This has been a sad week for me. I come from a very large family. My mother was one of ten, my father one of six. I had fourteen uncles. Last week the last survivor, my godfather Harold Hirsch (Chaim Zvi) Pearlman, passed away at the age of ninety five – as the Bible says of our Patriarch Abraham old and full of years. He was a remarkable man full of love for his large family, with a sharp intelligence and wide reading, concealed under a rich patina of humour bonhomie and charm. Above all he had a deep pride in his Jewishness and a deep love for the state of Israel.
Like many people, his life casts a light on the age in which he lived – in his case on an important but rather neglected corner of Jewish history. He was born in Sunderland to an extremely orthodox but not particularly Zionist family. He himself though was an intense Zionist from the very beginning. In 1947 he went to Israel doing work for the Jewish Agency. As a result, he was caught up in the War of Independence. According to his account he was serving in a contingent guarding a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem when they came under enemy fire. He was instructed to make a tactical retreat which meant running away as fast as possible. In doing so he fell over, broke his foot and ended up as one of the first casualties of the war. I suspect there was more to it than that, but it was typical of him to make light of his contribution, an example of the modesty, which stayed with him throughout his life.
Looking back, the birth of the state seems inevitable to us. The UN Resolution 181 gave the green light to a Jewish state in Palestine, and at the end of the mandate, the Jews took their opportunity and declared it. In fact, it was not so simple. The vote at the UN on 29th November 1947 led immediately to very fierce fighting. The US government suggested a ceasefire and a trusteeship with the declaration of statehood being delayed. Many people in senior Zionist circles were inclined to accept. Chaim was in Jerusalem where some of the delegates to the Minhelet Ha’am the National Council were stranded. The Jews there, isolated and under siege, had no idea whether a state would be proclaimed or whether the US proposal would be accepted. If a state was declared what would it be called? Judah, Ever, Ivriya and Zion were all suggested.
In the end the state was proclaimed but the problems were not yet over. A Declaration had to be made on the Friday, the last day of the Mandate. The meeting therefore was convened in secret, for fear of the British and the Arabs, at the Museum of Tel Aviv on Rothschild Boulevard for 4:00 PM. Because it was Friday the Declaration had to be made before Shabbat came in. Ben Gurion had the Declaration of Independence drafted. It was, and is, a marvellous document but it still had to be typed. The man responsible for organising this, Ze’ev Sharef got this done at the offices of the JNF in Tel Aviv cross town in Shapira Street. He forgot however to arrange transport to the Museum where the Declaration would be read.
In a panic he went out into the street and flagged down the first vehicle passing. The driver who was not properly insured didn’t want to know, but Sharef managed to persuade him. Their problems were still not yet over as they got stopped by the police for speeding. Sharef managed to persuade the cops that, as he was carrying the Declaration of Independence, they should let him go. He arrived in the hall with one minute to spare at 15:59. The Declaration was given to Ben Gurion who then read it. The rest is history. Those of us, myself included, who are critical of the actions of the Israeli government do need to remind ourselves, occasionally, that the birth of the state was not the walk in the park, that Israel’s enemies often imply. However bad things may be in Israel today and however many criticisms we may have of the current government, at least things do work.
The story has a happy ending. Sharef after his triumphs with the Declaration became a member of the Knesset, Secretary to the Government and subsequently Minister of Finance and then Housing. My uncle recovered from his wound. He met and married a beautiful Sabra- Naomi Ben Shabtai – and returned to the UK to raise a lovely family, qualify as a Barrister, and pursue a successful career in business. He fulfilled his life-long dream, returning to Israel in his old age, qualifying as a lawyer there, and finally taking full Israeli citizenship a few years before his death. He was buried in Israel next to his beloved Naomi and his funeral was attended by scores of his Israeli family – a fitting end to a long life, well lived. Yehi Zicro Baruch may his memory be for a blessing.