A 64th birthday party with something for everyone

Picnickers on the Tel Aviv beach wave to an Independence Day flypast by the Israel Air Force aerobatics team. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—As Israelis picnicked and attended official ceremonies on Thursday celebrating the country’s 64th Independence Day, the leaders of the United States joined the festivities by sending messages of congratulation, support, and encouragement.

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on Thursday reiterated the strong US-Israel relationship in messages for its 64th Independence Day.

Obama pointed out that the US was the first country to recognize Israel—then president Harry Truman did so just 11 minutes after independence was declared on May 14, 1948—and stressed the special relationship between the two countries.

“Ours is a unique relationship founded on an unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security, and anchored by our common interests and deeply held values,” Obama said.

Obama took note of Israel’s “remarkable achievements over the past six decades” and encouraged Israel to continue to work for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside it.

Israel and the United States share values, he said, that guide the efforts “to confront shared challenges and to achieve a just and comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution that will usher in a future of peace, security, and dignity for the people of Israel and its neighbors.”

Clinton sent a birthday message saying that “for many around the world, Israel remains a beacon of hope and an inspiring example.”

She declared that Israel and the United States “are united by a deep and unbreakable bond based on mutual interests and respect. Our relationship grows stronger every day as we work to promote regional security, create new economic partnerships, increase two-way trade and broaden our energy cooperation.”

At a time of growing threats to Israel’s security, Clinton delivered a message of reassurance. “We are steadfast in our commitment to Israel’s security, which is a cornerstone of our foreign policy in the Middle East,” she said, adding that we will continue to work with you and your neighbors to achieve the shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Official celebrations in honor of Independence Day began at 9:30 a.m. with a ceremony at Beit Hanassi, the president’s residence, in Jerusalem honoring 120 outstanding soldiers. In addition to national television, the event was broadcast live on the president’s Facebook page.

A flyover by the Israel Air Force aerobatics team kicked off the festivities by trailing streams of smoke across the cloudless sky in the national colors of blue and white.

In an innovation introduced last year, President Shimon Peres, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak each sang a favorite Independence Day song, accompanied by the IDF band and singers.

Peres later hosted the foreign diplomatic corps at an Independence Day reception. According to Ynet News, Peres told the diplomats that Israel seeks peace and that its biggest challenge is to make peace with the Palestinians by convincing both sides that peace is worth paying for. Upon surmounting this challenge, Israel will be able to concentrate on building a better future for its children, Peres reportedly said.

The 49th International Bible Quiz for Jewish youth, an Independence Day tradition—was held on Thursday morning at the Jerusalem Theater. Israel’s Elchanan Bloch, a student from the AMIT Yeshiva High School of Yeroham, was this year’s winner.

The concluding official event, held in the evening, was the awarding of this year’s Israel Prizes in chemistry and physics, education, communications, mathematics and computer science, music research, and lifetime achievement.

In a part of the celebrations usually reserved for happy expressions of pride, some sorrow lingered. As the president prepared to award citations and scholarships to this year’s 120 outstanding soldiers of the nation’s army, air force, and navy, he recalled why just 118 were present.

Two outstanding soldiers, Hagar Zohar and Shai Krichli, were injured last week when a light rig being put up for Remembrance Day and Independence Day ceremonies at Mount Herzl collapsed. Lt. Hila Bezaleli was killed in the accident and Zohar and Krichli are still hospitalized.

IDF chief Gantz paid tribute to Bezaleli and wished Zohar and Krichli a speedy recovery. He and Peres will visit them in the hospital and present them their citations and scholarship certificates in person.

Another outstanding soldier was herself a living tribute to courage. Chaya Schijveschuurder was one of eight siblings, three of whom were murdered together with their parents, Mordechai and Tirza, in the terrorist suicide bombing of a Sbarro pizza parlor in Jerusalem on August 9, 2001.

The family had migrated to Israel from Holland and had settled in Neria in the West Bank. Chaya, who was eight at the time, was seriously wounded in the attack that murdered 15 civilians. The Schijveschuurder orphans brought themselves up, with the older siblings taking care of the younger ones.

Another female soldier who was cited for outstanding service was medic Anastasia Bagdelov, who saved several soldiers’ lives last August, when terrorists opened fire on a bus traveling to Eilat. Bagdelov’s care kept them alive until help arrived.

The 120 soldiers, including 43 females, represent every sector of Israeli society. They come from the big cities, from villages on the periphery, from kibbutzim and moshavim. They are religious and secular, but not all are Jewish. There are two Christian Arabs, and a Christian with a Filipino mother and an Argentine father.

There are also Bedouin and immigrants from South Africa, Australia, Mexico, the US, Belgium, France, Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Azerbijan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Singapore, and Germany.

In his televised address to the nation—and Internet link to the world via Facebook—Peres spoke of the nation’s pride in its soldiers.

“You are the outstanding soldiers of an outstanding army,” he said, telling them that they could spread their wings much further than their predecessors and could do so with greater speed, determination and strength than all the generations before them.

This current generation of outstanding soldiers would face the challenge of new, broader and deeper horizons on land, in the air and on the sea, said Peres, adding “You will rule the technology of the 21st century.”

Peres compared Israel’s strength today with the challenges that faced the country’s founding generation in 1948, when a population of 650,000 Jews armed only with rifles, machine guns, and mortars defeated 40 million Arabs who had tanks, cannons, and planes.

With this in mind, Peres warned those who threaten Israel today: “Don’t make the same mistakes as you did the past. You threaten us out of a desire to conquer, and we defend ourselves out of a desire for peace.” The wars which Israel did not initiate, but in which she was engaged, resulted in unanticipated achievements, said Peres.

“Israel, with a minute population, a paucity of land, a scarcity of water, lack of natural resources and isolated from the world was exceptional in its accomplishments, its defense capability, its flourishing economy, its scientific level and its democratic character. It is a strong state which prefers bridges of peace to fences against hostility.

“The Middle East is seething and brimming with various new threats which should not be taken lightly, but which also should not inspire fear,” he concluded.