Dates have a key place in memory and commemoration, and an even stronger place in defining collective identity. In the United States, friends and family come together to celebrate the United States on July 4th—the day the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in 1776. The yearly act of gathering reminds the often fractious American body politic of its shared historical narrative. The Jewish calendar is full of such markers, but the question of when, or whether, to celebrate the anniversary of Israel’s founding—Yom Ha-atzmaut, in Hebrew—has always been less clear cut.
Theodore Herzl declared the Jewish state’s founding—at least to himself—on August 29, 1897, at the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland. Five days later, Herzl wrote in his diary: “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word—which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly—it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”
Herzl never saw the Jewish state come to fruition, but his fifty-year date wasn’t far off the mark— his Zionist aspirations would be realized in 1948, with the declaration of the State of Israel. The founding is officially pinpointed on two separate dates: May 14, 1948 on the Gregorian calendar and 5 Iyar, 5708 on the Hebrew calendar (Iyar is the second month of the Jewish religious year and—to confuse things further—the eighth month of the Jewish civil year). The Gregorian and Hebrew calendars are not in alignment, as anyone following the migrating dates of Jewish holidays is well aware, meaning that 5 Iyar changes from year to year—in 2023, the date falls on April 26. The differences between the calendars is also, importantly, affected by the time of day—before or after sunset in the secular calendar is a new day in the Hebrew calendar.
In Israel’s case, the establishment of its independence day relied on the withdrawal of British troops from Palestine, which the United Nations determined must happen by August 1, 1948. Amid clashes between Jews and Arabs in the wake of this declaration, the state of Israel was officially established at midnight on May 14, 1948—technically 6 Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, since the sun had set by the time the British Mandate came to an end. The declarations by the Israeli and American heads of state in conjunction with what was written down reflect this date discrepancy. David Ben-Gurion proclaimed that the State of Israel would take effect “from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of the Sabbath, the 6th Iyar, 5708.”
However, Israel’s Declaration of Independence gives the date as 5 Iyar: “with trust in Almighty God, we set our hand to this declaration, at this session of the Provisional State Council, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the fifth of Iyar, 5708, the 14th day of May, 1948.” This accords with a simple note from American President Harry S. Truman recognizing Israel’s provisional government as the de facto authority of the new Jewish state. Dated May 14th, 1948, the official recognition bears a timestamp of 6:11 p.m., which would be 1:11 a.m. May 15th in Israel—6 Iyar. Truman extended the stronger de jure form of official diplomatic recognition later, on January 31, 1949 (1 Sh’vat, 5709). That date holds little symbolic significance for Israel.
The story doesn’t end there—Israel’s use of the lunar calendar with attention to the Sabbath also means that significant days—including many Jewish holidays and fast days—are often shifted when necessary to align with Jewish custom and law. The Independence Day Law—written in 1949—states: “If the fifth day of Iyar falls on the Sabbath, Independence Day will be celebrated on the third day of Iyar of that year. If the fifth of Iyar falls on a Friday, Independence Day will be celebrated on the fourth day of Iyar of that year. If the fifth of Iyar falls on a Monday, Independence Day will be celebrated on the sixth day of Iyar of that year.” According to journalist Yonatan Sredni, the Monday provision is to avoid “potential violation of Shabbat laws by preparing for Yom Hazikaron or Yom Ha’atzmaut on the preceding Shabbat.”
A proposed 2012 bill put forth by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation sought to simplify the system so that Yom Ha’atzmaut would always fall on a Thursday. The logic was economic—Stas Meseznikov, the tourism minister at the time, claimed that this bill “will prevent special vacation days in the middle of the week, which are disruptive to the Israeli market.” In response, journalist Yonatan Sredni asked in a Jerusalem Post opinion piece, “Is there nothing sacred about the fifth of Iyar?” Seeing as Israel’s independence days are still shifting from year to year, the bill did not get the required votes in the Knesset, and the sacredness of 5 Iyar holds.
Another dimension of the Hebrew calendar is the thematic arc of the year, and where independence day falls within the chronological narrative. Moran Stern, graduate fellow in Advanced Israel Studies at Georgetown University, notes that Jewish holidays reflect a historical and narrative sequence from Pesach (from 15-22 Nisan 5783) Yom Hashoah to Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and finally Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). In her book Recovered Roots, Yael Zerubavel puts it another way: “The temporal ordering of the holidays thus symbolizes a vast movement from bondage (Passover) and victimization (the Holocaust Remembrance) through a national struggle (the Memorial Day for Israeli soldiers) to national independence (Israel’s Independence Day).” This structure, both Stern and Zerubavel conclude, reminds all Israeli citizens of the winding historical path to their modern collective consciousness.
These dates are also politically fraught—In November 2022, the UN voted to commemorate “Nakba Day” on the same date as Israeli Independence Day for the first time. The Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) refers to the violent expulsion of Palestinians from Israel during the War of Independence, as well as the ongoing Palestinian exile and occupation. While Palestinians have recognized the Nakba for decades, the UN’s planned recognition of this day in the General Assembly on May 15, 2023, adds a complicated twist. The UN plans to hold a “High-Level Special Meeting” in the morning, and a commemorative event that “will bring to life the Palestinian journey” in the evening. The UN does not openly commemorate or recognize Israel’s independence day.
As with other important holidays in Israel, the shifting dates of Independence Day are not problematic, but are rather just an aspect of normal life. Israel does not recognize the Gregorian dates of May 14th and 15th as part of their history and, in fact, the celebration hasn’t lined up to be on May 14th or 15th since 1986. Stern, when asked if the variety of dates matter for Israel’s history, responded “Not really.” The difference is made by the people, their actions, and their collective power to continue celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut for 75 years to come.
Top Image: Israel’s Founding Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, and the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Benno Rothenberg (CC BY 4.0)