The Baby’s Name

Israel is beset with a plethora of major problems today that are not very much different, in respect, from what we have had to deal with in the past. Every Israeli, when asked about “the situation,” will obviously start by an historical/political/geographic declaration on all the issues surrounding us both figuratively and literally. In fact, we Israelis are always talking about the most recent “matzav'(situation) everywhere, from coffee shops to beauty salons to the classrooms( even in the elementary schools I guess) and. of course, in the Knesset (Parliament) when there are more than a few people otherwise occupied with their computers, newspapers and imaginative doodlings.

So, it is somewhat melodramatic to discuss an extremely difficult issue that brought out much heated passionate debate even before our Declaration of Independence was read by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. As a matter of fact, even that document itself almost never came to fruition as there were a few members of the ruling (at the time) National  Council (Va’ad Le’umi) who were opposed to declaring independence in the first place.

There were those who were frightened of the oncoming Arab onslaught which was highly touted by our enemies, and the already horrific casualties caused by the local Arab population. Their unrelenting attacks on Jewish transport and the blockade of the city of Jerusalem from the coast caused much hesitation.The local Arabs, with the aid of irregular forces from across the border from Lebanon and Syria. had already killed over 1000 Jews and had carried out a wave of terror bombings, even in Jerusalem itself.These armed bands, armed, in many cases by the British, had entered the country illegally, even under the rules of the British mandate, but were ignored by the British who were still responsible for maintaining order and controlling the borders. It seems that they were more concerned with stopping Jews from entering the homeland, right up until the last minute of the mandate’s authority.

Some of the members of the governing body were very wary of declaring independence as both the American Sec’y of State, George Marshall, who was staunchingly opposed to the independence of the Jewish state and advised the US president, Harry S. Truman, that it was in the US’ interest to backtrack and negate the support for the partition of “Palestine.”  He believed that Truman was being pressed by the “Jewish lobby” which did not have American interest in mind and he even threatened to resign his position if his advice wasn’t followed .Furthermore. the continuing occupation of British armed forces in the country, gave rise to very uneasy feelings and when the Chief of Staff of the pre-state Haganah , the late archaeologist, Yigal Yadin/told Ben-Gurion that he only gave us a 50/50 chance of surviving, as we had less arms that a full sized US Army battalion and ammunition stocks that would last about three days. One can understand their hesitancy in voting for independence.

Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion made an impassioned plea that whether or not we declared our independence that the Arabs would invade and the mechanisms of a sovereign state would be extremely helpful if we needed to form alliances or purchase arms and other equipment abroad, which was the case. Also, we could not garner recognition without statehood nor could we count on the conditions that independent nations can exercise in wartime.

Then, two other issues arose. Firstly, who would write the declaration and what would it need to say and what would have to be left out. Ben-Gurion chose the late Moshe Sharett, the political advisor to the national council and its “foreign minister” who, had been one of those opposed to the declaration of sovereignty as he was strongly influenced by the US Sec’y of State, a man he admired, who also had been the Chief of Staff of all US forces in World War Two. But, he was fluent in eleven languages and even Ben-Gurion deferred to his partner’s literary skills.

When the document was given to Ben-Gurion for approval, he edited out more than 150 words, including the word “Whereas” in the beginning of each paragraph. Using the American Declaration of Independence as a guide, he also removed the provisions that the state would define its borders as the lines outlined in the partition resolution of November 29, 1947. His point was that the US document didn’t mention borders ( of the original 13 colonies) and he looked forward to increasing the area of the newborn country as the lines of partition were a horror. He also sought to rectify the painful concession that the Jews had made in the acceptance of Jerusalem as a “corpus seperatum”, a “separate body” that would not be included in the territory granted the Jewish state.

Now we come to the crux of the matter-what do we name this new nation? The Va’ad Le’umi was tasked with this role. There were several suggestions. Firstly, someone said that the name of the country should be “Zion” as that was the name of the movement that founded the state and we would be last called on in international forums and have a more relevant vote. This was objected too because it is the name of a mountain in Jerusalem and could cause confusion.

Another suggestion was “Judea” as was the name of the nation under Roman occupation and the root from which the word “Jew” was taken. Again, this was voted down as it is only the name of a region of the country. Then, someone suggested, “Medinat Yehudim” the “State of the Jews,” which was also tossed out because there would always be non-Jewish citizens among us. Finally, Ben-Gurion suggested “Israel” and the objection to that is that was the name of the northern kingdom after the split of the nation after the death of Solomon. So, the coucil added the “State of” to Israel, and that was finally adopted.

Now, that is not the end of the story. Independence was declared just before the Sabbath on Friday, May 14, 1948 and the national council contacted the representative of that body in its headquarters in Washington, DC., Eliahu Epstein (later, Eliahu Eilat) to prepare a document requesting recognition of the state and to hurry it over to the White House for Pres. Truman’s signature. Unfortunately, the name of the country hadn’t been determined yet and Mr Epstein grabbed a taxi to the White House with the phrase, “recognition of the Jewish State”. written in longhand on a piece of stationary emblazoned with the headquarters’ logo, “the Jewish Agency for Palestine.”However, during the cab ride, the name State of Israel was announced and Epstein took a pen and crossed out the words “Jewish State” and hurriedly wrote in State of Israel.  I believe this is the only request from a sovereign state asking for diplomatic recognition from the USA that has an erasure.

The ceremony itself, was wrought with problems ranging from the secrecy of the location to avoid Arab assault which was negated by the thousands of people awaiting the chosen ones to sign the paper. All the Thompson sub-machine guns in the Haganah arsenal were broken out and supplied to the security guards. The two huge flags on either side if the dais were found in the basement of the Jewish Agency building and had to be rushed to a laundromat for cleaning prior to the ceremony and the portrait of Theodor Herzl that adorns the wall of the room had to be dusted. Then, the Palestine Philharmonic was summoned to play the national anthem “HaTikvah” at the close of the ceremonial reading of the declaration, only they were missing  a few of the instruments because all the members who lived in Jerusalem could not get to Tel Aviv in time either due to the Sabbath or the Arab blockade of Jerusalem. In any case, they missed their cue and the music started late. The musicians were ensconced in a room upstairs from the ceremony. Also, as soon as the document was signed, it was rushed to a bank vault’s safe to preserve it in case the state did not survive, there would be some documentation that an independent Jewish state had arisen.

So, you think we have problems now?

About the Author
Irwin was born in New York City and is now retired. He lives in Maaleh Adumim since making aliyah 7 years ago.