz Hadati) suggested that a version of the prayer Al Hanissim (“Concerning the Miracles”) be added to the daily prayers on Yom Haatzmaut, as it is on Hanukkah and Purim. While this addition has not been accepted by most of the religious Zionist community, it was adopted by Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) movements.

While arguments rage on over the religious significance of Yom Haatzmaut, in one respect it is well on its way to becoming a true Jewish holiday: it already has its own cuisine. Regardless of religious affiliation, ethnicity, or political stance, the one thing that unites Israelis on Yom Haatzmaut is the savor of meats and veggies grilled over an open flame surrounded by family and friends.

Independence Day Reading