Israel on Its Birthday

Families and young children with glowing necklaces and light-up ears swarmed the streets as Israel celebrated its Independence Day on Wednesday, May 7.

Pardesiya, near Netanya, had a local celebration in the center of town. Typical of most Israeli celebrations, it featured Israeli music, a fireworks display, artists and stands of food.

"It's exactly the same in every place you go in Israel," Avi Spielberg, 24, said. "The mayor will say something about achievements and progress and all kinds of boring stuff, and then the young people will all go out somewhere."

That night, over 1,000 people crowded the dance floor at a place called "Float on the Water." Overlooking a lighted lake, this party was set on a kibbutz, or an Israeli communal settlement.

The party lasted until sunrise, featuring a dance floor of Israeli music, and another stage with American pop music and techno. In the middle of the party, Israel's national anthem was played on an electric guitar to a cheering crowd.

The next day, the scents of nargila, Middle Eastern water pipes with flavored tobacco, mixed with the smells of the meat kebobs grilling at Israeli barbeques.

The topic of military service, compulsory in Israel for those over 18, is often discussed at these Independence Day barbeques.

"There is always the same feeling of pride, in Israel's army and her independence," said Spielberg, "Before you go to the army, it's about wanting to be a part of it. After, it's about what you did for your country."

Raya Epstein, 22, said that the pride she feels in the survival of her country is in direct conflict with how she feels about the current situation. "We've achieved so much in a short period of time," she said. "But this Independence Day, I rejoiced with a frown on my face.

"I'm very unhappy with the way things are going right now -- politically, socially, with our leadership, with our economic situation and our public relations to the world," she said. "I'm not proud of these things. I'm even a little embarrassed."

Israel's Independence Day began as soon as the sun set at the end of its traditional Memorial Day, May 7. "When soldiers die, it is very sad," Spielberg said, "but then begins the celebration of the life of the country ... It shows that the soldiers didn't die for nothing. It shows that I was not serving for nothing, that my kids will not serve for nothing."

Boaz Leberman, 19, said you can't really enjoy Independence Day "without realizing what it has cost to have this country."

The siren wailed for one full minute as everyone fell silent at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Memorial Day. Old and young, religious and secular, soldiers and students, all joined together at the wall and all over the country to remember Israel's fallen soldiers.

Since 1860, 22,437 soldiers have died, when the first settlers moved outside Jerusalem's walls, and of these, 65 were killed since last Memorial Day, according to Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz.

"People died for our country," Meir Trus, 17, said. "Because of them, we have the country. We feel the impact of this in every day that we are able to live our lives in safety."

Yotam Ruf, 20, a commander in the Israeli army, was at the wall when his soldiers swore into the army. One week later, he returned to the wall to commemorate Memorial Day. "Being here again tonight tells me the reason I'm here, the reason I do what I do."

Rachel Gold, 17, agreed. "Next year, we will all be in the army. That could be my friend, that could be me."

Memorial Day also commemorates those who have died in terrorist attacks. According to Ha'aretz, 1,634 civilians have been killed in terror attacks since the state's establishment, and 24 people killed since last Memorial Day.

This year has special meaning for Trus, whose brother's friend died in the last terrorist attack this March at a Yeshiva, a Jewish religious seminary for young men. "But even if you didn't personally know someone who died, it feels like a part of you has died," Trus said.

Ruf's feelings about Memorial Day have never changed. "It's no different if you're a child or a soldier," he said. "Israel is my country and that's it."

However, Epstein said there is a difference between younger and older generations within Israel -- the youth sometimes take the country for granted. "I'm too young to feel like I'm being persecuted all the time," she said. "Too young to feel the impact of the Holocaust, the wars every other decade.

"For me, it's natural we have a state. I was born and raised here," Epstein said. "I think that's a mentality in Israel that only someone in my generation or younger could feel."