What is Yom HaAtzma’ut and when do we celebrate it?
The name ‘Yom HaAtzma’ut’ means ‘Independence Day’. On the fifth of Iyar, 5708, which corresponded with the 14 May 1948, the Provisional State Council proclaimed the State of Israel. Yom HaAtzma’ut is a national holiday in Israel and is also celebrated by Jews around the world.
Jews have lived in the Land of Israel for nearly 4000 years, going back to the period of the Biblical patriarchs (c.1900 BCE). The story of Jewish life in ancient Israel is recorded in detail in the Hebrew Bible (called the “Old Testament” by Christians).
The dispersion of the Jewish people is traditionally dated from the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem. In the ensuing years the greater part of the Jewish population went into exile as captives, slaves and refugees, although Galilee remained a centre of Jewish institutions and learning until the sixth century CE. Through the centuries of their exile, the hope for redemption of the land of Israel remained a focal point of the Jewish religion and national identity.
Religious Zionism therefore remained a constant for the two thousand years from the time of the exile. Political Zionism, which aimed to restore a Jewish homeland in Palestine, only emerged as a movement in Europe during the 19th century. In 1897 journalist Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress at Basel in Switzerland. The congress comprised 204 representatives of Jewish communities and created the World Zionist Organisation.
In 1882 the first of the modern Zionist waves of immigration began. These immigrants established agricultural settlements under conditions of severe hardship, and were generally dependent on the support of Jewish philanthropists. There was a second wave of immigration in 1904 after further persecution in Russia. By 1914 the Jewish population of Palestine was approximately 85,000 in a total population of approximately 650,000.
On 14th May 1948 the British flag was lowered and the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was proclaimed. It included the following words:
We appeal in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the up-building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of co-operation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
Symbols and Customs
The Israeli Flag
Israel’s flag was originally designed for the Zionist movement’s First Congress by David Wolffsohn. The elements chosen were the colours blue and white, to represent the tallit or prayer shawl, and theMagen David (Star of David) which had long been used as a Jewish symbol.
HaTikvah (Israel’s Anthem)
The national anthem of the Zionist movement was already HaTikvah meaning “The Hope”. This song was the natural choice to become the anthem for the new State of Israel.
Its words, written by Naphtali Herz Imber and the tune, based on a Russian melody, express the hope of returning to Zion. The song concludes “Our hope is not forgotten, the hope of 2,000 years. To be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem.”
How do we celebrate Yom HaAtzma’ut?
The rabbinate of Israel considers Yom HaAtzma’ut to be a minor festival that is to be celebrated at home as well as in the synagogue.
At sunset on the eve of Yom HaAtzma’ut, twelve torches are lit on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The twelve torches are symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. There is a gun salute (consisting of one salvo for each year of independence). Parties are held throughout the country. There is dancing in the streets, fireworks and outdoor entertainment. People decorate their homes with lights and Israeli flags.
In the Diaspora, Jews celebrate this day by having special Yom HaAtzma’ut services in most synagogues and schools. It is customary in Jewish schools for children to come to school dressed in blue and white, the colours of the Israeli flag