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‘A new phase of Zionism’: Young U.S. Jews celebrate an ‘alternative’ Israeli Independence Day

As Israeli turns 75, an ‘alternative Yom Hatzmaut’ celebration in Israel’s secular capital combined revelry with protest

TEL AVIV — For some young American Jews in Israel, celebrating Israel’s 75th birthday meant finding a different kind of party — one that reflected a more complicated understanding of the nation than what they had been taught growing up in American synagogues.

Many in Tel Aviv gravitated toward what organizers called an “alternative” celebration of Israeli Independence Day, which doubled as a protest against the government, and  contrasted with the official festivities in Jerusalem. A multigenerational crowd streamed down Rothschild Street, with older Israelis carrying large flags wrapped around poles as smiling children chased each other with inflatable blue and white hammers.

Tens of thousands of people would end up on Kaplan Street, where for more than four months Israelis have gathered to decry a judicial overhaul plan they fear would hobble checks on the right-wing lawmakers now in power. The crowd chanted “demokratiya,” Hebrew for democracy, and unfurled a huge banner that read “torch of democracy.”

Dodging children spraying silly string and foam in a public square near Kaplan Street, Josh Drill recalled his first Yom Ha’atzmaut, Hebrew for Independence Day, in Israel eight years ago. He had just finished high school and moved from New Jersey to join the Israeli army. 

“I grew up on a one-sided narrative,” Drill said, as evening pushed passed midnight and younger people began to dominate the crowd. “The education we received was one of Israel being a Disneyland.”

Drill, 26, a student at Tel Aviv University, described a long road to arrive at the protests, including a stint in a special forces unit protecting Israeli settlers in Hebron, that pushed him to become more active in politics. As he marked the holiday with new Israeli friends, he finally felt a part of the society.

“Tonight it feels much different,” said Drill. “It’s not just that we’re celebrating — we’re fighting for independence right now.”

A few blocks from the plaza where Drill recounted his journey from Jewish day school student to Israeli army soldier to anti-government street protester, Shanie Reichman, 27, made her way from Kaplan Street to a party full of American Jews behind an apartment building near Carmel Market, Tel Aviv’s famous shuk. A DJ spun tunes under a tent ringed with Israeli flags. 

This was Reichman’s first Independence Day in Israel, but she grew up celebrating the holiday with yeshiva classmates in Great Neck on Long Island. Those events were always uncritical celebrations of Israel. “It was always a big celebration of Israel without any particular message,” she said, “which is perhaps what it was supposed to be.”

Those festivities resonated with Reichman, who has her grandfather’s copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence hanging on her wall at home, but she said they no longer felt like enough. After the protests began, Reichman, who lives in New York City and runs a young professionals program for the center-left Israel Policy Forum, knew she wanted to be in Israel to celebrate with Israelis this year.

“Israelis are calling on us — in what feels like the first time for young people — and asking, ‘Where are you? How are you not here protesting with us?’” said Reichman, who had an Israeli flag tied around her neck like a cape. “And they were right.”

For some young Jews who traveled to Israel from the United States, coming out on Tuesday night was a way of restoring their faith in the Jewish state. Zach Schaffer, 29, who lives in Brooklyn, despaired for Israel’s future after its November elections, which saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu return to power alongside far-right extremists who had never before been invited to join an Israeli government..

The massive anti-government protests — which by some estimates have brought about 20% of Israelis to the streets in total, surprised him, but he felt pulled to join them. Schaffer, who works in the Reform movement, said this is his fourth trip to Israel since the election and that he had joined in the protests alongside members of the World Zionist Congress and Jewish Federations of North America conference over the last few days.

“I’ve never felt more connected to the people and the country,” he said. “This feels like a new phase of Zionism.”

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