How Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews Mark Yom Ha’atzmaut

How Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews Mark Yom Ha’atzmaut

This article from the Jerusalem Post explores how Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews in Israel mark the birth of the secular State of Israel. Through interviews with both public figures and average people from this community, the author shows how Ultra-Orthodox Israelis have become more integrated into society, more likely to celebrate the day in some way, and less antagonist toward the secular state. 

Independence Day the Haredi Way

On the eve of Independence Day in 2003, Uri Lupolianski had replaced Ehud Olmert as mayor of Jerusalem. Although he was not new to local politics – Lupolianski had been a city council member and deputy mayor to Olmert for almost 10 years – nothing prepared him for the harsh treatment he received by the press as a haredi mayor conducting the official ceremonies for Independence Day.

Lupolianski naively accepted his advisers’ advice and canceled his participation in Remembrance Day, announcing that he would participate instead in the Jerusalem Day ceremony. That decision caused an uproar of criticism, mostly focused on the issue of the inability of a haredi to understand, respect or participate in the Zionist narrative and ceremony surrounding Independence Day. The fact that for years before, Lupolianski had represented the municipality in a long series of official ceremonies for Remembrance Day and Independence Day didn’t help him. The prevailing sentiment was that since haredim do not celebrate these important days, the mayor must be trying to avoid them.

Seven years have passed since then. Lupolianski has admitted, off the record, that there was probably nothing he could do to change the public’s attitude toward him as a haredi. But the fact is that the sight of haredim celebrating Independence Day in various ways has become more common over the years.

Sacher Park has been packed for the past few years with large haredi families, who join what has become the most typical Israeli celebratory ritual – the barbecue. One could say that the sight of haredim fanning the flames of a barbecue grill indicates their integration into Israeli society.

But is that really the case?

“Haredim are becoming an integrated part of Israeli society, there’s no question about it,” says Yanki Pashkuss, a businessman and former high-ranking professional at the municipality. “But I wouldn’t base that conclusion on the fact that they barbecue on Independence Day. I wouldn’t conclude that barbecue is equal to Zionism, thus participation of haredim in this trend doesn’t say anything about their position regarding the Zionist state.”

One thing is certain: While this year, as in the past years, the media will probably show some photos or footage of haredim burning the national flag, the fact is that for a growing majority of haredim, celebrating Independence Day has become natural. And although the way it is celebrated still takes on a different form than that of the general public, the national holiday is nevertheless considered a kind of festive day.

One of the issues most commonly raised among religious Zionists and haredim regarding the celebration of Independence Day is connected to the religious or ritual aspects this day has acquired over the years. “In the religious Zionist community, one of the major issues is the Hallel prayer added to the morning service and avoiding saying the Tahanun on that day,” says Haim Miller, a Ger Hassid who was a former deputy mayor to Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert and today is the chairman of the Movement for Jerusalem and Its Residents, which aims to improve the social conditions of the local population.

“The fact is that after the disengagement from Gush Katif, some of them announced that they would stop saying Hallel at their synagogues on Independence Day. We do not say Hallel on that day anyway, but that doesn’t mean we do not rejoice in having a state of our own; we simply do it in a different way. And by the way, I know of many haredi communities where they refrain from saying the Tahanun, which is also a religious way to mark that special day. It’s all a matter of the sentiments within the communities. For example, we do not say Hallel on the hillula days [date of death] of some of our most prominent rabbis in all synagogues. Does that mean we do not respect them? Of course not!”

How does Miller himself mark Independence Day? “We celebrate differently, but not only that day. Even the haredim who barbecue in Sacher Park still look and behave differently. You won’t see them half naked or men and women dancing together. But in many of the yeshivot, special learning connected to the issues of our sovereignty will be learned, stores are closed, and families spend time together and spend quality time in nature. It’s been like that for quite a while, but in the Israeli media there is always a scandalous news piece showing a handful of haredi kids burning the Israeli flag in front of some TV crew. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in many cases those children were incited to do so because the Israeli secular society loves to show us in embarrassing situations.”

