“What's with all the flags?” Every bridge on the way from the airport to our Tel Aviv apartment was decorated with a host of Israel's characteristic blue-on-white emblems. As were many of the buildings. We arrived just in time for Yom Ha'atzmaut—the state celebrating its seventieth birthday.
We didn't notice the holiday overlapping with our travel dates. I checked religious holidays to make sure we wouldn't be visiting the country when everything was shut closed, and, other than on the Shabbat, we weren't expecting any disruptions to our schedule. Getting drawn into celebrations of Yom Ha'atzmaut was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one.
Israel celebrates their Independence Day on the anniversary of the May 14, 1948 declaration of independence—making this year's a round, 70th one. How come the 2018 celebration is in April? Because the holiday is scheduled based on the Hebrew calendar, with a moving date falling each year somewhere in April or in May.
The day before Yom Ha'atzmaut is Yom Hazikaron—a remembrance day of Israeli fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. This year's started at sundown on Tuesday evening, around 19:00. All shops closed at that time—even the ones normally open on holidays and Shabbat. Then at 20:00 sirens sounded for a minute and the whole country came to a standstill. People stopped on the streets and stood at attention. Cars pulled over, their passengers stepped out. Then the sound of sirens subsided and life resumed.
Wednesday saw a nearly identical ceremony at 11:00, this time with sirens sounding for two full minutes. We were on our way to Haifa at this point and stopped on the highway, as did pretty much everybody else around. It's amazing to see how widely and deeply this is being celebrated by the people of Israel. With the country so small and its short (modern) history filled with numerous conflicts, pretty much everyone here knows someone who was killed, either in battle or in a terrorist attack. This makes Yom Hazikaron not just a national holiday, but also a very personal one.
At sunset on Wednesday Yom Ha'atzmaut begins and sadness turns into intense joy of celebrating the state's existence. Israeli flags are everywhere. On bridges, balconies and gates. Cars have their side mirrors decorated, or flag poles stuck onto doors. People wear them over their shoulders walking around the city and—my personal favorite—children carry huge inflatable hammers, axes, pitchforks and other “weapons” decorated with Israeli flag colors and emblems.
We went to Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to see the city's official street party. All the bars and clubs we passed on the way were abuzz with people celebrating. Vans were rolling the streets, carrying massive speakers blasting dance music for the crazy groups following them, dancing in the open air. Kids’ top aim seemed to be covering everything and everyone in some special foam that they were spraying from an abundance of cans. (I'd love to find out the symbolic of that—if there is any.) Weather was delightful—a warm evening like the warmest summer ones we get to have once or twice a year in Poland.
Entering the square required passing a brief security check and in we were, surrounded by throngs of people. The official program included a number of performances, from modern to more traditional, to short films displaying images from the country's 20th century wars. Most people, though, seemed just to enjoy being there. The atmosphere was more of a picnic, with the surrounding bars packed and spilling into the streets, lawns occupied by families sitting and snacking on falafel pitas. Many people were just strolling around, enjoying their time spent together in this festive manner.
We didn't get a good sleep that night, but we fully appreciated the joy of our hosts. It was exciting and exhilarating to be there. A nation that celebrates their independence with earnest joy and not a hint (as far as we could tell) of hatred towards anyone else. I almost felt like the celebration was my own too—like it was my country. Such a difference from the hostile Independence Day “festivities” back home in Poland.