Why I Won't Be Celebrating Israel's Independence Day This Year

Should we really raise a glass to Israel’s rapid descent into a moral and political abyss?

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Crowds celebrate on Independence Day during an Israel Air Force flyby, April 23, 2015.
Crowds celebrate on Independence Day during an Israel Air Force flyby, April 23, 2015.Credit: AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Israel is celebrating its Independence Day. And it will do so, for the first time in 29 years, without me there. As my family, friends and almost everyone I know back home gathers around a grill for barbecues, I will be 5,600 miles away in New York City.

I suppose I could have found some way to celebrate with them, if I wanted to. I could have Skyped into the festivities, or sought the company of fellow Israelis and sympathetic Jews here in the United States. But I plan to do no such thing. In fact, I plan to avoid anything and everything Israeli today. Goodbye, Facebook newsfeed - I’ll see you tomorrow. Goodbye, Twitter. I may even avoid meat – barbecued or otherwise – for a day.

After all, what is there to celebrate this year? The past 12 months in Israel have been rife with internal and external conflicts, international isolation and political corruption. It saw an operation in Gaza last summer that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and 70-plus Israelis, and then was almost instantly forgotten. It saw an ugly election campaign that pitted Israelis against each other: right against left; Jews against Arabs; Ashkenazim against Sephardim; secular against religious – and the reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Should we raise a glass to Israel’s rapid descent into a moral and political abyss? Should we congratulate the young nation on its narrowing democracy, on the growing reliance of its leaders on nationalism and bigotry, on the emotional numbness that seems to have overtaken it in recent years? Should we cheer for the untimely death of the two-state solution, or maybe Israel’s dangerous steps toward apartheid?

Or maybe for the reelection of Netanyahu, which all but guarantees Israel will remain on the same path? Should we toast despair, celebrate apathy? Were national holidays created to ignore or otherwise celebrate stagnation?

As Israel continues down its path of isolation and conflict, and does so with renewed verv e, I find my disappointment outweighing my sense of national pride.

I suspect I’m not alone in this. When I talk to family, friends and sources back home, it seems many others aren’t particularly excited about celebrating this year.

But even the heartbroken will celebrate, of course – same as everyone. Sometimes, during rough times, Independence Days in Israel have a certain atmosphere of forced joy, a pretense of almost-improbable optimism. Perhaps this year is no different in that regard: there’s a lot that you need to ignore in order to be cheerful for a day.

And all signs point to next year being even rougher for Israel. In a year that almost saw Israel drop the “democratic” out of its self-definition as a “Jewish democratic state,” extremism and political violence seem to have won, in the streets and the polls.

Diplomatically, it’s hard to imagine a time in which Israel was more isolated. Economically, Israelis find themselves indebted, with housing prices and the cost of living showing no signs of falling.

As it celebrates its 67th Independence Day, Israel has never been more "independent" - alienating its closest allies; insisting it can do whatever it wants, regardless of what anyone else has to say.

Maybe worst of all: The past year saw its illusions of normalcy perish. Cultivated carefully over a decade of relative peace, any illusion that Israel can be a country like all countries - a Startup Nation built on innovation and high-tech, a country that perfectly mixes the Jewish and the democratic - has been exposed.

And by reelecting those that have been in power during all this, Israelis chose in effect to keep things as they are.

So really, what is there to celebrate? It’s not that things didn’t happen; it’s just that if ever there was a time where dark exceeds light, it’s now.

Most Israelis will celebrate, of course. They’ll celebrate in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in New York and Los Angeles, in Miami and Berlin. They’ll grill meat, and beat each other over the head playfully with plastic hammers, and rejoice that their country is still here, despite everything. Silently, among themselves, many will wish that they have more to be happy about next year. But right now, they’re still here. And often in Israel, that’s good enough.

I, on the other hand, am far too pessimistic to take part. Far away from my country, I can see it far more clearly. Twelve months from now, when Israel celebrates its 68th birthday, things might look decidedly better. They might. And if they do, there will definitely be cause for celebration.

As it stands, though, when I think of my homeland, my first instinct is to wallow, to lament, not to feel overjoyed.

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