Israel marks its birthday on the 5th day of the month of Iyar. It’s the Hebrew date of the formal establishment of the state, when its provisional government read and signed the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv. The original date corresponded to May 14, 1948. This year, Israel’s Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) falls out on May 12.
In Israel, it’s a formal holiday and, in addition to official ceremonies, there’s a great deal of revelry. During the day, thousands of Israeli families go out on hikes and picnics—the national pastime—where they enjoy the country’s captivating natural scenery. At night, crowds gather for street carnivals throughout the country. The festivities conclude with the “Israel Prize” ceremony, which recognizes individual Israelis for their contributions to the country and to humanity in all spheres, including culture and the arts, science, and the humanities.
Yom Ha’atzmaut marks the return of the Jewish people to national sovereignty after 2,000 years in exile. It’s a way of expressing solidarity with, and a Jewish connection to, the land and the State of Israel. But it isn’t a particularly religiously-infused celebration—and its religious character is still a subject of debate.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate recommends that the day be marked with recitation of Hallel (psalms of praise), similar to other joyful holidays. Other rabbinic authorities say that Yom Ha’atzmaut should be viewed in conjunction with Hanukkah and Purim, as all three commemorate a miraculous victory of the Jews over their enemies. In Israel, the Modern Orthodox Kibbutz Movement along with the country’s Masorti (Conservative) and Reform congregations have adopted a special additional liturgy for the day which includes a version of the prayer of Al HaNissim (“Concerning the Miracles”). It’s been added to the central Amidah prayer, recited while standing.
Still, most Israelis—and Jews worldwide—don’t consider Yom Ha’atzmaut a religious holiday at all.
Israel’s founding and its continued survival is a modern day miracle, but it’s also come at a great cost in human life. So it’s fitting that Yom Ha’atzmaut is always preceded by Yom Ha’zikaron—the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism. The linking of the two days is a concrete and tangible means of acknowledging that the country owes its very existence to those who have sacrificed life and limb to defend her.
Yom Ha’zikaron formally begins this year at sundown on Tuesday evening May 10. The country will come to a standstill at 8:00p.m. for a memorial siren, followed by the lighting of a memorial flame at the Western Wall (the Kotel) in Jerusalem. A two-minute air-raid siren will also wail simultaneously throughout the country on Wednesday morning, beginning the day’s official commemoration ceremonies.
In a few weeks, many Americans will mark their country’s own Memorial Day with picnic barbeques and by shopping for sales at the malls, often without a single thought for those who died—and are still fighting—for their freedoms. That’s not the Israeli way. On Yom Ha’zikaron Israel’s 8.5 million citizens will honor the 23,447 men and women who died in defense of their country by shuttering restaurants and places of entertainment. The Defense Ministry anticipates that some 1.5 million visitors will flock to the nation’s 52 military cemeteries, and hundreds of military sections located within civilian cemeteries across the country, to pay their respects.
The sacrifice and heroism of Americans will also be remembered. Among those being honored will be the scores of Americans killed in terror attacks since the start of political Zionism, including the Americans murdered during the recent wave of terror violence that began this past Fall.
The hundreds of Americans who perished in the service of Israel’s armed forces, including non-Jewish American volunteers, will be mourned too. Today, roughly 1,000 Americans serve in the IDF’s volunteer program, which allows non-Israelis to join—typically for 18 months. During Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, two Americans in the program—Californian Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli of Texas—were among the Israeli soldiers killed.
They join a long line of Americans who gave up their comfortable lives to answer Israel’s call for help. These sacrifices go back to the American volunteers in the 1948 War of Independence. Only a few years after paying their dues fighting for their country in World War II, hundreds of American veteran soldiers, aviators, and radio operators—most of them decorated war heroes and still in their early twenties—risked their lives and their freedom in another war to save the Jewish state from assured destruction.
When the Arab states aimed to overrun and cripple Israel and “throw the Jews into the sea”, these Americans smuggled planes and war materials out of the U.S., trained in old Me-109 fighters—the mainstay of the German Luftwaffe!—in secret behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, and participated in critical combat missions that pushed back enemy advances.
There can be no doubt that these Americans helped to save Israel from what would’ve been a near certain defeat.
During Israel’s formative years, the U.S. was an “ambivalent and often suspicious friend”. In fact, as former Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross writes in an important new book, the U.S. government was downright hostile.
Ross, who now serves as the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and as Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, notes that nearly all of President Harry S. Truman’s major foreign policy advisors saw the emergence of Israel as “doom and gloom for the United States.”
