By Adam Ognall, CEO, New Israel Fund

Adam Ognall

Adam Ognall

Do you know why we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut this week? Perhaps it is a strange question to ask, but it is a crucial one for British Jews. It helps us to explore our relationship with Israel, and, through a public expression of support and celebration, to think about what we want to achieve.

I have two motivations for asking the question. The first is my experience of a degree of frustration within the community about the lack, or quality, of Yom Ha’atzmaut activities (the ‘come-together-to-eat-falafel’ syndrome). Good and appropriate activities exist, but some people perceive a decline in the form and content of Yom Ha’atzmaut events.

My second is part of a broader context: the renewed energy with which we, as a community, are examining Israel education and the experience we provide – especially for younger people. We can be proud of what we are achieving in this regard. It is refreshing to see our educators are asking difficult questions: for example, whether we should teach our children about the complexity or nuance of modern Israel, and whether our responsibility is to educate or advocate on Israel.

As Robbie Gringras of Makom (the Jewish Agency division) writes: “Though Yom Ha’atzmaut may be celebrated with enthusiasm and commitment, it is yet unclear what it means, what form it should take and how might one decide.” I raised this question at my well-attended session at Limmud in December. In advance, I surveyed rabbis, synagogue and community leaders, youth movement heads and community educators from across the religious spectrum, with differing views on Israel.

I tried to discover how they mark Yom Ha’atzmaut and whether they are content about it. Their answers were varied and, perhaps, surprising. One senior community professional argued that Yom Ha’atzmaut was not part of the Jewish calendar and I received mixed views about how significant Yom Ha’atzmaut should be.

One educator went as far as to argue that we should leave the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut to the Israelis. Others commented that the events hadn’t changed in 30 years or pointed to some of the difficulties, including the rabbi who explained we would attract a high attendance only if we had a discussion about current issues. One educator asked: “How can you expect to recreate Yom Ha’atzmaut in the UK in a classroom?”

Pupils at a Yom Haatzmaut celebration at Independent Jewish Day School in Hendon.

Pupils at a Yom Haatzmaut celebration at
Independent Jewish Day School in Hendon.

There is no consensus on how to celebrate the occasion or even a shared understanding of why we celebrate it, partly explained by the differing narratives and assumptions about it – is there a role for religion? Where does the Yom Ha’atzmaut story start – as far back as Abraham’s promise or Jacob’s move to Egypt or in more modern times? Is it historic or cultural?

I did not find any agreement on why it is important to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, or our motivation as a community.

Some events I have attended in the past couple of years have been motivated by showing support for the state of Israel, others have looked to celebrate a key date in Jewish history, and some have sought to be cross-community meetings. We disagree about whether Yom Ha’atzmaut is an opportunity to have an uncomplicated celebration of Israel for one day or to discuss the complexities of the country.

Even in Israel there is little convention – many there probably associate it with a family barbecue. I’m excited by the lack of clarity. It recognises we have a complex relationship with Israel.

What has surprised me (in a good way!) is the number of organisations who, for the first time in many years, have been taking a serious look at how they celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut; youth movements creating new rituals and shuls and others (eg JW3) experimenting with new types of programme.

For me and New Israel Fund, we have decided the best way we can celebrate Israel and Yom Ha’atzmaut is by connecting the community to the passion and values our partners in Israel represent, creating opportunities for people to meet and learn from pioneering Israelis who are helping to achieve an Israel that lives up to its founder’s vision.