Israel Concludes Memorial Day, Ushering in 69th Independence Day Celebrations

In first, torch for diaspora lit by 'Trump rabbi' Heir and Birthright cofounder Steinhardt | Netanyahu: Israel has survived and thrived | Theme is Jerusalem as 'eternal capital' of Israel | Knesset speaker: Without unity, we won't be able to keep Jerusalem united

Israeli children watch fireworks in the sky over Mount Herzl at the end of Israel's Memorial Day and at the start of Israel's 69th Independence Day celebrations, in Jerusalem late on May 1 2017.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Israel concluded its Memorial Day ceremonies Monday evening, ushering in its 69th Independence Day celebrations. The theme for this year's Independence Day ceremony is "Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish People," and is due to begin at 8 P.M. at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery.

This year, two American citizens, Rabbi Marvin Hier and Michael Steinhardt, took part in the ceremony on behalf of the Jewish diaspora. Speaking in English, the two praised Jewish educators. The lighting of a torch on behalf of the Jewish diaspora is a new addition to the annual ceremony which marks the end of Israel's Memorial Day and the beginning of Independence Day.

Speaking at the start of the ceremony, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said "this year we are all Jerusalemites." Addressing societal issues in Israel, he said that "without unity – our people will fall apart. We won't be able to keep Jerusalem united if we don't keep the people of Israel united.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstien at Israel's 69th Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem
Olivier Fitoussi

"There was much tension and redundant hatred in the past year. Instead of talking with each other – we shouted. With all this hatred, we have forgotten to love." He was then joined by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to light the first of the ceremonial torches.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's Greeting on Israel's 69th Independence Day

In a prerecorded message, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Independence Day “was a moment of triumph for our people. We had been scattered around the world for millennia. And then we returned to our ancient homeland, to build a safe haven, where we could live, and thrive.

“Now, many doubted that this tiny State of Israel would survive. We were surrounded by hostile enemies, who attacked us again and again. So perhaps, for some, this skepticism was warranted. But survive we did. Much more than that. We thrived,” he said.

Israel's President Ruben Rivlin in his Independence day broadcast said that the "Zionist dream had succeeded more than we could have ever hoped."

He recounted how people took to the streets to dance in celebration when David Ben Gurion declared the nation's independence 69 years ago, to celebrate being "a free people in our land, in Jerusalem."

"Israel today is a strong democracy, a shrine of freedom of expression and a hub of innovation," he said.

On the eve of the 69th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, the country’s population is 8.68 million – more than 10 times what it was when the state was founded, in 1948.

Torch lighting ceremony

Two American citizens took part in Israel's Independence Day official torch lighting on behalf of the Jewish diaspora. The lighting of a torch on behalf of the Jewish diaspora is a new addition to the annual ceremony.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, who took part in U.S. President Donald Trump's inauguration, and Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Taglit-Birthright were selected to light one of the ceremony's twelve torches earlier this month by Israel's Culture and Sports Minister, Miri Regev.

Steinhardt, speaking in English at the ceremony, stood to light the flame and said it was, "In honor of the partnership among Jews all over the world in the fulfillment of our historic mission," as well as dedicating it to Jewish educators around the world whom he called "emissaries in the most important and noble of all pursuits."

Hier dedicated the lighting of the torch to the "honor of the generations that in spite of all their suffering, never stopped dreaming of Jerusalem," and all those "who lead the global struggle for human dignity." 

Alongside Steinhardt and Heir, 12 Israelis were also named, two of which are soldiers. Opening the list is Uri Mammalian, one of Israel's most famous former soccer plays.

Also on the list is Prof. Ahmed Eid, the head of the Department of General Surgery at Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus. Born in an Israeli Arab village in the Galilee, he studied in Jerusalem and has lived and worked there since.

Also on the list is Amnon Shashua, the founder of driverless-technology company Mobileye, which was recently sold to Intel for a record $15.3 billion, also made the prestigious list.

Dina Simta, a 19-year-old member of the Bnei Menashe Jews of northern India, and a student at Jerusalem's School for the Blind, will also light a torch.

Chana Henkin, who founded a number of religious schools for women after immigrating to Israel from the U.S., also appears on the list. Her son was killed in a terror attack alongside his wife.

Yehoram Gaon, one of Israel's most recognizable singers and actors, will also participate. Gaon is a scion of a prestigious Jerusalem family which has been living in the city for generations.

Yaki (Yaakov) Hetz, who fought in the battle for Ammunition Hill, one of Israel's most famous Six Day War battles, will light a torch in honor of IDF veterans and bereaved families.