Yom Ha’atzmaut is a joyous Jewish holiday in the state of Israel, best known as Israeli Independence Day. The Jewish holiday celebrates the declaration of the state of Israel by David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, which corresponds to 5 Iyar, 5708 on the Hebrew calendar. Every year, an official Jewish holiday ceremony is held on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The ceremony is marked by a speech from the speaker of the Knesset, a marching display by soldiers of the Israeli flag creating elaborate Israeli symbols (such as a menorah or the Star of David) and the lighting of twelve torches. The Jewish holiday Yom Ha’atzmaut concludes with the awarding of the Israel Prize recognizing individual Israelis for their unique contribution to the country’s culture, science, arts and humanities.
Yom Ha’atzmat, in Israel, is always preceded by the Jewish holiday Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers. The message of linking these two days is clear: Israelis owe their independence – the very existence of the state – to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for its very survival. The official “switch” from the Jewish holiday Yom Hazikaron to the Jewish holiday Yom Ha’atzmaut takes place a few minutes after sundown with a ceremony on Mount Herzl in which the flag is raised from half staff (due to Memorial Day) to the top of the pole. The president of Israel delivers a speech of congratulations, and soldiers representing the army, navy, and air force parade with their flags. In recent decades this small-scale parade has replaced the large-scale daytime parade, which was the main event during the 1950s and ’60s.
In addition to the traditional state observances of the Jewish holiday, Israelis celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in a variety of ways. A few weeks before Yom Ha’atzmaut, people hang flags from their balconies and from their car windows. People sing a popular Israeli Independence Day song that goes “kol ha’aretz, degalim, degalim” which means “the whole country, flags, flags.” And many people spend the day celebrating with a Jewish-holiday cookout. On the radio, announcers humorously change the words of the Israeli Independence Day song from “kol ha’aretz, degalim, degalim” to “kol ha’aretz mangalim, mangalim” which means “the whole country barbeques, barbeques.”
In the cities, the nighttime festivities are found on the main streets or in public squares where crowds gather to watch free shows offered by local governments. Many spend the Jewish holiday doing Israeli folk dances or singing Israeli songs. Army camps are also open on the Jewish holiday for civilians to tour and experience the most recent advances in Israeli defense technology. Also on the Jewish holiday Yom Ha’atzmaut, street vendors sell tiras (corn on the cob) and plastic squeaky hammers. As part of the holiday custom, celebrants bop total strangers over the head with the toy hammers which emit a high-pitched squeaking noise. Kids get into the act by shooting each other, as well as total strangers, with silly string. Of course, no Jewish holiday celebration would be complete without a massive firework celebration shot over the flood-lit walls of the Old City.
For American Jews, the Jewish holiday has been a way to express solidarity with the state of Israel and strengthen their alliance to the country and its people. In many communities, the holiday is one of the few times when Jewish organizations and synagogues come together and form a common celebration. In many North American celebrations of the Jewish holiday a special prayer service is also included. For Americans living outside of Israel, you can celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut by watching an Israeli movie, reading a book about Israel, listening to Israeli music, wearing blue and white, singing Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) or making plans to visit Israel. What is a Jewish holiday without food? Celebrate by eating some Israeli produce, falafel or humus or make a birthday cake with blue and white icing and share it with family and friends.
For religious observance of the Jewish holiday the Conservative movement added the following Al HaNissim prayer (authored by the Conservative liturgist Rabbi Jules Harlow) for Yom Ha’atzmaut in their Siddur Sim Shalom prayer books.
We thank You for the heroism, for the triumphs, and for the miraculous deliverance of our ancestors, in other days and in our time. In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time of a people revived in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land together with seven neighboring nations sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them the courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have wrought great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day, revealing Your glory and Your holiness to all the world.
Whether in Israel or abroad, all Jews should take pride in this Jewish holiday that celebrates the miracle of Israel’s statehood, a centerpiece of Judaism for over 3,000 years.