A Brief History of Independence Day Controversy

From the Armenian Holocaust to anti-Zionism and pro-settlement, the torchlighting ceremony has long been divisive

Yuli Edelstein, center, at the 2017 ceremony.
Olivier Fitoussi

The story of the “orphaned” torch of Honduran President Orlando Hernandez, which as of press time still had no takers, was the latest scandal in the annual ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl that ushers in Independence Day. The event was first held in 1950, two years after Israel’s founding. A review of the newspaper archives over the succeeding 68 years shows that not until 15 years ago did awkward incidents, or mini-scandals, begin to appear.

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That changed in 2003, when a controversy concerning the ceremony threatened to drag Israel into a diplomatic crisis with Turkey. It happened after Naomi Nalbandian, then an assistant chief rehabilitation nurse at Hadassah Hospital, Mount Scopus, was chosen to light a torch.

Naomi Nalbandian, 2003.
Yonathan Weizman / BauBau

Nalbandian was originally described as a “third- generation survivor” of the 1915 Armenian holocaust. At the last minute, under pressure from Turkey, the 2,000 copies of the program were destroyed and reprinted — minus any reference to the Armenian holocaust. Instead, Nalbandian was described as a “daughter of the long-suffering Armenian nation,” whose grandparents, “survivors of historical Armenia, 1915, immigrated and settled in a village near Haifa.”

At the time, she expressed disappointment that people “change everything because of politics,” even though being a third-generation survivor of the Armenian holocaust is a part of her identity. “Everything that is happening now shows that an individual has no freedom to express his identity if he is not a Jew,” Nalbandian added. “I, as an Armenian, have no right to say what my identity is. They don’t say to second and third generations of Holocaust survivors `don’t say that,’ do they?” She did say that she managed to introduce a few changes in the text.

The next year, the scandal was over technology rather than politics. The theme of the Independence Day ceremony in 2004 was Israeli achievements in sports, and it was decided to let Israelis vote, by text message, for the athlete who would light the 12th torch. Soccer star Eli Ohana won, but the vote was criticized as more fitting of a reality show than a state ceremony. The criticism grew when it became clear that many of Israel’s greatest athletes were not among the honorees chosen to light the other torches.

“I admit that some of the way things were done caused me to feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed, that some of the greatest athletes ... were not included,” said Olympic judo medalist Yael Arad at the time. As a result of the protests, soccer star Eyal Berkovic was added to the honorees.

Also that year, then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin aroused criticism on the left when he praised the settlers in his speech: Rivlin dedicated the torch he lit to “the pioneers who go before the camp, those who settle the land of our fathers and redeem its earth, from Hanita [in the north] to Kfar Darom [in the Gaza Strip], and from Negba [in the south] to Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron.” He also dedicated the torch to the Knesset, which he called “the temple of democracy,” to the “heroes of the security forces,” and to Jerusalem, “our holy, eternal city, and the heart of the nation.”

After a few calmer years, in 2011 Yoel Shalit, brother of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and Yoel’s girflriend, Ya’ara Winkler burst into the plaza where the torches were being lit and waved signs reading, “My father is a bereaved brother, I don’t want to be one too,” and “Gilad is still alive.” Shalit was released in October 2011 after more than five years in Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Yoel Shalit and Ya’ara Winkler protesting Gilad Shalit’s continued captivity, in 2011.
Michal Fattal

For whose glory?

At the same ceremony, Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, whose daughter Rivka Holzberg was killed in the local Chabad house during the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, changed the regular formula said when lighting the torches. Instead of saying: “For the glory of the State of Israel,” he said “For the glory of the State of Eretz (the land of) Israel.” This was because of pressure put on him by Chabad leaders who objected to his participation, saying that if the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, were alive he would have forbidden him from taking part, out of opposition to Zionism.

Actually Rosenberg was not the first to change the wording of the text. Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, the widow of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, and a Labor Zionist leader in her own right, was chosen to light a torch at the 1968 ceremony, the first after the Six-Day War. She said: “To the glory of the Greater Land of Israel.”

In 2012, during a rehearsal for the ceremony, 1st. Lt. Hila Betzaleli was killed and at least five other soldiers were injured when a steel lighting rig above the plaza collapsed. A week later, after the end of the shiva mourning period, her parents joined Rivlin in lighting the first torch in her memory.

In 2016, there was an awkward moment when soldiers spelled out, in addition to various symbols such as a dove of peace and a magen david six-pointed star, also the phrase “one people, one state.” It reminded many people of the Nazi slogan “one people, one Reich, one Fuhrer.”

The tradition of lighting torches began in 1949, a year after the state was founded, when teenagers in the Gadna premilitary program marched to Theodor Herzl’s grave bearing torches. They were joined by the speaker of the Knesset, starting the tradition of the holder of that position being the emcee. The ceremony became an official event a year later. The 12 torches that are lit symbolize the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. The idea was to emphasize the unity of the nation, whose people had returned to their now-independent homeland.

During the first decade, representatives of 12 communities from throughout the country were invited to light the torches. This was changed in 1960, the 100th anniversary of Herzl’s birth, when six of the honorees were chosen from the Zionist movement.

Since then, each year the ceremony has had a theme, marking a milestone in Israeli history or an area of endeavor.

In 1979, a 13th torch was added — the torch of peace. David Giladi, both of whose sons died fighting — one in the 1967 Six-Day War, the other in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was chosen to light the torch in honor of the peace treaty with Egypt.