Unusual Honor for U.S. Jews on Israeli Independence Day Fires Up Local Twittersphere

Moments after Billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Marvin Hier lit a torch on Mount Herzl, Israelis took to Twitter to vent their frustration. Some found their English speeches particularly offensive

Not all Israelis were thrilled by their government’s decision to give the honor of lighting an Independence Day torch to two prominent American Jews, and some of them took to social media on Monday night to express their dissatisfaction.

The fact that the speeches of the torch-lighters, billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Marvin Hier, were in English instead of Hebrew particularly grated on some ears.

“Truthfully, it would feel much more natural to me to hear Arabic spoken at the torch-lighting than English,” diplomat Shani Cooper, Israel’s deputy head of mission in Ankara, Turkey, tweeted.

Channel 2's political reporter and commentator Amit Segal went a step further, tweeting that: “The torch should only be lit by those who speak Hebrew and live in Israel. Elementary.”

>> Opinion: U.S. Jews Have No Place in Israel's Independence Day Ceremony >>

Steinhardt and Hier had been chosen as part of an initiative by Israel's Culture and Sports Minister, Miri Regev, to honor the Jewish diaspora. The two lit one of the twelve torches lit in the glitzy national ceremony that marks the end of Israel's Memorial Day and the beginning of Independence Day.

Steinhardt, a Wall Street trader, was recognized for co-founding Taglit-Birthright, an initiative that brought over 500,000 Jews from across the world to Israel on heritage trips. Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and, notably, was one of six clergy to participate in U.S. President Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony.

There were mixed responses to the tweets complaining about the torch-lighting, particularly to Segal’s post. Several of the journalist’s followers challenged him, saying they believed the honor was well deserved. One took the debate into the political realm, declaring that “Better English-speaking Zionist torch-lighters than radical left-wingers who live in Israel.”

Another said that “Rabbi Hier speaks Hebrew, and his contribution to Israel has not been insignificant. He and Steinhardt are truly giants for world Jewry.” But, she added, “they should move to Israel already!”

But there were many followers who agreed with Segal, one saying that “there are no Diaspora Jews, there are only exiled Jews. Our founding fathers were right when they decided the place for Jews was in the land of Israel, and only there.”

Several on Twitter joked that the gesture to wealthy American Jews was necessary in order for Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise sufficient funds for the country’s planned 70th anniversary festivities next year. In December, the two politicians brought a proposal to the cabinet involving raising of tens of millions of dollars from private donors to fund the 2018 events, after ministers traded barbs over who was to blame for the state’s failure to fund it. The proposal, which represented the first time in Israel’s history that it planned to rely on foreign funding for the ceremony, elicited sharp criticism both because the government failed to properly budget for it and because of the blow to national pride in having to seek donations from overseas.

In a reference to allegations Netanyahu received pricy gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, another user made the comment that if Diaspora Jews “are good enough to buy cigars and champagne, they should be good enough to light the torch.”

Alon Granot, chairman of the Israel Golf Association, tweeted mournfully that the move showed that the torch-lighting honor is now “for sale” and represented “another step in the deterioration of the beautiful fabric of our state that so many have sacrificed their lives for."