Updated: Apr 26
Growing up in Israel, I had always been taught that Independence Day came right after Memorial Day because of the meaningful connection between the two. But this concept is another very successful Zionist-patriotic myth that emerged in the young Jewish state in the making.
Almost every year, on national Memorial Day, I go to visit one of the four families of the soldiers from my tank platoon who were killed in the second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. On that same day, when the sun sets, Independence Day begins and I meet friends for a big feast.
The visit with these families isn't easy, yet it is very rewarding and heartwarming. Every family deals with the pain differently. However, they all share the difficulty of the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day, a phenomenon that exists only in Israel. From sirens to fireworks, sad songs on the radio to loudspeakers of Israeli pop, from cemeteries filled with soldiers, to parks filled with BBQ smoke and picnic rugs.
So, why is it like this? Why are those 2 days right next to each other?
The 1948 war, what Israeli Jews call the 'War of independence', broke out officially on November 29th when the Partition Plan for Palestine was accepted by the UN. In the midst of the war, Ben Gurion (Israel's first PM) declared independence in Tel Aviv on a Friday afternoon May 14th, 1948, borrowing chairs from near-by cafes.
That same day, in the early morning, the Jewish forces lost a very important battle south of Jerusalem and 129 Jews were murdered in what later was called the Kfar-Eztion Massacre.
The war ended with a series of armistice agreements between Israel and its neighbors on July 20th, 1949. The first Independence Day celebrations were held on July 27th, 1949 in Tel Aviv. This was a week after the war had ended, with Israelis viewing it a painful but profound victory. Coincidentally, it was also the date when Herzl (the spiritual father of the Zionist movement) had passed away. Memorial services for the fallen soldiers of the 1948 War were first held in 1949 on the day of the massacre. However in 1950, Israel's second celebration of Independence Day was celebrated on the date of Ben Gurion’s declaration of independence, making it clash with the Memorial services.
For the bereaved families, this combination between the grief of mourning and the happiness of independence created a painful emotional conflict. Therefore, they requested a change to the date of the Memorial Day. In January 1951, Minister of Defense David Ben-Gurion established the Public Council for Soldiers' Commemoration. The council recommended that the national Memorial Day move to the day prior to the Independence Day. The suggestion was approved by the government for marking the third Memorial Day.
Over the years, in the way that myths develop - educators, parents, IDF commanders, and politicians alike, explained this proximity as a reminder of the price and sacrifice made by so many in order to keep us free.
In recent years, there has been a growing demand by bereaved families to move the Memorial Day just one day back, so they have at least one full day to transit from feeling their grief afresh to celebrating the happiness of independence.
I personally support this. Every year when I visit these families, I feel the difficulty with this transition, and I can only imagine what it is like for them.
This year, with the corona virus pandemic, there will be no fireworks, and no big celebration. There will also be no large gatherings at the cemeteries to remember the fallen.
This is a good opportunity for us all to re-think how this should be done.