For many Israelis, the day Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was invited to light a torch at a national ceremony on the eve of Independence Day could be considered a landmark event, although not all haredim appreciated his act. But Meshi-Zahav, who has always been very outspoken, doesn’t seem to mind criticism, without paying too much attention to what is deemed politically correct.

“Who says haredim don’t celebrate Independence Day?” he asks with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Check out the rooftops in the haredi neighborhoods on Independence Day, and you will see how they are packed with haredim who watch the fireworks and the IDF aircraft aerobatics. And who do you think pack the IDF bases that are open to the public on that day? Haredim, of course, with their large families. I’m pretty sure they greatly outnumber secular visitors, who hardly celebrate Independence Day in connection to its ideological meaning anymore… for the majority of the haredi community, this is a festive day without a doubt.”

Earlier this week in the haredi neighborhood of Geula, Miriam, a mother of three in her early 30s, revealed how she would be marking the upcoming Independence Day. “It’s a celebration but it’s not a yom tov [religious holiday], of course,” she says. “It’s not that we are not grateful to Hashem for the State of Israel, but we are committed to a very different way of life. Secular Israelis celebrate in a way that is not compatible with our holy Torah, and our rabbis teach us how to maintain an appropriate attitude. We do not celebrate by dancing, and certainly not… you know… mixed genders. It is absolutely forbidden.”

Asked if her husband would consider reciting Hallel at his synagogue on the morning of Independence Day, Miriam is quick to respond, “Of course not. But not because, like you perhaps think, we are not happy about the state, but anything new or different from the custom is prohibited. And anyway, it’s the task of the rabbis to decide, not me.”

Regarding how she and her family plan to spend the day, she says, “My husband works in an educational institution and it closes, so we will probably go to barbecue somewhere. We will meet with the rest of the family – sisters and brothers and their children – as we did last year, but no music and no dancing, of course.”

There is no doubt that the atmosphere in the haredi neighborhood has changed over the years in that it has become more tolerant regarding Independence Day. As for the reasons that led to the change, Meshi-Zahav has some surprising remarks. “I remember when I was growing up in Mea She’arim, children used to compete to steal as many Israeli flags as possible for the fire we would light with them. Despite the infamous images the TV news will surely show again this year, this is no longer the tone in the haredi community. You can always find a bunch of kids who have no idea what it really means and perhaps even convince them to ignite the flags in front of the cameras, but that is really only in the most extreme parts. Today’s haredi generation doesn’t pay too much attention to ideology. Don’t forget, most of them were already born into the reality of the State of Israel. Whether we say Hallel and Tahanun or not doesn’t really say anything about our attitude toward the state or Independence Day.”

Asked if his invitation to light one of the torches on the eve of Independence Day seven years ago was a signal for his community to change its attitude, Meshi-Zahav bursts into laughter. “I was the first but not the only one, you know. After me, Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman from Migdal Ha’emek lit one and even received the Israel Prize for his charity and education activities. This is not a theological argument among us anymore. The State of Israel is a fact, the Zionist state is a fact – as far as it can still be called a Zionist state.

“Yes, there was some pressure on me and on Grossman not to participate, but nothing really serious. In the haredi press it was mentioned but not highlighted. But on the other hand, every year you can see haredim literally fighting to get tickets for the opening ceremony on Mount Herzl. And the impressive number of haredim, whole families, visiting the army bases, the museums all open for free on that day is incredible. You have no idea, for example, how many haredim make plans to get close to a TV set to watch the opening ceremony or the fireworks.”

Pashkuss holds his 15-month-old daughter on his knees while answering my questions. He was born into a Lithuanian family, but for practical reasons he was educated in the hassidic stream and became a Lvov Hassid. After a few years as a well-respected coordinator and consultant on the municipal planning and construction committee, he left for an independent business career. Pashkuss describes himself as a non-extremist but totally engaged haredi.

