Note to readers: a shorter and earlier version of this article appeared in the International Herald Tribune / New York Times. It can be read independently, but will be even more interesting to those following our Great Independence Day Debate series of letters.
The Knesset member Lia Shemtov seemed puzzled. Why would anyone oppose her bill proposing a commonsensical fix to an oddity in Israel’s holiday calendar?
“Am I missing something?” the Ukrainian-born Israeli asked me during a phone conversation almost two weeks ago. Indeed she was, she was trying to fix a two-pronged problem.
One, since Israel was born 64 years ago on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, Independence Day has been celebrated on that date every year. And in a deliberate and bittersweet reminder that it took a war to gain that freedom, Memorial Day was set as the day before Independence Day, on the fourth of Iyyar. The Memorial-Independence pairing became one of the country’s most notable successes in forming a culture that is markedly Israeli, perhaps even the most vivid manifestation of Israeliness.
Two, the Hebrew calendar is unusual: it’s lunisolar and doesn’t map neatly onto the Gregorian calendar. More to the point, it mandates that the fifth of Iyyar fall only on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. Never on a Sunday, a Tuesday, or a Thursday – a point one must keep in mind. Since no secular holiday can be celebrated on a Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday won’t do for an Independence Day celebration. Friday doesn’t work either, because it’s the beginning of Shabbat and so only half a working day. Celebrating Independence Day on a Monday also poses a problem: that would mean Memorial Day falls on Sunday, with ceremonies beginning on Saturday night, and the Israeli rabbinate fears that preparations for it would wind up desecrating the Shabbat. Previously, the rabbinate asked specifically to postpone celebrations from Monday to Tuesday, thus greatly contributing to the current state of confusion.
It left Wednesday as the only religiously acceptable option for Independence Day: that is, the only day of the week that comports with the right Hebrew date at any point.
So this means that for most years, Israel doesn’t celebrate Independence Day on what is strictly speaking the correct day, but on the next best date. In years when the fifth of Iyyar has fallen on a Friday or a Saturday, Independence Day celebrations have been pushed back to the previous Thursday. And when the fifth has fallen on a Monday, the holiday has been pushed forward to day after – a Tuesday.
Enter Shemtov, and her modest proposal: instead of moving Independence Day around according to the day of the week on which the fifth of Iyyar happens to fall in any given year, let’s celebrate it every year on the first Thursday of Iyyar, regardless of the precise date; there’d be no break in the workweek, and it’d create a long weekend (Thursday-Saturday). Most of all, it’d bring clarity.
Five weeks ago, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved Shemtov’s proposal. The public apparently hadn’t been paying much attention, and the ministers shamelessly voted - without considering this as much as they should have - in favor of the change. Only after the issue was publicized did some of the rejectionists, mostly Zionist religionists, start raising their voices against the bill. Roused, they contended that what Shemtov and the government were considering, without much thought, was turning Independence Day into a purely civil-secular holiday.
The Zionist religionists have long strived to give Independence Day a religious meaning, for example, reciting special prayers during the day. This has pitted them against both ultra-Orthodox Jews, who grant no special religious significance to the state of Israel, and staunch secularists, who want no Messianic undertones associated with it. And suddenly here is the government pulling the rug from under their feet by giving up on the Hebrew calendar just to make life more convenient.
Immediately after the committee vote, leading Zionist rabbi Avraham Gisser condemned the idea in an email he sent to a long list of recipients: “This goes against the nature of the State of Israel as a Jewish state!!!”
Ronen Neuwirth, a rabbi from Ra’anana, a small and affluent town in central Israel, agreed. “Moving Independence Day to a Thursday will result in the separation between the civil holiday and the religious holiday, and will turn Independence Day into another day which will disappear from the map of Jewish history over the years”, he wrote in an email of his own.
Neuwirth and other rabbis wanted “to put pressure” on the rabbinate and on politicians to restore the fifth of Iyyar as the date of Independence Day. And this pressure has already started to work. About a week ago, the heads of the rabbinate announced their opposition to the legislation. A small victory in a long battle that is not yet over.
Shemtov is standing her ground. “Independence Day is a civil holiday,” she argues, not a religious one. Whether the Jewish state is just a political civil arrangement or a manifestation of the Jews’ redemption is one of Zionism’s greatest debates — one that can never be put to rest — and so, Shemtov might say, better to steer clear of it and be pragmatic.
There are signs that maybe this time Israelis will not take the pragmatist path. The Education Committee of the Knesset, debating the issue last week, is delaying a vote on the matter to allow time for “public discussion”. The IDF Widows and Orphans Organization opposes the change. The IDF Disabled Veterans Organization opposes the change. The Ministry of Defense has asked for more time for internal discussions on the matter. Hopefully, this timeout for more deliberation is a sign that Israel is walking back its decision.
True, I’m usually quick to praise Israelis’ just-do-what-makes-sense approach. But not this time. Though the whole matter of when Independence Day should be celebrated is supposedly of modest practical significance, it carries great symbolism. Even for skeptics who find it hard to concede that Israel is really a step toward the Jews’ redemption - and as a journalist, or professional skeptic, I’m among them - there’s something disturbing about a Jewish state that won’t celebrate its holidays according to the Hebrew calendar. It makes the state, well, a little less Jewish.