(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Israel achieved independence on 14 May 1948 when a new country, the State of Israel, was formed from land held by the British since World War I. Independence Day, or ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’, is celebrated each year on this date, and is a national holiday and festival day in Israel. A number of celebrations and observances form part of this special day and some of these can vary between communities. This year, 2016, festivities will be on 12 May, or 5 lyar in the Hebrew calendar.
Independence Day in Israel starts on the previous evening with the lighting of a dozen torches on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, representing the 12 Tribes of Israel. The torches are lit by 12 residents who have contributed to society. This ceremony is also the close of ‘Yom Hazikaron’, or Memorial Day, when Israel remembers its fallen soldiers in various battles both before and after the formation of the new state. The evening gathering at Mount Herzl is addressed by the Knesset speaker, followed by performances and marches, in the lead-up to the torch lighting.
After attending this ceremony, many of these people join others in dancing and singing in the streets. Residents have already attached Israeli flags to their houses and cars in readiness for the big day. Celebratory scenes continue and become more numerous the next day, with many groups of people seen rejoicing in the streets and parklands. Young people often try and cover each other with shaving cream or silly string from aerosol cans. There are many shows and activities. The ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’ parade is now much smaller than in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s as a military procession, but it still attracts large numbers of school children who march and perform, and includes a presentation of Israel’s history.
One of the favorite ways families celebrate Independence Day in Israel is with a ‘mangal’, or barbecue, in one of the nation’s many parks. These picnics are popular in a number of Middle Eastern countries. A ‘mangal’ consists of meat cooked on an open tray, along with grilled vegetables and salad. The term also means a family get-together, an important part of ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’. Many people also attend army camp displays of military history and latest technology on this day.
From a religious point of view, there are many opinions as to what rituals should be part of ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’. According to a number of religious figures, including the Chief Rabbinate, the full Hallel, or Psalms 113-118, is to be read out as part of prayers on this day. These psalms form a Jewish prayer of adoration and blessing. Most Religious Zionist groups, and some Hasidic, Haredi, and other groups recite the Hallel on Independence Day and certain other holidays. Some Jewish clerics state that the ‘Pesukei D’Zimrah’ or ‘verses of song’, a collection of Bible passages meant to increase the spiritual feeling of a person, should be read on this day too. Blowing a horn called a ‘shofar’ is also favored by some spiritual leaders.
Certain Religious Zionists recite a selection of psalms and the ‘haftarah’, or ‘parting’, on Independence Day. The ‘haftarah’ is often read after the Torah at service on this day. Others in this group, as well as Masorti communities, add ‘Al Hanisim’, a prayer defining God’s role in ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’ and other festivals, into the Thanksgiving prayer.
Not all Jews celebrate ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’ in a cheerful way. Some anti-Zionists fly black flags and fast on this day because they do not believe Israel should have been established before the return of Jesus. Many Arab citizens refer to Independence Day as ‘al-Nakba’, or ‘the catastrophe’, although some do celebrate it, as do the Druze, Bedouins, and Circassians.
An International Bible Contest is always keenly contested by secondary school students from around the world on Independence Day. National contests are held in the US, Canada, Australia, and many other countries, with several winners from each nation going to Israel to compete against winners from that country. In 2009, the 47 finalists came from 24 countries. Israeli students tend to dominate the event. The overall prize is a four year university scholarship.
At the end of ‘Yom Ha’atzmaut’, the Israel Prize is awarded for outstanding achievement in humanities, science, and the arts, and contribution to the country. A number of awards are won each year. Since the inaugural Israel Prize was set up in 1953 by then education minister Ben-Zion Dinor, 633 prizes had been handed out by 2009. Winners are presented with their prizes at a state function attended by the Israeli president, prime minister, and various dignitaries.