To Declare Or Not To Declare

There have been many scholarly tomes on the incidents leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel from political treatises to Bible inspired works, military histories from both sides of the conflict and innumerable doctoral dissertations, newspaper articles and the endless stream of propaganda on the part of pundits, populists and pandering philanthropists.  Some, but not all of these thousands of pages have been successfully proven or juridically  investigated to be fantastic falsehoods or solid bedrock strength truth.

I won’t do any of these but try to expose some of the lesser known facts behind this event in Jewish history, probably the most seminal occurrence in that people’s history other than the Holocaust and the destruction of the Second Temple. Aha, I already can fathom the arguments over these choices but alas, I cannot hear them now.

The Declaration of the Independence of the State of Israel, in Tel Aviv, on May 14th, 1948 took place in the home of Meir Dizengoff, one of the first mayors of that city, which had been converted into an art museum albeit with a small auditorium where the event was to take place. This was on a Friday, around 4 PM in the afternoon, so as not to violate the Sabbath. Hand delivered invitations went out to members of the Jewish authorities,  chief rabbis, leaders of communal movements and many of the pioneers whose toil had created the thriving society that now, with the full, legal support of the international community, was about to take its place among the nations of the world.To preserve secrecy, to protect the ceremony from terrorist attack (either by recalcitrant Jewish opponents or Arab thugs) the venue and time were to be kept severely cloaked in a veil of secrecy-no such luck.

At 4 PM, a crowd of thousands had gathered in front of the nondescript building, David Ben Gurion, the executive chairman of the National Council, in a chauffeur driven black Chrysler with his wife Paula, guarded by a detail of Haganah( the Jewish underground defense force, well, the one that was “legal”) carrying the only Thompson (Tommyguns) submachine guns in the entire arsenal available at the moment. As he left the vehicle with the documents under his arm, he turned to the crowd and executed a very civilian style salute.

However, there was a problem as the Jewish Agency had a very limited budget for this ceremony and a few problems to clear up before it could even begin. First, they had to find some men to carry a huge portrait of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, from the basement of the building  to the floors above, dust it off, and find someone to hang it on the wall. Also, there was a difficult chore to find two large Zionist flags( the erstwhile flag of the State of Israel) long enough to hang beside the portrait. Well, these flags were found in the offices of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem but they were very dirty from being stuffed in a corner of a closet and they had to be taken to a laundry to be washed. and brought to Tel Aviv.

The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra(later the Israel Philharmonic), at least those members living in Tel Aviv, were gathered to an upstairs room above where the ceremony was to take place so they could be ready to play HaTikvah (The Hope-Israel’s national anthem) at the close of the declaration procedures.

Okay, so now you have an idea of the “glorious” beginning of the ceremony-typically Israeli, put together at the last minute with the inevitable glitches, bureaucratic mishaps and somehow, it worked. Go figure.

But the first issue presented by this opportunity was not where to hold the ceremony, but to have one at all! Up until the very end, there were voices opposed to declaring independence.  There were those who were afraid that declaring independence would unalterably create the conditions for war and they were even amenable to either approaching the British to remain or to have the United Nations cancel the partition resolution altogether and adopt the mandate as a trusteeship under the care and control of the international body. There were also religious objections to Jewish independence as the messiah had definitely not arrived as yet. Of the 13 members of the Va’ad Le’umi (National Council), three members voted against independence.

The Va’ad Le’umi chose Moshe Shertok( later Sharett), the head of the political department of the Jewish Agency, a dignified man, fluent in 11 languages, to write the declaration.   He wrote a brilliant paper in florid and majestic Hebrew, using both the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man  as examples of internationally recognized documents and, of course, the Torah, as his resources to produce what would be one of the most important documents in Jewish history.

It was submitted to Ben Gurion for final approval and, being a man of the people, although well educated and an established linguist in his own right, starting scratching out sentence after sentence as being “too flowery.” The first words he erased was the word “Whereas” at the beginning of each paragraph.

Be that as it may, there were three basic problems to be dealt with first before the document could be presented to the nation.

First, what would be the name of the new country? There were many suggestions, but these were the most debated-first, the name “Zion” was thought of, but it was rejected because this is another name for Jerusalem and a mountain that is part of it. Then, “Judea” was nominated, but that was really the name of the southern part of the land. Another suggestion was “Medinat Yehudim”, “The State of the Jews,” but all knew that there would be non-Jewish citizens of the new nation. Ben Gurion suggested “Israel” even though this was the name of the destroyed northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 722BCE, it was the name mostly associated with the Jewish people throughout history-so it was adopted.

The second issue was whether to delineate the borders of the country as proposed by the partition resolution of November 29, 1947. Some of the members of the council believed that doing so was to further cement the legal right of the people to the land in the eyes of the UN and create the proper atmosphere to halt the terrible fighting that had already cost hundreds of lives in the mandate as Arabs and Jews had been killing each other in an undeclared war for survival before the exit of the British authorities.

However, there were those who believed that to limit the territory of the state was, in itself, a defeat and would make the Jews give up all the gains that they had won through bloodshed during the period up to the state’s founding. Many of the lands that were to become a part of the State of Israel after the War of Independence, had been won previous to the invasion of the Arab armies on May 15th, 1948. These included the city of Yaffo, Nahariyyah, most of Haifa, Zefat, Tverya and much of the western Galillee.

