As a rule I only watch part of the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl on the eve of Independence Day, while waiting for the fireworks at the end of the ceremony, which I can watch from my front porch.
This year I promised myself I would watch the whole ceremony. The first reason was that I wanted to view the spectacle prepared by our culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, which was to depict the history of the Jewish people in a nutshell, and in a manner that would give all sectors of the Jewish people due credit, without offending anyone. Certainly a worthy cause.
The second reason was the brawl between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein over Netanyahu’s participation in the ceremony as a key speaker, contrary to protocol.
Edelstein was finally forced to swallow the frog, after evidence emerged that in 1998, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he had entered the Mount Herzl compound with Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon, had lit a torch and said a few words on the occasion of Israel’s 50th anniversary. Edelstein agreed that Netanyahu would light a torch and speak for four or five minutes about the Proclamation of Independence, but that the main speech would be delivered, as usual, by the speaker.
Like everyone else, I was curious whether the gentlemen’s agreement would be kept by Netanyahu both in letter and spirit. I was skeptical, but willing to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt (as we shall see later on, a serious mistake in judgment).
The third reason was that I am always amazed at the exercises of the standard-bearers toward the end of the ceremony, in which soldiers and officers of the IDF’s various units march into breathtaking designs and shapes. The performance is never perfect, due to the general Israeli lack of collective discipline prevalent in authoritarian dictatorships, that excel in such exercises, but I am always impressed by our determination to continue to try, and by the creativity of the choreographers.
As to the Jewish history spectacle it seemed to start off well, with actor and stand-up performer Yaacov Cohen narrating, but very soon turned into something of a nightmare. I felt a little sorry for Cohen, who had to recite a text befitting a primary school textbook.
Though a lot of resources were invested in the spectacle, the mediocrity of the texts, staging, choreography and actual performance was very soon evident. The Jewish history as portrayed seemed to be totally different to history as I know it, and I am sure that other Jewish population groups felt the same. There was also nothing Jewish or Israeli in most of the costumes. The pioneers looked like a bunch of Polish/Swiss/Norwegian folk dancers, and it wasn’t always clear what the various scenes were supposed to portray.
I suddenly saw a subtitle that read “seven brides” (I missed the complete sequence), and got confused. The “seven brides” are part of Beduin folklore, and also appear in the 1954 American musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I was sure I was missing something, but finally realized that the reference was to Lea Goldberg’s “Poems of my beloved land,” one section of which reads:
“In my beloved land the Almond Tree flowers,
In my beloved land a guest is expected,
Seven maidens, seven mothers,
Seven brides are standing at the gate.”
As beautiful as Goldberg’s poems may be, is this poem something that should be mentioned in a flash history of the Jewish people that left out many important events? Besides, singer Sarit Hadad sang another of Goldberg’s trilogy (which some argue was written about her birthplace, Lithuania).
If the “Jewish history” spectacle was embarrassing, I don’t know how to refer to Netanyahu’s performance. It was clear that whatever agreement he had reached with Edelstein (much to Regev’s dismay), he had no intention of abiding by it, and certainly had no intention of letting Edelstein do his job as formal sponsor of the whole event, as successive Knesset speakers have done since the first ceremony was held in the early 1950s.
First of all, in total disregard for protocol, Netanyahu and his wife (the “third lady,” according to protocol) were first to enter the compound and were seated before the entrance of Edelstein and his wife (the “second lady”). (The first lady is the wife of the president, who did not attend the ceremony).
Then, when the Master of Ceremonies from the Knesset Guard who officiates at the ceremony came to request permission to begin, it was Netanyahu who responded with a nod, even though it is the Knesset speaker who is supposed to be asked.
It is true that Edelstein then spoke a few minutes more than he was supposed to, but Netanyahu, who was supposed to speak for four or five minutes, spoke for close to a quarter of an hour, giving a speech which was more of a campaign speech than one promoting national unity. He bragged of the country’s achievements in recent years (under his government, of course), and related various personal episodes to prove how enthusiastic foreigners are about Israel. It was clear from the moment he started to talk that he had no intention of sticking to the Declaration of Independence, or to the agreed upon time limit.
At least one of the stories Netanyahu told was rather curious, if not totally fabricated. He spoke of standing by Titus Gate in Rome one winter day (he didn’t say when, or whether it was a private or formal visit) and watching as a group of Japanese and Swedish tourists received information on the carrying of the menorah from the Second Temple to Rome following the destruction of the Temple. According to Netanyahu, some of the tourists enthusiastically shouted “Israel, Israel.”
This story is almost as unlikely as a previous Netanyahu story about his having seen British soldiers in Jerusalem, even though he was born a year-and-a-half after the British had left Palestine. Netanyahu’s flimsiness with facts, and his invention of stories – frequently unlikely stories – that help him make a point are well known. An alternative reality, if you will.
One thing can be said for certain: while Edelstein’s speech was intended for all citizens of Israel, Netanyahu’s was directed at his voters, and potential voters. It is said that Regev made sure that the seats allotted to Likud supporters, who clapped after every second sentence Netanyahu uttered, were within the cameras’ field of view. His speech was not intended for me or my ilk. He did not say anything to make me feel part of the festivities. It was not a uniting, statist speech, and it certainly was not to the glory of the State of Israel.
I did not watch the ceremony to its very end. Soon after the standard-bearers’ exercises ended, I dozed off. I actually missed the fireworks.