Probing the Declaration of Independence's preparation

Professor assembles archive of early drafts to highlight document's development.

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
April 22, 2007 22:33
3 minute read.

 
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For Prof. Yoram Shachar, Independence Day 5767 will be different than those that came before. Twenty-five years of research and painstaking labor have borne fruit, yielding an archive of original documents, many rescued from oblivion, related to Israel's Declaration of Independence. The digital archive includes scans of first drafts, mostly written by the Yishuv leadership in the month preceding the May 14, 1948, signing of the Declaration. "My first goal was scientific," Shachar told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, "to create a document archive that will allow future researchers to know about the phrasing of the Declaration." But his second goal, he added with some urgency, "is to convince many people who may not even know that they are in possession of additional drafts to help me find these documents. Every passing year lowers the chances of finding them." What sort of obscure early draft of the Declaration could be missing from the public record? Ben-Gurion's personal draft written the night of May 13, for one. "Ben-Gurion would save the silliest little notes for decades," Shachar noted, "so the idea that he may have destroyed Israel's own 'Jefferson's last draft' is ludicrous. I continue to hope that somewhere in Israel, in some attic or home or even in an archive that hasn't published it, we'll find it. That's my life's hope." The archive, housed on an educational Web site at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, where Shachar teaches criminal law and is a resident expert on legal history, is growing. And alongside the documents themselves, Shachar has begun to add discussions of what he has learned from researching the drafts. "I'd like people to see the ideas of the Declaration, so that it becomes part of the public discourse," he said, since "the questions that interest us today were exactly those that interested them at the founding of the state in 1948." Young women, he believes, would be interested to know "how the promise of equality for women entered the Declaration, how uncertain it was that it would make it in, and how interesting and beautiful it was that Ben-Gurion himself, without external pressure, put it there." In addition, what should be made of the fact that the very first draft of the document was a Hebrew translation of the American Declaration of Independence? "The first moment someone put pen to paper to formulate the Israeli Declaration of Independence was when Mordechai Beham [then only recently appointed to the People's Administration's Justice Department, later the nascent state's Justice Ministry] sat in a small house on Rehov Arnon 5 in Tel Aviv and copied the American Declaration word for word," Shachar explains. "Our document developed out of that Declaration," he notes, offering another symbolic connection to "the historical connection that is today very strong between the two peoples." Some of the issues can be controversial, he added. For example, "every schoolchild knows that the state of Israel is Jewish and democratic, and says this is anchored in the Declaration of Independence. But this is not true. After Tzvi Berinson [later a Supreme Court justice], in a draft from around May 7, characterized the state as 'Jewish and democratic,' the word 'democratic' was removed. "It's important to know that when the state's founder sat down to decide what the principles of the state would be, they made a conscious decision to erase the word 'democratic' and to settle for 'Jewish.'" Certainly, "they then added [into the Declaration] several liberties and equalities, such as equality of religion, race and gender and the freedoms of conscience, education and religion, but they didn't characterize the state as democratic. I think they truly and honestly were uncertain as to the type of government they were committed to." The archive is meant to facilitate such insights into the complex ideological origins of the state's founding, he says. But first, the drafts must be recovered. Scattered in archives throughout the country, many are in poor condition and some are even falling apart. The archive Web site can be reached at http://www.idc.ac.il/megila-project/archive .

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