The Declaration of the State of Israel on 14th May, 1948 saw the fulfillment of this Prophecy. The Rebirth of Israel as a Homeland for the Jews in exile around the world, would be the forerunner for the eventual fulfillment of the Biblically foretold establishment of the Reunited 12-Tribed Kingdom of Israel.
One Day that shook the World
By Elli Wohlgelernter
“Jerusalem Post” – Israel 50th Jubilee, April 30, 1998
The story behind the drafting and signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence was dramatic political theater, played out under war clouds poised to burst.
When Golda Meyerson – later Meir – waited to step up to the podium to add her name to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, her thoughts went back to the legends she learned as a child in Milwaukee, as she writes in her memoirs:
“From my childhood in America, I learned about the Declaration of Independence and the geniuses who signed it. I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And here I am signing it, actually signing a Declaration of Independence. I didn’t think it was due me, that I, Goldie Mabovich Meyerson, deserved it, that I had lived to see the day. My hands shook. We had done it. We had brought the Jewish people into existence.
“Whatever price any of us would have to pay for it, we had recreated the Jewish national home. The long exile was over. Now we were a nation like other nations, masters – for the first time in 20 centuries – of our own destiny,” she continued.
“All I can recall about my actual signing of the proclamation is that I was crying openly, not able even to wipe the tears from my face… David Pincus asked me why I was crying and I said, ‘one, because of the honor, and two, because there are people missing here… who had more of a right to be here and sign’… I wept almost beyond control.”
Others may not have wept, yet they felt their date with destiny.
Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), soon to be the first foreign minister, later recalled in his diary that he signed with “a sense of excitement together with a clear premonition of danger such as a man might feel while standing on a cliff, ready to leap into a yawning chasm. We felt as though we stood on a very high crest, where roaring winds were brewing about us, and that we had to stand fast.”
Others were biblically inspired. Haim Shapira, a leader of Hapoel Hamizrahi, a forerunner of the National Religious Party, said later that he felt he was reliving the words of the psalmists: “When the Lord caused us to return to Zion, we were as dreamers.” [Psalms 126:1]
It was, said Shapira, “a dream, a dream which we had never believed would come true in our lifetime. A miracle had happened.”
This was a hard-fought miracle. Three dates led up to it: August 30, 1897, when the First Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, adopted the ‘Basel Program’ resolutions, which proclaimed Zionism’s aim “to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael to be guaranteed by international law”; November 2, 1917, when the Balfour Declaration gave voice to British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; and November 29, 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
While the UN vote granted the right, it was Britain’s decision to leave on May 15, 1948 that gave Israel’s founding fathers their impetus to proclaim independence.
Not that the decision was made without debate. There was strong opposition from Zionist leaders in the US who lobbied for postponement, partially due to pressure from the State Department.
But David Ben-Gurion sensed that it was now or never, and pushed to have statehood declared as the British were about to leave.
On Wednesday, May 12, (1948) the National Administration (Minhelet Ha’am), the quasi-cabinet known also as “the 13,” met in Tel Aviv to discuss a draft of the declaration, which had been crafted mostly by Sharett, with help from other appointed members of the drafting committee: David Remez, Felix Rosenbleuth, Aharon Zisling and Shapira.
It is not surprising that with such disparate backgrounds among “the 13,” there was much wrangling over many specifics. The first argument was over what exactly should be declared.
Shertok, following discussions in the United States with high-ranking officials of the Truman administration, proposed the formation of a government, rather than a state. Rosenbleuth proposed the declaration of a state, within the framework of the UN partition resolution. Ben-Gurion decided on declaring a state “on the basis” of the UN vote.
Rosenbleuth and Behor Shitrit wanted the borders to be defined, but Zisling and Ben-Gurion were opposed. Ben-Gurion pointed out that the United States had not defined any borders when it declared independence, and besides, who knew where the borders would be at the end of the pending war?
“We accepted the UN resolution, but the Arabs did not,” Ben-Gurion said. “They are preparing to make war on us. If we defeat them and capture western Galilee or territory on both sides of the road to Jerusalem, these areas will become part of the state. Why should we obligate ourselves to accept boundaries that in any case the Arabs don’t accept?”
Ben-Gurion’s motion for non-designated borders passed by a vote of 5-4 – there were four members who couldn’t make the meeting.
Then an even bigger question came up: What was the state to be called?
Proposals included “Zion,” the “Jewish State,” “Judea,” the “Land of Israel,” “Yehuda,” and “Ever,” from the Hebrew Ivri.” Ben-Gurion put forth “Israel,” and the name passed 6-3.
It was also agreed that independence would be declared at 4 p.m. that Friday – so as not to conflict with Shabbat – at the Tel Aviv Museum.