At the time, this was also the predominant view within America’s national security establishment. Support for the Jewish state was considered of “no strategic benefit.” The fear (totally unfounded, as Ross points out) was that it would come at an enormous cost to America’s relations with the Arabs.
To be sure, as Ross rightly remarks, Truman was a good friend of Israel. But the reality is that the actual support he provided was minimal.
Especially calamitous for the fledgling Jewish state was the embargo that the Truman administration imposed on all U.S. weapons going to the warring groups in the last months of the British Mandate for Palestine. The arms embargo was ostensibly meant to limit the scope of the violence. But in reality it penalized only the Jews, as the British continued to provide weapons to the Arab armies and these made their way to Arab forces in Palestine.
The strictly-enforced U.S. embargo left Israel unprepared to meet the Arab state onslaught. It stayed in force throughout Truman’s tenure, going into effect in December 1947—just a few weeks after the UN General Assembly adopted the plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. It was maintained even after Israel was invaded by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in May 1948.
During those critical months when Israel’s survival hung in the balance, U.S. authorities took active measures to foil Jewish statehood. In addition to enforcing the international arms embargo, the government also revived its Neutrality Act. Americans who tried to join the Jewish defense forces were faced with the threat of having their citizenship revoked. Americans could legally donate funds to the Jews of Palestine through the Jewish Agency, but all weapons shipments destined for Palestine were routinely confiscated at the N.Y. harbor.
It’s hard to picture all this given the extent to which Israel today, and for the foreseeable future, is considered an American security asset. Israel is the only secure naval port in the eastern Mediterranean for American ships, provides a secure storage base for America’s forward placement of arms, is indispensable as an intelligence resource, and shares its military advancements that help to save American lives.
Today, the American-Israeli “special relationship” is rock solid. But the reality is that it wasn’t until 1962, when President Kennedy authorized the first arms shipments to Israel, that the Jewish state stopped being looked upon as a strategic liability. Before then Israel faced opposition from nearly every arm of the U.S. government—including the State Department, the Treasury, the CIA and the FBI.
In its relentless campaign to vilify and delegitimize the Jewish state, the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement has made inroads in the American discourse on Israel, especially among American millennials. But overall Israel remains wildly popular. Americans recognize the shared values and common interests that bind the two countries together. For BDS promoters, it’s not merely Israel’s policies that are found wanting—Israel’s creation is considered a mistake; a catastrophe which must be undone. This is a position that the vast majority of Americans reject.
Sixty-eight years after it won its independence, Americans (and not a few citizens of Arab countries) realize that Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East—a “bright flame in a pitch-black region”. They even “have love for Bibi”. While the rest of the planet is less enthusiastic about Israel’s prime minister, among Americans Benjamin Netanyahu was recently voted the tenth most admired man in the world.
Today, a congressional majority also understands the threats Israel faces from the region’s oppressive dictatorships which routinely call for Israel’s destruction, and from Palestinian political and religious leaders who incite their people to murder Jews.
America’s security establishment too recognizes that Israel is obligated to defend its citizens, and appreciates its efforts to reduce the harm to civilians in combat zones. The recent U.S. decision to adopt Israel’s “knock on the roof” military tactic for minimizing civilian casualties is a case in point. Also indicative of today’s close U.S.-Israeli defense relationship is the fact that U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford chose Israel for his first official overseas visit in his new role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In his seminal essay marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s statehood, the legendary Charles Krauthammer remarked that:
The return of Zion is now the principal drama of Jewish history. What began as an experiment has become the very heart of the Jewish people—its cultural, spiritual, and psychological center, soon to become its demographic center as well. Israel is the hinge. Upon it rest the hopes—the only hope—for Jewish continuity and survival.
Back in 1998, most Americans would’ve appreciated Krauthammer’s words. This week, as Israelis honor the Jewish state’s fallen and unite to joyfully celebrate the country’s 68th birthday, most Americans still do.
Plucky little Israel is no longer alone.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University where she serves as research director in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC). Elman served in the IDF (Air Force) from 1983-1985 and lived in Israel for over a decade, completing her B.A. in International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She received her M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in political science from Columbia University. Elman is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is an avid blogger and frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman.
Photo Credit: Israeli flags during the 2007 Israel Day Parade in New York City. By Akalati via Wikimedia Commons.
 For more on the 1948 war and the decisive role that American World War II veterans played during its various stages, see my essays for Legal Insurrection: “1948—How American Jewish Pilots Helped Win Israel’s War of Independence,” April 21, 2015; “RIP American Marine Lou Lenart: Israel’s 1948 War Hero,” July 21, 2015; and “A Wing and a Prayer: American WWII Aviators Who Flew for Israel,” October 20, 2015.