Opinion |

Independence Day Torch-lighting Ceremony Hoped to Heal Some of Israel's Wounds

While Israel's government is far from ideal, this year's Independence Day ceremony, dedicated to people with disabilities, aimed to heal society's wounds

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Dancers preform as fireworks light the background during Israel's 74th Independence Day ceremony on Wednesday.
Dancers preform as fireworks light the background during Israel's 74th Independence Day ceremony on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The annual Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony was accompanied by concern. Shortly before the ceremony started, light but steady rain started falling on attendees. The increased presence of wheelchairs in the courtyard – this is no coincidence, as I will try to explain below – generated fears of skidding on the slippery ground, and of accidents. There were other causes for concern, including that official speeches would be heckled.

Thus, at Israel's first torch-lighting ceremony in over a decade with Benjamin Netanyahu not serving as prime minister, the secret hope was to cross the finish line and not to be reminded, again, of the rift in the right-wing political camp that tears its lawmakers apart. And especially not of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who for a large part of the ceremony was partially covered by his youngest son sitting on his lap.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett watches Israel's 74th Independence Day ceremony on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Despite the attacks, one must remember that Naftali Bennett is the first prime minister to have arrived from the political camp of Religious Zionism. The massive presence of the Religious Zionism community in the crowd, including Lawmaker Idit Silman, who stood out several rows above him, showed to what degree this community has succeeded in realizing its vision. Religious Zionism has taken over the national ethos, and has achieved its most precious goal: To take over for the Zionist Left that founded the state and its symbols – including the torch-lighting ceremony.

Except for one nasty jeer – “Get lost already” – during the speech by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, immediately after he mentioned his fallen brother and his own belonging to a bereaved family, the ceremony went on smoothly. The first song performed by Sarit Haddad was Achshav Hator Leahava (Now It's Love's Turn) by Uzi Hitman, a song that more than anything speaks about the weariness of pointless struggles, and of being tired of noise.

The conscious or subconscious took notice of the elephant missing in the room, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who sent a few delegates on his behalf (“Even when Netanyahu isn’t here, he’s here,” MK May Golan told me, who arrived with MK Gadi Yevarkan).

The ceremony included a hefty dose of sorrow. As the first torch lighter, Kalman Samuels, who founded Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, after his son made a breakthrough in communication despite losing sight and hearing, was called to the stage, my stomach turned. At the second torch, when Yael Sherer, who was sexually abused by her father, spoke and broke down crying, I cried with her. Watching a woman, whose biography shatters the notion of familial security, participating in one of the most cliché ceremonies in Israeli culture felt human, vulnerable, courageous and subversive.

Yael Sherer lighting the torch during Israel's 74th Independence Day ceremony on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

And that’s before the parents of Shira Banki, murdered during Jerusalem's 2015 pride parade, or Assael Shabo, the Paralympic athlete who at the age of nine lost three family members in a terror attack in Itamar, took the stage.

A large share of the ceremony was devoted to people with disabilities. Soldiers with disabilities appeared on the stage dancing and tossing flowers. Some looked for guidance to return to their seats, as excitement took over them. Even the fireworks were silent and understated, thanks to the brave protest of soldiers suffering from PTSD. I admit that in recent years I have tended to avoid such ceremonies. This year, the space given to the open wounds, and the modest attempt to heal them weakened my resistance.

Some of the criticism of this government is justified. It is far from ideal, and is looking shakier by the minute. But this year's Independence Day is proof that at any given moment, a culture and sports minister like Chili Tropper is better than his predecessor Miri Regev, in ceremonies and in life.

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