Shertok worked with the committee on revisions to the declaration the next day, presenting a final version when the National Administration met that evening at 6. Criticized as too long, and with details still being debated, the document was handed to Mizrahi’s Rabbi Yehuda Fishman, Zisling, Shertok and Ben-Gurion to finalize. Ben-Gurion worked overnight preparing a final draft, cutting out a quarter of the prose and adding a new opening paragraph:
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world.”
The next morning, Ben-Gurion submitted his text to the subcommittee, which approved it.
Shertok, meanwhile, had decided the night before that there should be an English translation of the text, for distribution worldwide. Beginning at 10 p.m. after the National Administration meeting had ended and working till 4 a.m., Shertok and his aides, using the Bible, the American Declaration of Independence, and Winston Churchill’s speeches as models, drafted the English text.
At 1:50 p.m. on Friday, 25 members of the National Council (Moetzet Ha’am) – 11 members were stuck in besieged Jerusalem, and one was overseas – met at the Jewish National Fund building to approve it. There were only two hours left before the signing ceremony was to begin.
MEIR WILNER, REPRESENTING the Communist Party, proposed adding denunciations of the British Mandate and British military bases. Shertok argued that it would be out of place. Wilner also protested that the council’s procedures weren’t democratic. Ben-Gurion replied that “There isn’t time for meetings in the emergency crisis.”
Meir Grabovsky wanted to include the mention of Displaced Persons Camps in Europe, and also add the word “language” to the paragraph guaranteeing freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture, to ensure that Arabic would share equal status with Hebrew.
Ben-Gurion agreed in principle, while stressing that Hebrew should be the main language.
Perhaps the biggest argument, brought up at each preceding meeting, was over including “God” in the declaration. David Pinkas, a representative of Mizrahi, wanted the document to begin, “The Land of Israel was promised to the Jewish people in the Torah and by the prophets”; others wanted no mention – or even a hint – of a deity.
A compromise was reached to use the phrase “Tzur Yisrael,” now translated as “Rock of Israel.” Shertok had translated it as “Almighty God,” and those words were used until an official version in 1962 changed it to “Rock of Israel.” But objections were raised even to the “Tzur Yisrael” idea.
“The strongest opponent of the use of God’s name was Zisling,” recalls Zerah Warhaftig, then of Hapoel Hamizrahi, and one of two surviving signers (see following articles).
“Even when we decided already, and came to a compromise on ‘Tzur Yisrael,’ he was trying up to the last minute to make a change, to take it out,” Warhaftig recalled.
But Ben-Gurion stepped in: “Each of us, in his own way, believes in the ‘Rock of Israel’ as he conceives it. I should like to make one request: Don’t let me put this phrase to a vote.”
He then asked the council for a vote on the whole text by two ballots, and added that council members stuck in besieged Jerusalem had approved it that morning.
“Now I ask all those in favor of the present text as a whole to raise their hands,” Ben-Gurion said.
The council also voted to repeal the White Paper of 1939, and Mandatory ordinances of 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1945, which had outlawed immigration, land transfer and the Hagana. All other laws were to remain in effect pending future legislation.
The meeting adjourned at 3 p.m., leaving council members about an hour to change clothes, freshen up and get to 16 Rothschild Boulevard.
The declaration of statehood was not a publicly declared event, as there were fears that the British – who still held nominal authority until midnight – might try and stop it and that Arab armies would move up plans to attack.
The one-page invitation to the ceremony, sent out by messenger that morning, included a paragraph saying:
“We urge you to keep secret the contents of this invitation and time of the council meeting.”
It urged guests to arrive at 3:30, and instructed them on the bottom: “Dress: dark festive attire.”
Ben-Gurion wore a suit, tie and tie clasp. Three delegates, sticking to Palestinian tradition, wore jackets sans ties.
Despite the secrecy, hundreds of people began gathering outside the hall as soon as military guards started to cordon off the street in early afternoon. Thousands more tuned in to the Voice of Israel to hear the station’s first direct broadcast.
Inside, the guests – estimated at 250 – including representatives of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, leaders of political parties, cultural personalities, the chief rabbis, the Hagana chief of staff Yigael Yadin, and others – were all tightly packed inside the small hall. Newspaper editors and correspondents made up the largest group of those present.
Ze’ev Sharef, secretary of the National Administration, had stayed at the JNF building, waiting for the final draft of the declaration to be typed. While speeding to get to the Tel Aviv Museum on time, his driver was stopped by a policeman, who tried to give them a ticket. The officer backed down when it was explained to him that there was no authority behind the ticket, and that he was delaying the proclamation of statehood.
At exactly 4 p.m., Ben-Gurion banged his wooden gavel to open the session. The crowd rose spontaneously to sing “Hatikva.”
