What is the origin story of Israel's Declaration of Independence?

The Israel Story podcast tracked down the closest living relatives of the Israeli Declaration of Independence signatories to ask about what the signers wanted and what they thought of Israel now.

 David Ben-Gurion publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art building on Rothschild Street.  (photo credit: RUDI WEISSENSTEIN/GPO)
David Ben-Gurion publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art building on Rothschild Street.

The podcast Israel Story was founded in 2013 by Mishy Harman and friends, which included Ro’ee Gilron, Shai Satran, and our son, Yochai Maital. Its audio stories about unusual Israelis have branched out into live performances across the United States. Recently, Israel Story embarked on its most ambitious project to date. They tracked down the closest living relative of each signatory of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and interviewed them about who these founders were, what they wanted for our nation, and what they would have thought about Israel at 75. The result of this process is the new series titled “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Excerpted from this series is a podcast on the origins of Israel’s Declaration of Independence – “Megilat Ha’atzmaut, 664 carefully crafted words.”

The origins of the Declaration of Independence

Yochai Maital: “The closest thing we have to a founding document is our modest Megilat Ha’atzmaut: 664 carefully crafted words. Compare that to the almost 8,000 words of the US Constitution. Since the text is so short, every word counts. The words ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israel’ are mentioned a combined 45 times. The word ‘right’ is mentioned eight times. The word ‘homeland’ five times. The words ‘God’ and ‘democracy’? We’ll get to those in a minute...”

“But the story of these 664 words is perhaps the most Israeli story you could ever imagine. And the 37 people who signed the Declaration represent what was perhaps the most all-encompassing agreement ever reached in Israeli politics. In a moment when it feels like Israeli society has never been more divided, it feels important – even urgent – to talk about this ever-relevant document.”

Mishy Harman: “We’ll meet some relatives of the original signatories and explore whether they share their ancestors’ vision or have forged their own ideological paths. But first, we need to give you some background.”

 Paula Ben-Gurion stands at the fence of the Ben-Gurion home in Tel Aviv in 1955. (credit: HANS PINN/GPO)
Paula Ben-Gurion stands at the fence of the Ben-Gurion home in Tel Aviv in 1955. (credit: HANS PINN/GPO)

Yochai Maital: “In the years following World War II, the victorious British Crown – that had ruled over the embattled and contested area they called Palestine – was licking their wounds. The great empire was in shambles and dealing with a devastating recession back home. Managing and running its colonies – once its source of pride and power – was now a strain on their economy.

“All over the globe – in India, Malaysia, Ghana, Kenya, Egypt – they found themselves unwitting arbiters of bitter local feuds – among them, the mess they were dealing with in Israel/Palestine.

“It’s hard to say when they gave up on trying to broker a compromise between the Jews and the Arabs. Maybe it was after their headquarters at the King David Hotel were blown up by Jewish paramilitary organizations, killing between 90 to 120 people – British, Jewish and Arab.

“To this day, no one can agree on the exact number of casualties. The perpetrators claim they placed a warning call, urging the hotel guests to evacuate. Rumor has it that the commanding British administrator – the lanky John Shaw of Darby – who was a long way from home, responded by saying: ‘I am not here to take orders from the Jews. I’m here to give them.’

“Shaw, for his part, claims the whole story is complete hogwash. According to him, no warning whatsoever was given. Either way, not long after that, the British decided to wash their hands of the whole messy ordeal. They threw the hot potato over to the newly formed United Nations. Let them deal with it.

“Euphoric joy, spontaneous horas, broke out among the Jewish population following the vote held on November 29, 1947. History loves drama, and this one has been told and retold. We picture it like a high-takes sports match – down to the wire, a nail-biting finish. Listeners glued to their radio, marking each vote. Tallying them on the corner of a newspaper or a scrap of paper they found in the kitchen. Even the kids stopped bickering for once and joined in the tense silence.

“The truth is, it wasn’t even close. 33 for, only 13 against. But the celebrations were short-lived. The next day, violence erupted. Both sides were now busy fighting. The Jews took Haifa, Tiberias, and Safed. Arab forces surrounded and blockaded Jerusalem. Nobody paid much attention to the British, who were busy packing up as fast as they could.

“In early April 1948, the British parliament passed a decree to end the Mandate entirely by May 15. Several months earlier than planned. It suddenly dawned on Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, that a historic opportunity was before him.

“With his sharp political acumen, he understood that to make his move, he’d need as large a coalition as he could possibly muster. He quickly convened what was dubbed The National Committee. It was composed of 37 representatives from all walks of Jewish society in Israel. Haredim, Mizrahim, even the Revisionists –  his staunch rivals, who had opposed the UN resolution that had everyone dancing hora in the street a few months before – were given a seat at the table.