“It is no secret that haredim and the general public are displaying more tolerance toward each other, and it is also evidenced on the Independence Day issue. But I think it is important not to make a mistake. Just as Zionists in Israel today are not as ideologically involved as they were in the first years of the creation of the state, so the haredim do not feel the urge to be as fiercely opposed as they once were. It’s basically the same process from both sides.”

On the subject of Meshi-Zahav’s participation in the lighting ceremony on the eve of Independence Day in 2003, Pashkuss sounds a bit reluctant to voice his approval. “Just as this girl Anat Kamm doesn’t represent all secular Israelis, I would say that, with all due respect, Meshi-Zahav doesn’t really represent all the haredim. So it’s not that every rabbi here would run to light a torch at the Independence Day ceremony, but that is not a real issue anymore,” he says.

“As for the barbecue trend, I would say that it is a perfect venue for a bored haredi and a bored secular to meet, no more. But look at who goes to Sacher Park. If you see some of the young yeshiva students, those easily recognized as shababniks [wayward teens], it doesn’t mean anything – these guys do not represent us anyway; you can also see them there playing soccer on Shabbat afternoons. But if you see families there, then it does mean something.

“As for our daily life, well, the yeshivot are not closed that day. But they are not closed on Shavuot or Rosh Hashana, either. Everybody is at the yeshiva anyway in our society. I have heard stories about haredim who carried flags and danced in Kikar Zion on the day the state was declared – hassidim and Lithuanians. They shared the outpouring of joy and celebrated. It took a few years until they realized that things were going in a direction they couldn’t share, including the harsh attitude toward religion and the observant people.

“So yes, for years there was a strong division, but today there is no need for it anymore. Zionism doesn’t intimidate or threaten us, and we do agree that there are some very positive things in this state besides the things we don’t like. So I would say that we will never say Hallel on Independence Day. But participate, take part in the building of the country, holding positions – yes, sure, that is what we are already doing now, and being a part of this festive day is included,” says Pashkuss.

Avraham, A middle-aged haredi man who divides his time between a Lithuanian yeshiva and teaching in a religious high school. is ambivalent regarding Yom Ha’atzmaut. “I didn’t serve in the army. It might surprise you, but today I think I would have enlisted in the army. I think we are all required to defend the state that allows us to live and protect us, even if this state doesn’t come close to what I think it should look like. As for celebrating Independence Day, well, I certainly feel it is a different day. I personally have the day off – our school is closed. But I’m not so sure regarding my children. What should I, a haredi Jew, do with them on that day? Can I seriously take them to a park and let them see people who dance there half naked? Can I take them to an army base and let them see male and female soldiers behaving in a way that is totally contrary to our principles?” he asks.

“Even at the Israel Prize ceremony, I have a problem. Sometimes they have women singing or dancing in the entertainment segment. It is not compatible with our way of life. But I do feel good about being a citizen of a sovereign country, I do feel good about having the means to defend myself, and if my son decides to serve in the haredi unit of the army, I will not be against it.”

Meshi-Zahav says he is invited every year to lecture and to meet people around Independence Day, where he mingles with secular and religious Israelis. That gives him the strong impression that the harsh opposition between haredim and secular people about the Zionist state is over. But for him, it is no less the result of the diminishing Zionist ideology of the secular than the haredi understanding that the State of Israel is a fact and is not going to fade away.

But perhaps the best example of the ongoing changes is what Pashkuss describes: “Today, I can visit my secular friends – and I have a lot – and be their guest when they celebrate Independence Day. Just as they respect me when they come to my house to light the Hanukka candles with me and my family, I have no fear facing a secular Israeli Jew: I know that haredi education is strong, that it won’t harm or threaten my religion and beliefs, I feel strong about it. And it allows me to develop friendships with secular people, something the previous generation couldn’t allow themselves. There is no problem today with Zionism among haredim, besides the members of Natorei Karta, from whom we are the first to suffer. Today, secular Israelis are much less passionate about their Zionist ideology anyway.”