Independence Day

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, April 26, 2012

Every spring, within a single week, Israel commemorates Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha'atzma'ut.  These days revisit the core drama of the modern Jewish experience: the Holocaust, the losses suffered by Israel in its early wars, and the country's present independence.  These days are also among the most controversial in the Israeli calendar.

With adjustments for Shabbat, Independence Day is celebrated on the fifth of Iyyar, the Hebrew correspondent of Israel's May 14 declaration of independence.  Certain ultra-religious Jews have long protested the occasion.  The Neturei Karta have declared it a "day of mourning for Torah-faithful Jews" and burn Israeli flags in protest.  The next day, May 15, is commemorated by Palestinians as "Nakba Day," the day of "catastrophe."  It is entirely negative: It mourns Palestinian dispossession at the hands of the Jews rather than celebrating any idea of Palestinian nationalism.  Nakba Day speaks volumes about Palestinian political psychology.

There are also protests against Independence Day from within Israel, from Israeli Arabs—that is, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship—and leftist Israelis who want Israel to be a "state for all its citizens."  This critique parallels the criticism of Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah": The state, say the critics, celebrates the experience of the majority and further alienates the minority.

Independence Day is especially vexing to non-Israeli leftist commentators, who see in it a means of repression.  One journalist recently said, "If I was [sic] a Palestinian citizen of the state, I don't think I would want to participate in the torch-lighting.  I would also find the inclusion of Arabs to be dishonest, a way of whitewashing the reality of life here as a minority. . . .  Independence and freedom here mean independence and freedom for Jews."

But to what extent to the symbols and rituals of Yom Ha'atzma'ut include and exclude?   It is useful to look at other independence days and national anthems.  Greece celebrates March 25, the beginning of its War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821.  It is also a Greek Orthodox holy day, the Annunciation of the Theotokos, on which the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear a child.  Greece's anthem, "Hymn to Liberty," looks to this past for the nation's legitimacy.  "From the graves of our slain," says Rudyard Kipling's 1918 translation, "shall thy valor prevail as we greet thee again: Hail, liberty, hail!"  Independence and freedom mean independence and freedom for Orthodox Greeks.

Hungary celebrates March 15 to recall the unsuccessful 1848 revolution against the Hapsburg Empire.  The Hungarian national anthem, "Himnusz," begins, "God, bless the Magyar with Thy plenty and good cheer!"  It goes on to recount the country's beauty and bounty and to give thanks for the Magyars' freedom from "the Turkish yoke we knew, which a free-born nation dreads."  On September 16 Mexico celebrates its 1810 independence from Spain.  Its "Himno Nacional Mexicano" warns, "Mexicans, at the cry of war, make ready the steel and bridle. . . . If some enemy outlander should dare to profane your ground with his step, know, beloved Fatherland, that Heaven has given you a soldier in every son."

The Palestinian national anthem, "Fida'i," is even more blunt: "Palestine is my home, Palestine is my fire, Palestine is my vendetta and land of resistance."

Such examples can be multiplied.  The objection that Yom Ha'atzma'ut and Hatikvah are insufficiently inclusive or representative of all citizens fails the comparative test.  A nation-state frequently begins with one group that subsequently defines its culture and politics.  Nearly every independence or national day depicts the specific journey of a specific people, which is then musically celebrated—with usually martial and sometimes mixed results.  It is the specificity of those experiences that gives most nations the core of their identity, which is then broadened by law, culture, and experience.

Objections to independence days are occasionally seen around the world—usually in protests held on the same day, for maximum effect.  Protests against July 4th are common.  They complain less about America's independence from Great Britain than about its despoliation of North America and its native peoples and U.S. imperialism.  The very existence and nature of the United States are viewed as original sins.  This is a close parallel to the objections against Israel and its Yom Ha'atzma'ut.

There is another symmetry between one of the world's oldest people, the Jews, and one of the youngest, the Americans.  Both people's national anthems recognize that independence—indeed, survival—is fragile and conditional.  America's principles, the ideas of liberty and fundamental equality, are tested by challenges whose outcome is by no means certain.  "Does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" This is the question we Americans ask ourselves—unfortunately, without much knowing it—every time we sing our national song.  In Hatikvah, the uncertainty is expressed as an ancient yearning: "Our hope, the hope of two thousand years, will not be lost: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem."

Neither will give up a hope.  Indeed, this stubborn determination may account for the unique acrimony that both nations attract on their independence days and throughout the year. 

But there is a key difference.  Americans are the quintessential modern, sprawling "invented people," who "brought forth on this continent a new nation."  Israel is based on a peoplehood that is small and ancient.  Protests again Yom Ha'atzma'ut ultimately reject this idea of peoplehood—not simply the idea that Jews deserve a state but the idea that they exist at all as a people through time, with a spiritual center in Zion and Jerusalem.  

Greeks, Hungarians, and Mexicans are rarely called upon to give up their symbols and anthems in the name of inclusion; they do not face the eagerly-sought possibility of their disappearance as peoples.  Jews are told to give up these symbols precisely so as to hasten such a disappearance.  Hope requires symbols and ceremonies, and such hope is the ultimate target of the protests against Yom Ha'atzma'ut.  To lose hope is to lose all.


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