The beginning of May marks a few big events in Israel. First up is Holocaust Remembrance Day, which I mentioned in a previous post. Last weekend was also Memorial Day and Independence Day- the country has been busy! The lineup of holidays is a little strange to get accustomed to, with the first two days being marked by mourning and solemn services, and Independence Day being the complete opposite.
On Memorial Day, a couple of friends and I made our way towards the Western Wall in the Old City for a ceremony in honor of the day. Israeli President Shimon Peres (Netanyahu is the Prime Minister, not President, as is often mistaken) was scheduled to speak, and hundreds were expected to attend. As we entered the Damascus Gate of the Old City, we noticed that something was different- the usually packed Muslim Quarter was almost empty! Most of the storefronts had already been closed for the night, and there were almost no shoppers rushing around. That was a first. The farther we walked, though, the more crowded the narrow walkways became. By the time we got to the security gate that leads into the Western Wall plaza, we were surrounded by people, young and old, pushing to get into the plaza. Security was pretty tight- we walked through metal detectors, put our bags through an x-ray, and had them searched before we were allowed inside.
Inside the plaza, there was little space to move. People were packed in like sardines, except for one section near the fence leading to the Western Wall which was cordoned off by security. IDF officers and security forces were everywhere- you couldn’t go anywhere without almost running into a guy wielding a huge gun or baton, and the main podium was surrounded by bulletproof glass. We walked up a few stairs at the back of the plaza and stood on tiptoes, vying for a view of the podium. We had made it just in time- only a couple of minutes later, the ceremony was started with yet another siren, just as eerie as the last. The entire crowd of people froze in place, and nobody spoke. As soon as the siren ended, people continued to rush into the area, searching for the best view. Men stood on pillars in the back of the plaza, teetering on their toes to get a glimpse of the main speaker.
A set of military commands resulted in the movement of various soldiers as they stood at attention and engaged in a flag ceremony. Soon enough, President Peres took the podium and spoke for a few minutes, completely in Hebrew. I can usually understand a bit of Hebrew, just because of similarities with Arabic, but all I got was something about “every night”. A couple of our fellow Hebrew U students had ridden on the bus with us, and they luckily spoke about a billion times more Hebrew than all of we did, combined. One of the girls provided a short summary of Peres’ comments about how Israel is alone in the region, but will prevail nonetheless by uniting its many types of people. Next, a military official spoke (again, completely in Hebrew), but not after a few more commands from another officer to set soldiers in place. A man lead the crowd in a couple of songs, including a traditional Jewish song of mourning, as well as the Israeli National Anthem. I had never heard either of these before, but the entire crowd sang along with gusto. Once the ceremony ended, almost everybody attempted to leave at once, causing a huge block in front of the exit door. We had been locked in, and had to wait for a soldier to return from the ceremony to open the door before we were let out. I assume that they wanted to secure the exit for the more notable guests and speakers before unleashing hundreds of Israelis into the Old City.
The next day was Independence Day, which took on a completely different feel from Memorial Day. Huge street parties were planned in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and many students traveled across the country to celebrate. Fireworks shows and jet displays by the Israeli Army were scheduled, and Israeli flags were everywhere. A few friends and I decided to go down to Ben Yehouda Street to check out the festivities. It was like Purim all over again, but even bigger. Every street was packed with people for as far as you could see. Security barriers had been set up, and soldiers checked bags and patted down visitors before allowing them into the main stretch of street. Parties had been set up within the souk (or bazaar), complete with food, drink, and DJs. At one point, a condensed group of 50-75 boys in traditional orthodox wear came stampeding down the street, hollering and cheering for Israel. They waved gigantic Israeli flags and skipped around boisterously. Music boomed, people danced, and friends chatted excitedly as they moved in waves down the street. The festivities continued into the next day, when I could hear jets flying overhead two or three times, presumably on their way to the air show in Tel Aviv.
We got a couple of days off of school for Memorial Day and Independence Day- the dates are connected to the Hebrew calendar, meaning that they vary according to our calendar. The actual date of the original Israeli independence was May 15, which is now more commonly associated with the “nakba,” or the “catastrophe,” from the perspective of Palestinians and many Arabs in the region. This day definitely was not celebratory- you may have heard about the demonstrations in the news. I’ll write about my “Nakba Day” experiences next!