The decision not to delineate the borders was made by Ben Gurion for two reasons-one, the American Declaration of Independence does not mention only the original 13 colonies as the limits of territoriality and his military advisors, although in dangerous and somewhat precarious shape, had assured him that they would be able to withstand any aggression once there was independence because the machinery of a state would permit them to open the ports to immigration(for men of military age) and assure the flow of arms from abroad that were sitting in warehouses waiting for the permission to proceed.

Furthermore, there was no limit placed on the partition boundaries as to the phrase in the declaration that avers to the State of Israel WITHIN the Land of Israel, thereby evidencing the right to the remainder of the land should that become possible at some future date.

Now, there was the thorny issue of whether or not to mention G-d in the paper. Stormy debate proceeded this decision as the religious members of the council questioned how could we declare the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty without thanking the deity? There was vociferous opposition to this by the socialists and many of the members who were avowedly anti-religious and who threatened to boycott the ceremony, indeed to vote against independence, if there was any mention of religion whatsoever. This is a problem that is still exhibited in Israel to this day-the argumentation between the secular and the religious.

Ben Gurion, as close as he was to Jewish tradition and a man who was not religious in the classical sense, made a suggestion that the term “Tzur Israel”, “Rock of Israel” be employed as it was ambiguous enough to satisfy the religious opposition as it could be interpreted by them as meaning G-d and for the secular representatives to define as the strength of the nation. And you thought the Thomas Jefferson had a problem????

Well, the afternoon of the ceremony arrived, the delegates were gathered before the dais where the members of the Va’ad Le’umi were seated under the huge portrait (freshly dusted) of Theodor Herzl, bracketed by two long (freshly laundered) Israeli flags, with the few members of the Palestine(Israel) Philharmonic seated on the upper floor (busily handing out last minute copies of HaTikvah) when David Ben Gurion rose to read the declaration from the typed noted that he had written the night before as the parchment was not yet prepared. You see, they had to find a parchment that could be used and when they found one in the museum, it had to be chemically treated first and it wasn’t ready. After reading the short document, all the members present were asked to sign it, but what they actually signed was a blank page-they later signed the parchment when it was ready.

As a sop to the chief rabbis, the Sh’hechayanu prayer was recited (Ben Gurion had no kippah so he put his handkerchief on his head) and the orchestra, a little late as their cue wasn’t given on time, played Hatikvah and everyone sang what was to be the national anthem of the State of Israel. Then, the people quickly departed the meeting hall and Ben Gurion, noting the hundreds outside the building wrote, in his diary, “Tonight they are dancing, tomorrow they will be fighting.”

The signed paper was quickly rushed to the vault of a bank because if the state were not to survive the Arab invasion, there would be proof that Israel had existed, even for a short while.

When Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel arrived in the newly declared State of Israel, he requested to be permitted to sign the declaration-he was denied that privilege by Ben Gurion as he was told that since he wasn’t in the country at the time, he could not sign. I believe that this was sheer pettiness on Ben Gurion’s part to deny this to a man, who had been the most representative and distinguished leader of the Zionist movement  since the end of the First World War  and certainly, without whose strength of character and unceasing diplomatic skills, the state would never have come into being,

Most of us know that a scant 11 minutes after the closing of the ceremony in Tel Aviv, that the United States was the first country to recognize Israel. How did this happen so quickly? The representative of the Jewish Agency in Washington, DC, Eliahu Epstein( later Eliahu Elath) drafted a short, one paragraph request for recognition to present to the American president, Harry S. Truman. However, when he wrote the paper, no one yet knew the name of the country, so Epstein wrote in the phrase “the Jewish state,” and grabbed a taxi to the White House. While sitting in the cab, the radio announced the name “State of Israel,” and he quickly took a pen from his pocket, crossed of the words Jewish state and wrote in State of Israel. When Truman received the note, he laughed and thoroughly accepted the informal request.

Oh, the Soviet Union was not, as many think, the second nation to recognize Israel, it was, in fact, Guatemala. The representative of Guatemala at the UN, Jorge Garcia-Granados, was one of the most vocal and strenuous supporters of the Zionist position at the UN and was supremely vital in getting the Central and South American countries to support the partition resolution that has given international recognition to the rights of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland. Israel’s claim to legitimacy is a part of international law, no matter what others might say-they are either fools at best or vicious anti-Semites at the least.

Everyone seated at that ceremony knew that Arab armies were poised to invade the very next day. In fact, Egyptian bombers hit Tel Aviv that night. Ben Gurion went out to the street when the air raid sirens sounded the all clear and saw his people, looking unafraid and with a new found light in their eyes and a new found strength in their arms. He saw them, for the first time as independent citizens of a free and sovereign Jewish state. They were now, the masters of their own destiny.

He went back to his room, opened his diary, and wrote two simple Hebrew words, which, in my humble opinion, could serve as the national motto of my homeland. He wrote, “Eleh yamduh,” “These shall stand.”

And so we shall, forever.

Shabbat Shalom from Maaleh Adumim in liberated Israeli Yehudah, guarding the eastern approaches to Jerusalem, the eternal, united and indivisible capital of the Jewish people.


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.