At Independence Day Airshow, Israelis Prefer to Avoid Reality

After almost a week of media propaganda of nauseating militarism and equally sickening nationalism and self-victimization, Israelis came to celebrate Independence Day with a superficial flyby.

Israelis on the beach watching the Independence Day flyby. May 12, 2016
Ofer Vaknin

I was lucky to find myself standing next to two elderly women Thursday, as the crowds gathered for the annual flyby to mark Israel’s Independence Day. It quickly became apparent that they considered themselves aeronautics experts.

Of course, they weren’t the only self-declared experts on fighter jets in the crowd gathered at Independence Park in Tel Aviv. Almost every self-respecting Israeli can tell the difference between an F15 and an F15I [the “I” stands for Israel] in the sky. It was usually fathers – with an air of importance – explaining to their children the advantages of each type of plane.

Meanwhile, the two ladies were vying to see who could identify more planes. It went like this: “It’s the heavier planes,” one said, just as five light training aircraft flew in from the north. “It’s an F15 and maybe a Yasour [Sikorsky helicopter].” And when the helicopters flew over: “They’re the lighter planes. The new ones. That’s the F16 we got.” Then her friend chimed in: “Maybe it’s those helicopters, the Bell. And maybe they’re Fougas [light aircraft]” – when five reconnaissance aircraft crossed the skies. “Could be that next year we’ll get to see my nephew, Assaf, flying a plane here,” one of the ladies added.

Really, what difference does it make to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who raised their eyes skyward in amazement whether it was a “Yasour,” an “Eagle,” a “Hawk” or an “upgraded Falcon”? At that same hour, in Jerusalem Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was suggesting we go back to holding military parades, which was where he saw for the first time in his life – how thrilling! – a cannon and tank.

On Israel’s 68th Independence Day, the masses stood and cheered the flyby that flew down the coast: a military parade-lite.

Israeli Hawk missile units at an Independence Day military parade in Jerusalem, 1968.
Moshe Milner, GPO

Most of the people who came to Tel Aviv’s scenic beach on Thursday had already suffered an overdose. After almost a week of media propaganda, the likes of which have not been seen for many years, with overdoses of nauseating militarism and equally sickening nationalism and self-victimization, with kitschy broadcasts, heroism and death of an ilk even North Korea might balk at, they came to celebrate Independence Day with the heroes in the sky.

No one flying overhead has ever taken part in a single dogfight, and probably never will. There’s no one to have a dogfight with, but who’s counting? They are apparently the last of the pilots. Bombings will soon be carried out entirely by drones, and instead of the person in the cockpit we’ll have the person at the joystick to spread death and destruction in Gaza and Lebanon from an air-conditioned room in front of a flickering screen.

To the credit of the Israel Air Force, it should be noted that it made do this year with a particularly modest flyby: only a few planes, no smoke trail of the Israeli flag or the figure 68 in childish blue and white. The real stars of the IAF – the assault helicopters sowing death in Gaza; and the drones, the next terrible thing, the ones every Gazan can identify by their chirps and the destruction and fear they spread – stayed in their hangars, certainly not out of shame.

A 360 degree view of the Independence Day airshow from an Air Force cockpit Israeli Air Force

But for many of the people who came to the beach, it was a case of coitus interruptus: the flyby had hardly begun and it was over. A few tired old aerobatics tricks, three or four routine planes, one in-flight refueling, and that was it.

“It’s over?” “No finale?” a few disappointed young people near me asked.

I stood in the beautiful old park, in the northern part of which is the pilots’ memorial by Abba Elhanani and Benjamin Tammuz, which commemorates two Israelis who crashed into the sea in 1948. The southern end of the park features the abandoned remains of the Muslim cemetery of Sumail and Jaffa, whose tombstones are now covered in weeds and garbage, and whose gate is locked. During last year’s flyby I could still wander among the destroyed Palestinian graves, some dating back to the 19th century. Anyway, nobody cares what once happened here. Their heads are in the sky.

Precisely at the appointed hour – flybys and funerals always start on time in Israel – the planes approached from the north. The cellphone cameras went into action and the cheers were not far behind. Sky slaloms, darting upward, then down, coming closer, then moving off, cheers accompanying the movement. There goes the IAF acrobatic foursome! The Shanghai Circus is in town, too. Parents were trying to get their children excited – usually with only partial success. Like with so many other things, the kids are the parents’ excuse to come to this foolish fair.

Uri Kimhi, a sweet boy of 7 who studies in the city’s Nature School, is held in his father’s arms so he can see better. Uri tells his father he’d rather see birds flying in formation – another smart child shouting that the emperor has no clothes. When he grows up, he says, he wants to be in the circus.

The park’s venerable tamarisk and mastic trees shade the barbecuers. The trees have seen it all – with their faces to the sea and their backs to Ben Yehuda Street, where we would crowd together in our childhood to see the IDF parades. In the last parade – the bombastic parade of 1973 – no fewer than 400 planes took part. Quite a few of them crashed a few months later. In those days, they used to show captured weapons in parades. A year later, captured weapons were shown in parades in Cairo and Damascus.

Next year in Jerusalem, if Netanyahu gets his wish, the parade will be able to display pairs of scissors and kitchen knives – enemy weapons, borne on the silver platter of the nation.

On the terrace of the Hilton Hotel, a group of American Jews in white baseball caps and matching white T-shirts, with the words “The Israel Bonds” in blue, watched the flyby. Another Israeli schnorrer bringing their guests to behold the wonder. Look what your money and the money of the American taxpayer is doing. The guests, it seems, were impressed.

The flyby done, an endless traffic jam snakes along the street behind. Angry horns blare, shouting and cursing – as if a festive, unifying flyby hadn’t just been performed by our very own air force, the best in the world.