Yuli Edelstein, lighting the torch
Yuli Edelstein, lighting the torchFlash90

Israel transitioned from sadness to joy Monday, marking the yearly switch from Memorial Day to Independence Day at the traditional ceremony at Har Herzl just after sundown. 

Israel juxtaposes the two days to illustrate the outcome of the IDF's hard work and sacrifice - the freedom to live in a just and democratic Jewish state. 

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) also spoke at the event, giving an address before lighting the central torch. The purpose: to encourage national unity.

Edelstein addressed the issue of national identity, despite the many factions and sectors in Israel. 

"Sometimes it seems like Israel is divided into tribes - secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, from the periphery and from the Center," he said.  

But, Edelstein noted that the division is not divisive - just distinct.  He addressed his own Soviet past, noting that he was born into a society which tried to force everyone to conform to the same image and national identity.

"I was born into a society that tried to force change from the top down, by breaking and oppressing political opponents and 're-educating' them," Edelstein said. "When I made Aliyah, Israeli society welcomed me with open arms and took my family and me in as we were and as we are." Israel combines the different sectors and identities, Edelstein says - keeping them separate on the one hand, and united under a Jewish identity on the other. 

"In Israel I learned that true change takes time; that it happens through the democratic process, through limiting [governmental] powers; that law - even if accepted by most - cannot be the driving force behind societal change," Edelstein stated. "Indeed, we have made several important decisions this year, but the most important one is yet to come - a change in Israeli society: us.

"We cannot talk about human dignity as a concept, but then close our doors to an Ethiopian," he said. "We cannot enact laws which legislate 'equal burden of service' but then close our doors to welcome the hareidi community [into society].  We cannot talk about the 'blood covenant' of the Jewish people to the land, but then turn away [anyone who tires to help us, including] the Druze community, or other IDF recruits, without forming our own 'blood covenant' with them."

"We cannot allow Israel to be democratic only to those who 'deserve it' and put to the side those who are on the societal and and economic periphery," Edelstein continued. "The train may have been built [across Israel], from Kiryat Shmona to Dimona, but it cannot shorten the distance between hearts." 

Edelstein urged Israelis to embrace other sectors of society and bring them "to the heart of society and the State."

"We cannot build two States of Israel," he said. "We don't have the privilege of building two states for one people."

"Advancing society will only work if we can change from within," he concluded. "The State of Israel is ours, and we are obligated to cement its character, now and forever." 

Edelstein also made a small speech lighting his torch, acknowledging, among others, Jonathan Pollard, residents of Gush Etzion and other parts of Judea and Samaria, and residents working on settling the Golan Heights and the Negev.

Torch Ceremony: A Tribute to Women

In a new twist, fourteen women were selected to light the traditional torches at the Independence Day ceremony this year, in honor of a "special tribute to women who have dedicated their lives to the State" or were instrumental in its establishment. 

The women represented every sector of Israeli society. 

They included:

-Carmela Menashe, a seasoned veteran reporter for IDF Radio and a voice for IDF soldiers in Israel;  

-Israel's most successful tennis player and a role model for Israeli athleticism, Shahar Pe’er; 

-Maxine Fassberg, the CEO of Intel Israel; 

-Pascal Berkovich, a French immigrant who has represented Israel at the Paralympics; 

-Belaynesh Zevadia, Israel's first female ambassador to Ethiopia; 

-Tali Peretz-Cohen, a major advocate for women's rights in the face of sexual assault and other crimes; 

-Rebbetzin Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and founder of the Hareidi College in Jerusalem; 

-Miriam Zohar, a Holocaust survivor and one of Israel's most well-known actresses; 

-Dr. Kira Radinsky, a young scientific prodigy who now owns a start-up at just 27;

-Major General Orna Barbivai, Commander of the IDF’s Manpower Division and the first woman with that rank in the IDF; 

-Gal Yosef, 17, head of the national high school student council; 

-Geula Cohen, Israel Prize winner and former Likud MK; and

- Hindiya Suleiman, founder of Pninat Haemek women’s arts center.

Twelve torches were lit in honor of the twelve tribes of Israel.