In Israel itself some circles mark the day in a religious way with special services, with Hallel (with or without a b’rachah), home observances, and the feeling that a modern-day miracle is being celebrated.
Most, including the national religious groups, go on outings, have picnics and barbecues, and do other less religious things.
Others think the occasion does not require celebration, certainly not in a religious way, and object to celebrating during the S’firah period or creating a new festival.
There is a halachic problem with adding a new festival to the calendar, which is tantamount to adding to the mitzvot of the Torah. The paradox is that there is also an obligation to rejoice when Divine intervention brings salvation to the people of Israel, especially when Israel is delivered from outside powers. According to Nachmanides, we may not postpone such rejoicing until the messianic age, and even if it seems that the deliverance has come through human effort it is God who made it possible.
It is interesting to see that when Moses and the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, the Torah says, “And God delivered… and Israel saw… they believed in the Lord… then Moses and the Children of Israel sang…” (Ex. 14:30-31; 15:1). Rejoicing when something exceptional happens is natural and permissible, indeed inescapable and essential.
Yet how can we add a festival to the calendar?
We actually did so with Chanukah and Purim. Though neither occasion is listed in the written Torah, we still say a b’rachah praising God for commanding us to read the Megillah on Purim and kindle the lights on Chanukah. On both occasions there was a deliverance, even though it was not total or permanent. Yet these festivals came about over time and it took generations for them to win universal acceptance.
Yom Atzma’ut is also an occasion in process. It will find its permanent form in time: according to the last will and testament of a former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uzziel, who died in 1953 and experienced the rebirth of the State, there will come a time when the Jewish people and the world will “know and believe that the hand of the Lord has done this in order to fulfil the message of the prophets for the eternal wellbeing of His people and the whole world, which depends on Israel’s observance of the words of the Torah. Thus all the peoples will learn to know the uniqueness of God and His faith, which will bring true peace in the world, where no-one will harm his neighbour and the land will be full of knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”
In relation to interrupting the semi-mourning of the S’firah period, another former Sephardi chief rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, ruled that people could have haircuts and hold weddings on Yom Atzma’ut (see “Alei Asor”, issued by Mossad HaRav Kook).
His view was that Yom Atzma’ut is at least equivalent to Lag Ba’Omer when such things are permitted, and he pointed out that the semi-mourning of the S’firah evolved from custom and was not ordained by rabbinic regulation. Since no rabbinic decree proclaimed the period of mourning, no rabbinic decree is necessary to establish Yom Atzma’ut.
What will or will not give Yom Atzma’ut the status of a festival is the will of the people. How long it will take cannot be predicted. Much will depend on whether, like the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea, ordinary people will perceive something spiritual in the establishment and survival of Israel. The sages said, “A handmaid saw more at the Red Sea than did Ezekiel in his prophecy”.
There are signs of a resurgence of Torah in Israel. Until it becomes widespread, those who regard the State as a Divine miracle will continue to celebrate and pray that the day will come when, in Rashi’s words, “Everyone who lives in the Land of Israel will say, ‘This is my God and I will exalt Him!'”