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Kikar Zion, Jaffa Street Jerusalem. photo by Rhonda Spivak

Western Wall on Memorial Day.

Fireworks-Kikar Zion

Kikar Zion, Yom Ha'atzmaut

Tel-Aviv Beach, where hundreds of thousands of people came to watch the sea and air show extravaganza


by Rhonda Spivak, written in 2008, reprinted April 22, 2015


As Israel prepared to celebrate its 60th anniversary, I joined a handful of Jewish friends living for a year in East Jerusalem on Sala-a-Din Street. On the streets in downtown East Jerusalem, I said I was a Canadian tourist who had just visited Jordan, and the Arab shopkeepers assumed I was Christian, not Jewish. "Welcome, welcome" they said.

In East Jerusalem, there was no mention of Yom Ha'atzmaut. At the Azzahra restaurant, where I ate dinner with my friends and their colleagues, I picked up a copy of This Week in Palestine and Nakba 60. These pamphlets listed events taking place not only in the Palestinian territories but around the world (including Canada) to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, or Catastrophe, which Palestinians believe occurred on the day Israel was born. Upon leaving the restaurant, I couldn't help but notice a map on the wall of pre-'67 Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, with the word "Palestine" written all over it.

An Israeli acquaintance, Isaac, a bible scholar, who had joined us, said on the way out that he didn't like eating in Arab restaurants because he didn't want to indirectly contribute to terrorism. "The storefront in front of the Azzara restaurant used to be a centre of terrorist activity during the second intifada," he said. "They used to send Palestinian terrorists to kill Jews from it. Do you think that the owners of the Azzara didn't know?"

The next evening, I walked with my friends from East Jerusalem, through Damascus Gate and the Arab market to reach the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. We went to the official Memorial Day ceremony, attended by President Shimon Peres, in honor of soldiers who fell in Israel's wars and casualties of terror attacks (together numbering more than 23,000 since 1860).

In the bustling Arab market, shopkeepers sold their wares as usual, but it was impossible to miss the groups of Israel Defence Forces soldiers that lined the main artery of the shuk (market) to ensure the safety of everyone attending the ceremony. The Western Wall plaza was packed, as Jewish Israelis, both religious and non-religious, stood for the one-minute siren that begins Memorial Day. Several ultra-Orthodox Jews, who do not recognize the modern state of Israel, had the audacity to continue walking during the sounding of the siren, rather than stand in silence.

Peres said to the crowd, which included bereaved parents: "Thousands of years of history look out at you from this place. This hallowed place, which knew the disheartened feeling of the vanquished and the pride of victors. It saw the arrogant conquerors coming in, it saw the legions marching off to slavery, nations disintegrating and disappearing, and it saw us, the children of the Jewish people, marching to exile and returning here in order to fight for our home. It is your children who fought for our home."

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi also spoke: "Sixty-three years since the end of the Holocaust, the greatest atrocity in human history, we remain surrounded by countries, by peoples, by organizations that refuse to come to terms with our existence in our homeland."

The moving ceremony ended with the El Male Rachamim prayer and it was a chilling experience. My eight-year-old son and I had draped ourselves in large Israeli flags (which we had hidden in our knapsack as we had walked through the Arab Quarter and taken out only after we had entered the Western Wall complex). After the ceremony, we walked back with friends through the main artery of the closed Arab market, putting our flags back in our bag. There were only two other Jews, Orthodox men with kippot, who walked through the market at the same time we did. Suddenly, there was a loud noise, as two men behind us started to have a fistfight.

When we heard the noise, I took my son's hand and started to run. Within seconds, about 15 IDF soldiers descended from all directions, coming out of the dark alleyways, surrounding the two men. Everything became quiet again.

Once we got out of the Old City, there were very few people on the streets in East Jerusalem. All was silent.

The evening of Yom Ha'atzmaut, we went to a music, sound and light show at Kikar Zion, on Jaffa Street, in the heart of downtown West Jerusalem. On our way out of East Jerusalem, a Palestinian chef, Hisham, who knew we were Jewish, told us to "have fun watching the fireworks." (Hisham believes in a two-state solution, based on a full Israeli withdrawal to pre-'67 borders, a non-starter for most Israelis.)

Again, as we had the night before, we pulled out our Israeli flags as soon as we reached West Jerusalem. The scene at Kikar Zion was wild. The pedestrian mall was awash with people of all ages draped in Israeli flags, wearing anniversary glasses, hats and T-shirts, as vendors sold memorabilia, candy floss, candy apples and corn on the cob.

We joined the crowd in the cramped square to listen to the concert, clap, dance and watch the spectacular fireworks display. The image of David Ben-Gurion was lit up on the building behind us, as were images of doves flying in the sky. Standing beside me was a group of Japanese women studying at the Hebrew University. The crowd was made up of secular and modern Orthodox Israelis, Diaspora Jews and non-Jewish tourists. The ultra-Orthodox in their black garb, who make up such a significant segment of Jerusalem's population, as well as the Arab population, were missing.

My favorite part of the evening was standing with my arms around my son singing the final sentence of Hatikva, which the crowd screamed out while giant fireworks lit up the sky. It was an unforgettable moment.

After the light show, Israelis were everywhere, celebrating noisily on the streets, and in the busy cafes and restaurants. In stark contrast, in East Jerusalem, the streets were completely deserted. On the evening of the "Nakba," the Arabs stayed at home.

The next morning, we were on the highway driving to the Tel Aviv beachfront, to get there by 7:30 a.m., early enough so we could get a good parking spot and a shaded area to watch the land, sea and air show, which was truly a grand extravaganza. My son's eyes popped out of his head when he saw the parade of naval boats and sail boats, with airplanes doing tricks in the sky and parachutists landing on the beach. I waded up to my waist in the sea, so that I could face the beach and get photos of the mass of Israelis who were lining it. There were 300,000 people, parents with children on their shoulders, people hanging from the rooftops of restaurants and squeezed onto balconies of luxury towers. Looking at the scene, my friend commented that "this looks like something that could have been a scene from the Exodus."

As I looked around, I couldn't help but think that here was the nation of Israel, lining up of its own volition along the sea, the very sea into which the Arab nations had threatened to drive the Jews in 1948. Now, 60 years later, on Independence Day, we Jews drove ourselves to the sea. At that moment, the Shechechiyanu prayer came to my lips – a prayer thanking God for having enabled us to reach this day.

There was one very unfortunate aspect to the celebration. During the show in Tel Aviv, the parachutists were meant to have landed in the water after forming the number 60 in the sky. But one of them drifted and fell into the crowd. Nine spectators were hurt, two of them gravely, the paratrooper, who is an experienced reservist, was moderately injured. As it turned out, my son and his friend, who had positioned themselves very near the marked area where the parachutists were supposed to land, ended up witnessing the accident and actually touched the parachute of the paratrooper who fell into the crowd. Military sources speculated that a sudden gust of wind had pulled him astray.

My son did not fully appreciate how lucky he was not to have been hurt and, after the show, he and his friends played on the beach until sunset.

On our way home that evening, my son turned to me and said, "We'll for sure come back for the 70th, won't we Mom." I answered, "Yes, that's fine by me."


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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