Israel's Independence Day: Nationwide Ceremonies, Celebrations

Knesset Speaker emphasizes Israel's commitment to a united Jerusalem in address at Mount Herzl.

Israelis celebrating Israel's 62nd Independence Day in Tel Aviv on Monday. (Moti Kimche)

Independence Day celebrations kicked off Monday night in Israel with the lighting of beacons at the official ceremony at Mount Herzl national cemetery in Jerusalem, which also marks the conclusion of Memorial Day.

The theme of this year's ceremony, for Israel's 62nd Independence Day, is Herzl's adage "If you will it, it is not a dream."

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin lit the first beacon at the ceremony, and emphasized Israel's commitment to the unity of Jerusalem in his address.

"We will not apologize for building up Jerusalem our capital," Rivlin said during his Independence Day speech, which focused heavily on Jerusalem and on the divisions within the city and its population.

"In an era of cultural openness, we are witnessing a dangerous process of deepening entrenchment of each group behind its four walls. This entrenchment only creates cultural and political polarization.

"Look at what Jerusalem has become in the past decade: separate neighborhoods, separate public transportation, separate shopping malls for Haredim and seculars, Arabs and Jews," he said, referring to this separation as ghettos within the city.

"Our fear of the 'other' across the wall, especially in Jerusalem, whether Arab or ultra-Orthodox, goes against the Zionist spirit," said Rivlin.

"The mentality of concrete and barbed wire; the mentality of enclosure in homogenous neighborhoods, and the mentality of escaping a dialogue with the 'other' is not only destructive to our social and national foundations," said the Knesset speaker, "but also enables the rise of the very voices who today demand the division of Jerusalem."

Rivlin also spoke of Herzl's legacy during his Independence Day address, calling Zionism an act of courage.

"Sixty-two years after the prophecy of [Herzl's] Altneuland was realized, we, the generations of those who established the country, know very well that Israel's salvation did not come from prophets or from diplomats," said Rivlin, "but from those who dared to stop dreaming and start realizing the dream; in the hands of those who stopped waiting for the establishment of Israel and made the dream a reality."

Rivlin continued, "The Zionist act is an act of courage, executed by individuals who take a leap of faith from dreaming to action."

Rivlin concluded by saying that Israel will retian its Zionist character and make no apologies for it.

"Make no mistake, there will be no cooperation with those who demand that we diminish the country's Zionist identity. We will not apologize: not for conquering Katamon, Jaffa or Safed, not for freeing Hebron, and not for building Jerusalem our capital," Rivlin said.

Additional beacons were lit by retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, who is president of the Israel Press Council, and Yossi Feldman, director general of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.

Rabbi Richard Hirsch, the head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, also lit a beacon, in a move lauded by the Reformed Judaism movement which has struggled to gain acceptance in Israel.

Israel declared statehood on May 14, 1948, a day before the expiry of Britain's United Nations-mandate over historic Palestine. It traditionally celebrates Independence Day according to the Jewish calendar, which this year falls almost a week before May 14.

Earlier in the day, at 11 A.M., a two-minute siren sounded throughout the country to mark Memorial Day, followed by ceremonies at Israel's 43 military cemeteries.

On Tuesday, Independence Day, Defense Ministry museums and military bases will be open from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M. The Israeli air force will conduct flyovers over cities and other sites across the country. A naval demonstration will be held off the coast.

The annual international Bible competition will be held at 3 P.M. in Jerusalem. Among the contestants this year is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's son Avner.

On Tuesday evening, the Israel Prize ceremony will be held in the capital.

During the day Tuesday, Israelis are expected to throng to the country's national parks. The Jewish National Fund will host hikes around the country and activities at the Tel Aviv port. One of the hikes on offer goes from Kibbutz Nirim in the south to the Halutza sands, where new communities are currently being built.