On the May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister, declared the establishment of the re-born State of Israel. Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) fell on the 5th day of the 2nd month of Iyar. Special days and holidays in Israel are observed according to the Hebrew calendar, which means annual dates of religious and secular celebrations in Israel do not correspond with the Gregorian calendar from year to year.
This year, on May 12, Israeli Independence Day followed as it always does immediately after Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and victims of terror. Linking these two days is intentional and important. Israel owes its very existence to those who have fought for and sacrificed their lives.
The official transition from the day of mourning to the day of celebration took place soon after sundown with an official ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery. Officials and dignitaries made speeches and there was a parade followed by a torch-lighting ceremony incorporating achievements of Israelis from all spheres of life.
Each year, the ceremony has a theme and this year’s was “courageous citizens.” The torch-lighters were chosen and approved by members of a public committee in a majority vote under the auspices of Israel’s Sports and Culture ministry. These hand-picked men and women have shown extreme bravery in many diverse situations and circumstances and have gone on to contribute to Israeli society.
One of the honorees in this year’s ceremony was Father Gabriel Naddaf, who wears a few hats. He is the Chairman of the Christian Empowerment Council, the leader of the Forum of Christian IDF soldiers and the spiritual leader of the Israeli Aramean Christian movement. He is a Greek Orthodox priest and has experienced much opposition, including death threats and ridicule even from the Greek Orthodox Church and others in Israel’s Christian Arab minority.
Hailing from Nazareth, Naddaf says that his people have erroneously been called “Christian Arabs,” when in actuality they are Arameans, descending from people who lived here in Israel since biblical times.
In 2012, this Israeli priest started a military recruitment drive in Christian communities. He spoke of enlisting more Christians into the IDF because even though conscription is compulsory for Jewish citizens, it is not for Arab citizens. The very few Arabs who did volunteer for the army experienced discrimination, and Naddaf felt that conscription for all was an important way to promote integration and co-existence. Incidentally, both his sons are currently enlisted in the IDF.
Father Naddaf has also come across much opposition because he is a Zionist and goes against popular Palestinian Liberation theology that claims Jesus was a Palestinian and that Jews do not belong in the Land of Israel. He said of Jesus, “His family were Torah-observant Jews,” and as an adult, Jesus Himself affirmed the authority of the Torah and the Prophets. He attended Synagogue on Sabbath and even taught in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, as well as observing Jewish feasts like Hanukkah and Passover.
It is very difficult to go against the grain of what the majority are saying, but Father Naddaf is courageous and quite clear. He states:
According to the Bible, the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, belongs to the Jewish people forever. So, no matter how much the Palestinian Authority tries to distort history, they cannot manipulate the Word of God to legitimize their political aims. The Promises of God to His people cannot be erased.
Of him being chosen to light the torch at this prestigious occasion, the Israeli Minister of Sport and Culture, Miri Regev said, “The uniqueness of courage is that it doesn’t distinguish between religion, ethnicity, or gender. The one parameter is a person’s character – his values, his heart, and his contribution to others.”
Click on the video below to watch Father Naddaf light the torch.
Editor’s Note: There was some controversy concerning the participation of Father Naddaf. A few days before the ceremony Israeli Channel 2 News reported that allegations of sexual harassment had been made against him. Nonetheless, Father Naddaf participated as planned. As reported by The Jerusalem Post, “Culture Minister Miri Regev publicly backed Naddaf, saying that as long as law enforcement prove otherwise, Naddaf will participate in the Independence Day torch lighting ceremony.”