November 15, 2019

Happily, the Independence Day battle is far from over

Note to readers: a shorter and earlier version of this article appeared in the ‎International Herald Tribune / New York Times. It can be read independently, but will ‎be even more interesting to those following our Great Independence Day Debate series ‎of letters.

The Knesset member Lia Shemtov seemed puzzled. Why would anyone oppose her ‎bill proposing a commonsensical fix to an oddity in Israel’s holiday calendar? ‎

‎“Am I missing something?” the Ukrainian-born Israeli asked me during a phone conversation almost two ‎weeks ago. Indeed she was, she was trying to fix a two-pronged problem. ‎

One, since Israel was born 64 years ago on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of ‎Iyyar, Independence Day has been celebrated on that date every year. And in a ‎deliberate and bittersweet reminder that it took a war to gain that freedom, Memorial ‎Day was set as the day before Independence Day, on the fourth of Iyyar. The ‎Memorial-Independence pairing became one of the country’s most notable successes in ‎forming a culture that is markedly Israeli, perhaps even the most vivid manifestation ‎of Israeliness. ‎

Two, the Hebrew calendar is unusual: it’s lunisolar and doesn’t map neatly onto the ‎Gregorian calendar. More to the point, it mandates that the fifth of Iyyar fall only on a ‎Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. Never on a Sunday, a Tuesday, or a ‎Thursday – a point one must keep in mind. Since no secular holiday can be celebrated ‎on a Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday won’t do for an Independence ‎Day celebration. Friday doesn’t work either, because it’s the beginning of Shabbat ‎and so only half a working day. Celebrating Independence Day on a Monday also ‎poses a problem: that would mean Memorial Day falls on Sunday, with ceremonies ‎beginning on Saturday night, and the Israeli rabbinate fears that preparations for it ‎would wind up desecrating the Shabbat. Previously, the rabbinate asked specifically ‎to postpone celebrations from Monday to Tuesday, thus greatly contributing to the ‎current state of confusion.

It left Wednesday as the only religiously acceptable option for Independence Day: ‎that is, the only day of the week that comports with the right Hebrew date at any ‎point.‎

So this means that for most years, Israel doesn’t celebrate Independence Day on what ‎is strictly speaking the correct day, but on the next best date. In years when the fifth ‎of Iyyar has fallen on a Friday or a Saturday, Independence Day celebrations have ‎been pushed back to the previous Thursday. And when the fifth has fallen on a ‎Monday, the holiday has been pushed forward to day after – a Tuesday.‎

Enter Shemtov, and her modest proposal: instead of moving Independence Day ‎around according to the day of the week on which the fifth of Iyyar happens to fall in ‎any given year, let’s celebrate it every year on the first Thursday of Iyyar, regardless ‎of the precise date; there’d be no break in the workweek, and it’d create a long ‎weekend (Thursday-Saturday). Most of all, it’d bring clarity.‎

Five weeks ago, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved Shemtov’s ‎proposal. The public apparently hadn’t been paying much attention, and the ministers ‎shamelessly voted – without considering this as much as they should have – in favor of ‎the change. Only after the issue was publicized did some of the rejectionists, mostly ‎Zionist religionists, start raising their voices against the bill. Roused, they contended ‎that what Shemtov and the government were considering, without much thought, was ‎turning Independence Day into a purely civil-secular holiday.‎

The Zionist religionists have long strived to give Independence Day a religious ‎meaning, for example, reciting special prayers during the day. This has pitted them ‎against both ultra-Orthodox Jews, who grant no special religious significance to the ‎state of Israel, and staunch secularists, who want no Messianic undertones associated ‎with it. And suddenly here is the government pulling the rug from under their feet by ‎giving up on the Hebrew calendar just to make life more convenient.‎

Immediately after the committee vote, leading Zionist rabbi Avraham Gisser ‎condemned the idea in an email he sent to a long list of recipients: “This goes against ‎the nature of the State of Israel as a Jewish state!!!” ‎

‎Ronen Neuwirth, a rabbi from Ra’anana, a small and affluent town in central Israel, ‎agreed. “Moving Independence Day to a Thursday will result in the separation ‎between ‎the civil holiday and the religious holiday, and will turn Independence Day ‎into ‎another day which will disappear from the map of Jewish history over the years”, ‎he wrote in an email of his own.

Neuwirth and other rabbis wanted “to put pressure” on the rabbinate and on ‎politicians to restore the fifth of Iyyar as the date of Independence Day. And this ‎pressure has already started to work. About a week ago, the heads of the rabbinate ‎announced their opposition to the legislation. A small victory in a long battle that is ‎not yet over.‎

Shemtov is standing her ground. “Independence Day is a civil holiday,” she argues, ‎not a religious one. Whether the Jewish state is just a political civil arrangement or a ‎manifestation of the Jews’ redemption is one of Zionism’s greatest debates — one ‎that can never be put to rest — and so, Shemtov might say, better to steer clear of it ‎and be pragmatic.‎

There are signs that maybe this time Israelis will not take the pragmatist path. The ‎Education Committee of the Knesset, debating the issue last week, is delaying a vote ‎on the matter to allow time for “public discussion”. The IDF Widows and Orphans ‎Organization opposes the change. The IDF Disabled Veterans Organization opposes ‎the change. The Ministry of Defense has asked for more time for internal discussions ‎on the matter. Hopefully, this timeout for more deliberation is a sign that Israel is ‎walking back its decision. ‎

True, I’m usually quick to praise Israelis’ just-do-what-makes-sense approach. But not ‎this time. Though the whole matter of when Independence Day should be celebrated ‎is supposedly of modest practical significance, it carries great symbolism. Even for ‎skeptics who find it hard to concede that Israel is really a step toward the Jews’ ‎redemption – and as a journalist, or professional skeptic, I’m among them – there’s ‎something disturbing about a Jewish state that won’t celebrate its holidays according ‎to the Hebrew calendar. It makes the state, well, a little less Jewish. ‎