I have very few memories from my early childhood, but a surprising number of them are connected to Independence Days. I remember going with my father at the age of five to what was dubbed “The Exhibition of the Decade” to mark Israel’s tenth anniversary. The main attraction for kids was technological innovations, many of them linked to agriculture, including the amazingly automated machine that milked cows dry.
Independence Days were wondrous. They towered above all other Jewish festivals combined. With no TV to distract them, Israelis poured into the streets, forming endless circles of hora dancing that today seem like a scene out of Otto Preminger’s Exodus. Even little children were allowed to roam free and stay out all night: On Independence Day, normal rules did not apply.
The focal point of most Independence Days was the military parade. I remember the march on Israel’s tenth anniversary, which, I later learned, included tanks prohibited in the cease-fire agreement, which almost sparked a war with Jordan. Three years later, a low-flying French-built Mirage fighter jet flew over Jerusalem at a ridiculously low altitude right in front of our balcony, in another challenge to Israel’s decreased sovereignty over its capital that thrilled its witnesses.
I saw the jubilant military parade in Jerusalem in 1968, which celebrated the redemption of the Six-Day War, as well as the one in 1973, which preceded the catastrophe of the Yom Kippur War. The 1973 parade included battalions of captured Russian tanks now in the service of the Israel Defense Forces, an aerial display by over 400 Israel Air Force aircraft and the overriding sense of invincibility and hubris that was to cost the lives of close to 3,000 Israeli soldiers, including many of my best friends.
The 1973 parade was, understandably, the last one ever held. Yom Ha’atzmaut, some would say, would never be the same again. Nonetheless, for secular Israelis of my generation, it retained its special status: It was a day to be proud of Israel’s undeniably enormous achievements in the past as well as to feel joy at the bright future that lay ahead.
We paid very little attention to the Palestinian Nakba, even though the abandoned remnants of the Palestinian flight were present and visible all around us, far more than they are today. Most Israelis, with the exception of the willfully ignorant, are aware of the tragedy that befell the Palestinians in 1948, but their knowledge hasn’t marred Independence Day celebrations. Against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and their designation as irredeemable terrorists, and with the active encouragement of most Israeli governments, Labor or Likud, most Israelis have learned to repress guilt, skip self-examination, ignore the Palestinian plight and clear their conscience by assigning all the blame to the enemy’s side.
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In recent years, I must confess, Independence Days have lost some of their luster. One clear reason is my advancing years: Participation in the collective festivities these days requires a high tolerance for being packed like sardines and for the inhuman decibel level prevalent in the public performances of Israeli singers, most of whom I haven’t heard of anyway. The fireworks are always a thrill, but after viewing the New Year’s extravaganza in Sydney Harbor and the Fourth of July spectacle along the Hudson River, they no longer spark the same amazement as before.
From an unequivocal occasion for celebration, Independence Day gradually evolved into an ambiguous affair. My classmates at school continue to attend our annual Independence Day barbecue, but the prevailing atmosphere has changed from content and carefree to worried and frustrated. The sense in my milieu is that Israel has gone off the rails and is hurtling towards a dangerous crash and the anxiety is compounded by the fact that it is a minority view, as the April 9 elections amply proved.
Throughout most of my life, the focus of Independence Day was Israel’s deliverance from its Arab enemies. In recent years, as Israel slides away from the principles enshrined in its own Declaration of Independence, one is reminded of Walt Kelly’s humorous play on Commodore Perry’s famous saying from the War of 1812: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Iran may be a strategic threat to Israel’s physical wellbeing but the greatest risk to its continued existence as a Jewish and democratic state comes from within. It is a far more immediate, clear and present danger to the only Israel that I can support and adhere to.
The increasing dread about the future is directly related to the growing proportion of Israelis I can no longer identify with. Despite the preponderance of religious zealots in their midst, they have no common denominator other than, at worst, their wish to dismantle Israel as a bastion of admittedly imperfect Western liberalism or, at best, their indifference to and passive collaboration in the demolition of Israeli democracy.
These enemies, some of who will soon take up important cabinet posts from prime minister on down, are now backed and shielded by a majority of the Knesset. They disdain democracy, detest dissent, malign the media, and recoil from the rule of law. They have already had a chilling effect on public discourse, doing battle with human rights NGOs and delegitimizing criticism of the occupation.
The recent election campaign revealed the extent of the Newspeak that Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues have imposed on Israeli politics. Not only the rare birds who dare express sympathy for the Palestinians, but even those who simply declare their allegiance to a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution are immediately branded as leftists, a moniker that has assumed sinisterly unpatriotic connotations. Benny Gantz, the great white hope of the left, went so far as to boast of the hundreds of Palestinians killed in Operation Protective Edge, under his command.
Their blatant efforts to subjugate artistic expression to the whims of the regime are an ironic emulation of the Mapai clique they claim to abhor. The 1958 Expo that I visited with my father was rocked by the kind of public scandal that was once seen as a vestige of Israel’s authoritarian socialist past but seems to have returned with a vengeance. When David Ben-Gurion expressed dismay at an abstract painting by Israeli artist Yosef Zaricky, his then aide Teddy Kollek had it immediately moved to a secluded corner of Binyanei Ha’Uma.
Which is a convenient segue to Hannah Arendt’s prescient warnings in her famous article “To Save the Jewish Homeland” published on the eve of Israel’s independence in 1948. Arendt underestimated Jewish resilience and Arab incompetence in the War of Independence raging around her, leading her to warn of yet another historic Jewish catastrophe, on top of the Holocaust. But even if the Jews achieve victory, she said, it would come at the cost of the kind of Euro-centered Jewish homeland that Arendt envisaged, which, in her vision, would be a light onto the nations.
Arendt’s warning seems more pertinent today that it did during the intermittent years since it was written. She writes about the unanimity of opinion among both American and Israeli Jews about the inevitability of a do or die battle for Israel’s independence: “A unanimous public opinion tends to eliminate bodily those who differ, for mass unanimity is not the result of agreement, but an expression of fanaticism and hysteria. In contrast to agreement, unanimity does not stop at certain well-defined objects, but spreads like an infection into every related issue.” In Israel today, from the media to academia, from the arts to the army, from the Knesset all the way to private conversations, there are symptoms of the spreading infection.
And even if victory is achieved, Arendt notes, “The Palestinian Jews would degenerate into one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta. Their relations with world Jewry would become problematical, since their defense interests might clash at any moment with those of other countries where large numbers of Jews lived. Palestine Jewry would eventually separate itself from the larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation develop into an entirely new people.
“The 'victorious' Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war.”
Arendt took a particularly dim view of Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist disciples, whom she described as “Jewish fascists.” The famous letter to the New York Times signed by Arendt, Albert Einstein and a 26 other Jewish intellectuals against Begin’s 1948 visit to the U.S said of the Revisionists: “Within the Jewish community they have preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority,” a description that seems as apt today as it was back then, even if we thought otherwise in the interim.
It is the thought that, despite her erroneous assessment of the situation, Arendt may have recognized a core truth about the future of Zionism 75 years ago that now haunts my Independence Days. It underpins an increasing sense of dread and of living on borrowed time, which the April 9 elections may have cut much shorter.