Israel's Independence Day got off to its traditional start on Wednesday night with the annual torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem.
As the country transitioned from the mourning of Memorial Day to the celebrations of Independence day, soldiers and civilians who foiled terror attacks were among the 14 Israelis chosen to light torches in the official ceremony that kicked off Independence Day celebrations around the country.
"I am proud to be your prime minister," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recorded message screened at the torch-lighting. "We will continue to develop the country by leaps and bounds.
"We have many challenges ahead of us, but I am certain we will be able to deal with them with unity, faith and hope."
The event was marred slightly by sexual harassment allegations against one of the torch lighters, the Armenian Christian leader Father Gabriel Naddaf of Kafr Yafia, in the days leading up to the celebration.
Nadaff was chosen to light a torch for his work in persuading Christian Arab youth to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.
Among the civilians honored with torch-lighting duties were Herzl Biton, 57, a Dan bus driver who enabled passengers to evacuate the vehicle as he struggled with a knife-wielding Palestinian in January 2015 and Rona Ramon, widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.
Last year scarred us
In his opening address, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein referred to the wave of terror that has engulfed the country since October last year.
"Last year, too, we had to fight for our independence and our rights," Edelstein said. "Israel's face showed more wrinkles and scars were added to her body and soul.
"We wept at the sight of a mother mourning her loved one and the pain of children who observed the massacre of their families broke our hearts."
Edelstein said that "Israel's enemies incited against us without stop and sowed the seeds of hate and death. Social media plaid a major role in spreading the wild incitement against us. It's ironic that they, which are meant to join together, to bring countries and peoples together, have served those who want to do us evil, to divide, distance and break up."
Referring to public discourse, Edelstein said that the "tensions that characterize our lives, which are sometimes healthy, crossed the boundary of good taste more than once."
"Our wide freedoms of speech, the soul of democracy, were characterized more than once by hurtful discourse. Expression became more radical: Sector against sector, belief against belief and perception against perception.
"Many people donned a virtual mask and, in the name of freedom of speech, they embarrassed, hurt and attacked, often unchecked and with no shame. And no one is immune, neither the president, nor the prime minister; neither a Knesset member nor a minister; not a policeman, not a soldier, not a judge and not a journalist.
"All of us, public representatives and those who chose us, are obliged to watch our tongues," Edelstein said. "We need to avoid insulting those who don't think like us like we'd avoid fire": Not "traitor" and not "mole;" not "fascist" and not "fundamentalist."
"There is place for every perspective to be heard, but there is no place among us for boycotts, from any side. It is possible and even desirable to argue. It is possible and necessary to criticize. But the distance between those and firing poison arrows must be very great."
Honoring civilians and soldiers
Also chosen to light torches this year were:
Sgt. Farah Usa Roberto, 21, of Tel Mond, who overcame a Palestinian who attacked him with a knife at the Gush Etzion junction last month.
Staff Sgt. Alison Berson, a Border Police officer from Afula, who shot two Palestinians who tried to stab a fellow soldier at the Tapuah junction in October.
Avi Toibin of Herzliya, who jumped into the Yarkon River in 2009 to save champion rower Yasmin Feingold after her boat overturned.
Nili and Moish Levi of Modi’in, who each donated a kidney to people they did not know.
Dr. Anan Falah of Acre, a dentist from the Druze community who advocates for the empowerment of Druze women.
Rotem Elisha, 18, of Ramle, an activist against sexual assault. A survivor of rape herself, she decided to tell her story in order to encourage other victims of sexual assault to file complaints with the police.
Fainy Sukenik, 33, of Jerusalem, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who went through a painful divorce and operates an organization that helps other Haredi women going through a similar experience.
Yaakov Ehrenfeld, 83, a Holocaust survivor who cannot speak or hear, he works extensively with Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, using sign language to accommodate deaf and hearing visitors.
Gabi Barsheshet, 49, of Kfar Adumin, deputy director of the Megilot rescue unit, who has been involved in rescue missions in Israel and abroad.
Hallel Bareli, 17, of Sderot, a youth counselor who has aided local residents extensively in emergency situations.
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