On Israel's 75th Birthday, a Much Needed Source of Hope

As a child in a Jerusalem apartment building, my neighbors and I had an Independence Day ritual. We used to watch the Mount Herzl ceremony on black-and-white television (color broadcast started only in 1983). Minutes before the MC officially ended Memorial Day and launched Independence Day, we ran to the roof. We cleared cobwebs and pigeon drippings, slid aside several dusty red tiles, stuck our heads in the window we created, and through the pine canopy, saw the modest firework show lighting the sky in multicolor. We then walked to downtown Jerusalem to join strangers in dancing circles, street snacking, and silly pranks.

We celebrated into the night, and once we were teens we celebrated through the night. It was my favorite holiday, a secular holiday that expressed unity and strength, communality in grief and celebration, taking pride in collective accomplishments and common purpose.

Over the years, Israel changed, and with it the character of the holiday. And so did I.

Like many Israelis, I came to resent the right wing’s appropriation of state symbols and ceremonies, and of the very narrative of Israel’s independence and sovereignty. Independence Day speeches featured the intolerant zero-sum attitude of the extreme right: nationalistic bravado, jingoism and even vengeance.

And like many Israelis, I preferred to stay home rather than take part in the celebrations. After moving to the US, I used to listen online to the live coverage of the Mount Herzl ceremony on Israel Radio, with both nostalgia and alienation.

This year, something else happened. While the official ceremony unfolded in Jerusalem, the pro-democracy anti-Netanyahu movement organized a huge happening, drawing many tens of thousands. Israel’s Declaration of Independence was read out loud. A smaller protest was held at the foot of Mount Herzl, not far from the government-choreographed official ceremony. This year, TV coverage of Independence Day’s kickoff was a split screen showing the government production on one side and the popular uprising on the other.

This Independence Day is celebrated in the context of a people’s movement the likes of which Israel has never seen. The protestors, who champion a progressive vision of Israel, have reclaimed the state symbols from the right. They are compelling Israelis to consider the trajectory of their state under the leadership of ultra-nationalist zealots and showing them that a different future for this troubled country is within reach.

A lot has been said and written about the demonstrations’ supposedly missing ingredient, about the alleged absence of anti-occupation protest. Many argue that progressive protest, which does not focus on the occupation, further normalizes it. I am currently in Israel. I attended the protest in Jerusalem Saturday night. And I disagree both with the premise and with the argument. Anti-occupation activists are alive and kicking in the demonstrations. They are visible and vociferous. They are integrated into the marches and rallies. I spoke with some regular anti- occupation participants who told me they feel welcome.

That is an extraordinarily welcome development. After years of near absence from the agenda of Israeli progressives, the occupation now is unignorably present. Prominent speakers have been referring to it at the demonstrations for over four months and chants such as “there is no democracy with occupation” have been drilled into the consciousness of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. You can’t expect immediate impact. Given the decades of near indifference by most Israelis toward their country’s rule over millions of Palestinians, the fact that the issue is back on the public agenda – even if not as the chief item – is a major accomplishment for the anti-occupation pro-peace cause.

A cause for celebration? Maybe not yet. But a source of much needed hope? I think so.