Shivering at Mount Herzl Watching Tanks, Tears and Zombies

This year’s torch-lighting ceremony marking Israel's Independence Day had considerable hyperbole, a touching moment or two, and an awful lot of circles.

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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The Independence Day  torch-lighting ceremony. A circles motif.
The Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony. A circles motif. Credit: Emil Salman
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

At the entrance to Mount Herzl, near the gates leading to the torch-lighting ceremony, a crippled beggar, humming and singing “Jerusalem of Gold” hoarsely, held out a cup. The female soldier at the entrance seemed to be suffering. “What a nightmare,” she said, having listened to his humming for an hour already.

Numerous young women stood around asking passersby if they had an extra ticket. Some lied to the security guards, saying their boyfriend, with the ticket, was already inside.

My seat is in Gallery C, with the ordinary folk, far away from Sara Netanyahu, who is prominent in the middle of Gallery A. I get to know my neighbors, Adi, a lawyer, and Lihi, a kindergarten teacher, both 26, who received their tickets from some army functionary.

The organizers maintain that the theme of this year’s event was entrepreneurship, but for the spectators it was more about bitter cold and dread of rain. Lihi brought thermal socks, hats and other accessories. Others brought large umbrellas.

Iris, an investment consultant sitting behind me, came with three friends. The tickets were given by “a good friend in the government.” It’s a mystery how after 67 years the guests still obtain tickets through protektzia and friends in the right places. Why isn’t there an orderly procedure for selling tickets to relatives of flag bearers or bereaved families? Perhaps that’s the great miracle everyone is talking about.

Independence Day ceremony: Women dressed in black surround a soldier in an eery depiction of bereavement. Credit: Emil Salman

But Iris’ story is moving. Her father, Yosef Tuito, the commander of Beit Shemesh’s fire fighting depot, died a year ago. He was a fan of the torch-lighting ceremony. “He used to raise the TV volume and make a whole thing of it,” she recalls. Her friend from the bank always came with her to the general rehearsal, but this time she came to the real thing.

I sat near six boys and girls, who looked like high-tech or public relations execs. One of them said a certain female MK was fat and another shot back that she wasn’t. Then one of them revealed, allegedly on the authority of a senior source, that [Zionist Union co-leader] Tzipi Livni was no more than a cleaner. A child called Tomer complained that the event was late in starting. His parents offered him pita with chocolate spread and had some too.

Depressing beginning

The artistic program began in somewhat depressingly. A soldier with a duffle bag walked slowly onto the plaza. In front of him moved, as though in a zombie movie, a group of some 100 girls dressed from head to toe in black, symbolizing the angel of death. This is how the ceremony creators dealt with bereavement.

Since this was my third time at the ceremony, I feel qualified to offer some commentary. I can say that in this event the organizers were totally obsessed with circles. Even when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech on the video screen (at least I think it was him, the word Iran was not mentioned, so perhaps it was a double), people were moving round shapes in the dark. Then they stepped into the round things and turned around in them.

As the event proceeded, more and more round things were placed on Mount Herzl. There was hardly a part of the ceremony devoid of circles.

Later came a song with the impressive orchestration of Shuli Rand, but the friends beside me didn’t like the in-between moments when nothing was happening. “It’s better on TV, where you don’t have the boring parts,” one of them said.

When Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein remarked that the ceremony represents “Israeliness in its purity” what did he mean? What is Israeliness not in its purity? The Bible quiz?

Every now and then the screen showed a Member of Knesset with a solemn expression, I think, more often than not, rightist MKs. I identified Ofir Akunis, Zeev Elkin, Uri Ariel, Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Hotovely. It was like a game, with everyone whispering the names of those they recognized.

Elkin loves everyone

Edelstein’s speech was not especially statesmanlike for such a ceremony and was also extremely long. He spoke about those “who turned sullying our faces into an obsessive preoccupation.” It was a hint about the Milky protest, the Berlin protest and of course, a jab at [artist Yair] Garbuz, whose disparaging election campaign comments about residents of the periphery and religious idol-worshippers, is something no right-wing politician can pass over these days. Somewhat like the set margins in Word. Elkin said he loved everyone, “the residents of Judea and Samaria” and “the minorities” — he didn’t even say Arabs. Who still uses the word “minorities?”

Then finally came the torch lighting. The words about the torch lighters seemed more aggrandized and aggrandizing than ever. Arab broadcast personality Lucy Aharish was described as “representing a reality of the end of days, in which the wolf dwells with the lamb.” If I understood correctly, this implies that the Arabs are wolves and that by the time the messiah comes they will devour our kids (or children). In any case, Aharish’s torch-lighting speech in Arabic and in Hebrew was moving and universal, not least because she looked like she was about to cry. She got good applause, too, not something to be taken for granted these days.

The text about the chicken-for-a-shekel king, Rami Levy, said, for example: “Our life as consumers is divided into the era before Rami Levy and the present era.”

“I’m cold, God, make it end,” a woman muttered. But then the flag bearers started making various shapes, linked to the masterpieces of Israeli genius. They formed the Zionist logo of Waze (tremendous applause), then an Uzi gun and a Merkava tank, something unclear about discovering gas and finally, the famous Israeli invention, the Book of Genesis.

Assassination averted

All in all, the spectators next to me were happy and there were no real malfunctions. When Sima Shein from the Mossad lit a torch, I was afraid she would be a victim of a targeted assassination. But surprisingly, even she remained alive.

“Look at the Israelis, it’s as if they’re all together during the ceremony, but they leave before it’s over,” the guy in the green coat said. But after the national anthem, although the ceremony wasn’t completely over, he also hurried off to the car park. I did the same. There’s nobody like us, the Israelis.

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