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A Day For Atheist Rebels Taking Charge Of Their Own Destiny

This piece is one of a series of pieces commissioned from leaders to speak to their feelings about Israel at 70. You will find the others here.

Israel’s Independence Day is the one day in the Hebrew calendar which truly belongs to the atheist rebels who founded Zionism and brought about the establishment of the State of Israel.

When the modern state of Israel was established, it set the Hebrew calendar as its official state calendar. Given that the Hebrew calendar was mostly the agricultural calendar of the Israelites, it made much more sense in the geographical climate of modern Israel than it ever did in Poland, where Jews kept it religiously as the calendar of a people in exile.

So, when that calendar was reinstated as the official calendar of the modern state of Israel, the ancient, religious holidays were given a new, secular interpretation. Either the national aspect was emphasized, as in the case of Hanukkah, Purim and Passover, or the holidays were reframed as agricultural celebrations of a people in their land, as in the case of Rosh Hashanah and Shavuot.

But one day needed no such reframing and reinterpretation, as it was the one day of celebration added to the calendar (the other two were of mourning): the modern Israel’s Day of Independence, the day that it declared itself a state and the Jewish people became masters of their fate.

This was the one decidedly, clearly, unambiguously secular Zionist holiday. The one holiday in the year for which the secular Zionists did not need to create new interpretations or engage in reframing. There was no need for an allegorical treatment of the god in the story, because there was no god in the story. It was the one day in the year that secular Zionists could celebrate what they -– with their own hands — did and achieved.

This was the one holiday in which Zionism could assert itself for what it was: a rebellion against God and Messiah, in which human beings realized that it was up to them to change the course of their history, and that no amount of praying would achieve for them what the exercise of will and collective action could. It was a celebration of the kind of self-redemption which is possible through focused, deliberate action in this world, not the next.

If anything, it was the one day in the calendar which religious Jews had to re-interpret and reframe if they wanted to truly celebrate it. They had to retell the story of Israel’s birth as a miracle of God’s doing, the beginning of redemption, the outcome of God’s will, even if those who carried out God’s will, were adamant that he did not exist.

Ironically, while religious Zionist Jews could celebrate Independence Day without reservations one they had reframed it, it was the secular Zionists whose day of celebration was accompanied by perennial handwringing. Precisely because it was the day in which they reflected on their achievements, they could not escape the questions, is this what we wanted? Is this what we fought for? Have we done enough? What more needs to be done?

Herein lies the true meaning of the independence we are celebrating. With Zionism, we have taken upon ourselves to shape our destiny, but once we have assumed that responsibility we can not escape it. It really is up to us.

Einat Wilf is an Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset for Independence and the Labor Party.

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