Jerusalem — The schism between religious and secular Israelis has never been wider, the rate of unemployment is soaring and the peace process is nearly on life support.
So what prompted Ziva Moshe, a 44-year-old mother of four, to celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary with unabashed pride and a traditional barbecue?
“It’s a holiday, a beautiful sunny day and I’m happy,” said Moshe, who like hundreds of thousands of other Israelis congregated in the nation’s parks on Israeli Independence Day.
Sprawled on a blanket, her gaze directed toward the air show taking place above the picnic grounds, Moshe explained why, for her at least, Israel’s 50th was a time to rejoice.
“We have a country. We have a home and enough money to live on. In my opinion that’s reason enough to be grateful,” she said.
But what about the nation’s woes?
“There are people who aren’t in a celebratory mood and they’re entitled to their opinion,” Moshe said. “Unemployment is high, but what can you do? There’s nothing wrong with discussing our faults, but not at the expense of praising our accomplishments. Israel is a wonderful country and no one is going to convince me otherwise.”
Despite dire predictions by the media that Israel’s birthday bash would be more like a wake than a celebration, many Israelis shrugged off the doldrums last week and threw themselves a party.
But before the nation could savor its achievements, it mourned the nearly 19,000 soldiers — and hundreds of civilians — who have died in bloody battles and terrorist attacks. Twice during the 24-hour Memorial Day that precedes Independence Day here, the nation stood in tearful silence to the wail of air-raid sirens.
The gradual transition from mourning to rejoicing could be discerned in downtown Jerusalem, where as Independence eve approached, would-be revelers began to deplete the stock of Israeli flags and party paraphernalia. At the first sign of stars in the night sky, people strolled to the city center and were greeted by live bands and fireworks.
During the extended holiday weekend, citizens and tourists flocked to the beaches, the national parks and the sites of bygone battles. Museums offered free admission, as did army bases and naval ships. More than 100,000 souls jammed a Tel Aviv park for a free Israel Philharmonic concert conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Yet even the party atmosphere could not obscure the nation’s deep and growing rifts.
On Independence Day, thousands of right-wing activists and hundreds of left-wing supporters of Peace Now demonstrated at Har Homa, the controversial Jewish housing development in East Jerusalem.
The next day, Orthodox members of the Likud-led coalition threatened to bring down the government if the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s leading modern dance troupe, performed a controversial routine at a televised variety show that was part of “Jubilee Bells,” the official 50th anniversary program.
Rather than dress more modestly — the popular dance “Anaphase,” which has been seen by more than 100,000 Israelis, calls for performers to strip to their underwear while the Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea,” “Who Knows One?” is played in the background — the company boycotted the show and sparked a national debate about artistic freedom that underscored the ongoing and bitter culture war between secular and religious Jews.
With Batsheva’s refusal to tone down the scene — despite pressure from the head of the 50th anniversary organizing committee and President Ezer Weizman, who suggested that the troupe strip down only to long underwear, or gatkes — the battle lines were drawn. The opposition accused the government of surrendering to Orthodox censorship, and the government accused the opposition of whipping up anti-religious sentiment for political gain.
Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism said the dance turned the haredim into a laughingstock in the name of artistic freedom. Ravitz rejected the idea that a possible interpretation of the piece is a criticism of youth abandoning cultural and religious values represented by the clothes they take off.
“When you take your trousers off while singing ‘God is one,’ you don’t need any extra interpretations,” Ravitz said.
“This marks the death of Israeli culture,” declared former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni.
Knesset member Naomi Chazan of Meretz said she would introduce a bill this week, “The Basic Law: Freedom of Religion,” to separate religion from state and ensure equal rights to all streams of Judaism in Israel “in order to ensure the Jewish pluralistic nature of the state.”
A public opinion poll in the Yediot Achronot daily revealed that 61 percent of Israelis backed Batsheva’s walkout, and 63 percent felt that Israel’s cultural life was subject to religious coercion.
The day after the show, about 300 Israeli entertainers, including household names such as singer Yaffa Yarkoni and actress Gila Almagor, lay in wait at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatefusot museum for the visit of National Religious Party cabinet ministers Yitzchak Levy (Education and Culture) and Shaul Yahalom (Transportation).
“Dirty Jew!” some of the protesters yelled. “Fascist!” “Khomeini!”
A few of the entertainers removed their shirts and blouses in a symbolic demonstration of freedom — in this case the freedom to strip, a freedom the Batsheva modern dancers had been denied.
But it was Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo who seized the political moment. At a concert of the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv the night after the Jubilee Bells show, Milo declared from the podium that the 100,000-plus audience was in fact “a demonstration in support of artistic freedom and against religious coercion.” A couple of days later he announced he was quitting the Likud, quitting his race for re-election in November, and running for prime minister as head of a new political party dedicated to pluralism and freedom. The Batsheva controversy, Milo said, was the “turning point” that led to his decision.
“Independence Day was contentious,” said Steven Cohen, a Hebrew University sociologist. “Many of our major social divisions expressed themselves over the weekend. Not a single Israeli Arab — and only one Druze — lit one of the 12 torches during the main Independence Day ceremony. This effectively disenfranchised 19 percent of the population. And the controversy over the Batsheva dance troupe is still being discussed a week later.”
Israel correspondent Larry Derfner contributed to this report.
While Independence Day was celebrated “with less hoopla than might be expected [of a country celebrating its 50th anniversary], there was less angst than the media predicted or sought,” Cohen said.
Local and foreign journalists, he said, “were predicting that this wasn’t going to be an unqualified celebration. In the end, people weren’t so tormented. There’s a sense of public satisfaction and people feel we’ve accomplished a lot.”
In summing up the anniversary, the daily Maariv expressed a similar sentiment.
“The public’s sense of satisfaction over the country’s 50 years of achievements broke the foul atmosphere that threatened to ruin the holiday,” said an editorial. “Average citizens broke through the siege of self-examination … giving way, instead, to basic feelings of love for their country.”
As proud of they are of their young, evolving state, even the most optimistic of the celebrants expressed concerns for the future.
“I’m happy today but in general life is very tense,” said Rivka Yeshayahu, a friend of Ziva Moshe’s. “I don’t know which way the country is going, and there’s still the threat of terrorism to contend with. The uncertainty is hard to live with.”
Yeshayahu, a secretary and mother of five, said her fears rest with the Palestinians. “I’m originally from Iran and I know that there are good Arabs in the world, but I don’t sense a desire for peace in the hearts of the Palestinians. Fifty years after Israel was established, they still don’t accept us,” she said.
Sitting between Moshe and Yeshayahu on the picnic blanket, Moshe’s 22-year-old daughter Naama insisted that Israelis must dwell on the good and try to ignore the bad.
“You can’t compare how things were two or three years ago, when bombs were going off all the time, and how they are now. The security situation has improved,” she said.
Despite the Israel’s well-publicized ills, the young receptionist stubbornly refused to bad-mouth her country.
“Sure there’s uncertainty and plenty to worry about, but what country doesn’t have its problems?” Naama asked. “These problems are our problems and it’s up to us to solve them. That’s what having a country is all about.”