On May 14, 1948, the modern State of Israel was formally established. The day itself, of course, marked the culmination of decades of struggle by early zionist leaders, and the realization of Theodore Herzl’s dream. In the years since Israel’s founding, many Jewish communities around the world have incorporated the corresponding Jewish date (the 5th day of the month of Iyyar) into the holiday calendar. The holiday is preceded by a Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, Yom Hazikaron or Day of Remembrance.
There is not yet a formal, agreed-upon way of observing Yom Ha’atzmaut, though it is a national holiday in Israel, which means virtually everyone gets the day off of work or school. In America, many Jewish communities celebrate by throwing concerts, parades, readings and prayer services, and singing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, to show their solidarity. In 2008, Israel turned 60 years old, which sparked even more celebration and festivals than other years.
But because it is an informally celebrated holiday, there are many opportunities to connect Yom Ha’atzmaut to service. In Israel, one might plant a tree with JNF or use the day off to volunteer. Outside of Israel, one could donate to an Israel-based service organization or convene a walk-a-thon or other event to raise money for an issue within Israel, like hunger and poverty or the growing water crisis.
In 1902, Herzl wrote in his influential zionist work, Altneuland (The Old New Land):
[The New Jewish State] is founded on the ideas which are a common product of all civilized nations… It would be immoral if we would exclude anyone, whatever his origin, his descent, or his religion, from participating in our achievements. For we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples. … What we own we owe to the preparatory work of other peoples. Therefore, we have to repay our debt. There is only one way to do it, the highest tolerance. Our motto must therefore be, now and ever: ‘Man, you are my brother.’”
It is clear that Herzl’s vision for Israel was for a democratic, pluralistic society. And while in many ways Israel stands as a beacon of those ideals, there is ample room for growth, both domestically and in Israel’s relationship with its neighbors. Yom Ha’atzmaut then, also offers opportunities for learning and honest reflection. One could hold a text study or invite a speaker to teach about an Israel-centered topic, or an issue that could be addressed to help the State realize Herzl’s vision for democracy, self-determination, and peaceful, respectful coexistence with the rest of the Middle East.