“I shall now read to you the scroll of the Establishment of the State, which has passed its first reading by the National Council,” Ben-Gurion announced.
He proceeded to read the first 10 paragraphs, in essence the preamble, which explained the background for declaring independence: the history of the Jewish people, its struggle to renew a national life in its own land, and international recognition of its right to do so.
Ben-Gurion’s voice then rose as he read the decisive 11th paragraph: “Accordingly, we the members of the National Council, representing the Jewish People in Palestine and the World Zionist Movement, have met together in solemn assembly today, the day of termination of the British Mandate for Palestine; and by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish People and the Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel].”
Members of the audience rose in unison, cheering and applauding. Some burst out in tears.
Ben-Gurion then read on, outlining the principles of freedom, justice, peace and equal social and political rights which were to guide the new state, to the last section, which called upon the Arabs to preserve peace, while extending an offer of peace and good neighborliness to all neighboring states and their peoples, and appealing to the Jewish people in the Diaspora to rally around the Jews of the Land of Israel.
“With trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand to this declaration, at this session of the Provisional State Council, on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the fifth of Iyar, 5708, the 14 of May, 1948.”
It had taken him 16 minutes to read the 979 words of the declaration. “Let us accept the Foundation Scroll of the Jewish State by rising,” Ben-Gurion told the assembled dignitaries, and then called on Fishman to recite the Sheheheyanu blessing.
Ben-Gurion also read out the resolution annulling the White Paper, which was adopted unanimously. Then he signed a blank parchment attached to Sharef’s typed version of the declaration. Sharef read out council members’ names alphabetically in Hebrew. Each one rose and came to the podium to sign.
As an act of defiance against the exclusion of God’s name in the text, Fishman added the initials for “With God’s help” before signing his name. When Herzl Vardi (Rosenblum) went up to sign, Ben-Gurion barked, “Sign Vardi, not Rosenblum,” referring to the journalist’s writing pseudonym. Ben-Gurion explained later that he had wanted more Hebrew names on the document.
Rosenblum subsequently had his name legally changed to Vardi, but he never really used it, and lamented about how Vardi was to remain his name in history. “Oh, he was cursing himself,” recalls Wilner, the other surviving signer. He really regretted doing it – ‘I made such a mistake. How could I do it?’ “[Eliezer] Kaplan refused [to change his name], but he had a good idea. He said ‘call me KapLAN. Now I have a Hebrew name,’ ” Wilner adds. Warhaftig recalls Ben-Gurion trying to pressure him as well.
“At the beginning he was calling me ‘Amitai,’ but I never agreed to change my name, because my parents [who emigrated before him] didn’t change their name. My father was a great Torah scholar, and he published books with his name. These books were already my legacy, and I also published under my name.
“I said, ‘I am an oleh to Eretz Yisrael, with my name, as I am – I don’t have to change my name.’ I was against it, I didn’t agree. He tried to fight – he tried to convince me once, twice, three times. I said no. He knew I was going to sign Warhaftig.”
Space was left by the 25 signers for the 12 council members not present. When Wilner signed, he left a line blank for Warhaftig, who should have preceded him, alphabetically.
But when Warhaftig came to Tel Aviv three weeks later, he put his John Hancock not in the reserved spot, but next to Ben-Gurion’s name. The blank space that remains has been the subject of rumor and fable ever since.
“There were all kinds of explanations,” says Wilner. “They wanted to isolate me, to stress that even a communist agreed – I heard all kinds of opposite commentary.
“But the truth is simple,” he says laughing. “They asked to leave room for Warhaftig – his ‘vav’ came before mine. I signed where they asked me to sign.”
So why was the space left blank?
“According to the alphabet I should have been there,” Warhaftig says shaking his head, still puzzled by this asterisk of history 50 years later. “There was a place in the first column, I don’t know why he [Ben-Gurion] didn’t let me sign there. But he had me sign next to him – he was the first in the first column, I was the first in the second column. Why he did it I don’t know, he didn’t say.”
When Shertok, the last of the 25 signers that day, penned his name, the crowd rose and began singing Hatikva again, accompanied by the 70-member Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra.
When they had finished, Ben-Gurion declared: “The State of Israel is established. This meeting is adjourned.”
After 1,878 years in exile, it had taken 32 minutes for the Jewish nation to be declared reborn.
Seven-and-a-half hours later, when the British mandate in Palestine expired at the stroke of midnight, Israel officially came into existence. It was 6 p.m. in Washington. Eleven minutes later, the White House released a statement signed by president Harry Truman:
“This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel.”
Guatemala was next to offer recognition, followed by the Soviet Union, which went one better than the US by granting de jure recognition.
At 5:25 a.m. the next day, May 15, 1948, the first Egyptian bombs fell on Tel Aviv. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq joined in the attack. The War of Independence had begun.