“Ben-Gurion’s one condition: Hebraicize your names. Meirson became Meir, Rosenblit became Vardi, Shertok became Sharett.”

“Of those 37 committee members, 13 were invited to form his inner cabinet. The predecessor of the Israeli government. The first item on their agenda was the top-secret mission of drafting a text that would declare Israel’s independence as a sovereign nation.

“But they’d have to do it quickly. Merely three weeks separated them from the British departure. Ben-Gurion turned to Pinchas Rosen, the sharpest legal mind in the group, and charged him with coming up with a first working draft.

“Rosen turned to a young lawyer he had heard of, Mordechai Beham – the sharpest legal mind in Tel Aviv – and charged him with the task. Mordechai Beham, having no one to delegate to, went home and, overburdened by the weight of history on his shoulders, couldn’t sleep.

“Like many of his generation, Beham was a dreamer. In journals he kept from the time, he would wax poetic about a Jewish-Arab empire that would be erected in the Middle East: “I sat down one morning and wrote a detailed plan, how we, residents of the Asian Near East, must unite. ‘The Near East empire’ he dubbed it. Now he was invited to take an active role in what was to come. A front seat in the making of history. But Beham was a modest man.

“‘I am no Franklin, Madison, or Hamilton,’ he thought to himself. ‘Where do I even begin?’ He started by phoning a friend – an American rabbi turned dentures factory owner by the name of Harry Solomon Davidovitz.

“Harry was a big history buff and a big admirer of the US founding fathers.

“So the two sat huddled together in a small flat in Tel Aviv. You can imagine them at a kitchen table, cups of tea in hand – Harry with his battered copy of the Constitution and the American Declaration of Independence, Mordechai with his Bible open to the Prophets and staring at a blank sheet of paper.

“A few days later, he showed up at Rosen’s office, first draft in hand. It was based on the American texts and was full of religious prose: God, the creator, the divine. Pleas to the Supreme Judge of the world.

“Mordechai’s and Harry’s initial draft opened with the sentence “Whereas the Lord God of Israel gave this land to our forefathers…”

“The actual first draft of Megilat Ha’atzmaut – a draft never handed to Rosen – was written in English and only later translated into Hebrew!

“As Rosen glanced it over, his face paled. He had just two weeks to meet the deadline, and he knew there was no way this would cut it. In his mind, he could already hear the outcries of his fellow inner cabinet members. And indeed, just as he predicted, the first meeting convened to discuss the draft was pandemonium.

“No one was satisfied. The secular socialists were revolted by its religious overtones. The haredi factions thought it sounded Christian. In a room with 13 Jews, 14 opinions surfaced. Unable to reach any conclusion, and before things got out of hand, Ben-Gurion adjourned the meeting. He asked his close friend, confidant and Charlie Chaplin look-alike Moshe Sharett, to take a stab at it with a second ad hoc committee that included four other members of the council.

“Sharett and his Musketeers got to work, and after several more days came to the assembly with what read less like a siddur (prayer book) and more like a proper legal document. The word ‘whereas’ kept repeating itself. They also made some other significant changes. A new term was introduced – they described the new country as ‘a democratic state.’

“The last significant change they made had to do with what they took out. Any trace of God was completely redacted.

“On May 12, with only three days to the deadline, the National Council reconvened. It didn’t seem like this new draft was making things any better. To complicate matters even further, the Americans got wind of the plan.

“The Americans, worried about the volatility in the region, demanded that the whole thing be delayed. Stuck in a deadlock, the National Council argued about how to proceed until 3 a.m. About half were in support of complying with the Americans, the others felt that it was now or never.

“With the clock ticking and time running out, Ben-Gurion decided to move things to a more intimate setting. He sent the group home to sleep for a few hours and took the various drafts and proposals that had accumulated by this point to his home for consideration.

“The next morning, with only two days until the British departure, he asked Moshe Sharett to come to his residence, along with his committee. But Sharett, sensing that Ben-Gurion was about to take a red pen to his entire submission, was insulted. He decided to boycott the meeting. Two members of his committee, however, did show up –  the haredi Jerusalemite Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, and the fiercely secular kibbutznik Aharon Sizling.

“In other words, a recipe for disaster.

“It turns out Sharett’s fears were not unfounded. Ben-Gurion had been busy making changes. For one, he ran a long red line, striking out the word ‘whereas’ from the opening of each paragraph. He understood that the gravity of the moment called for a text that would read more like a biblical sermon than an apartment lease or business contract .

“References to the Torah and the nevi’im (prophets) were introduced. This, he felt, would appease the religious factions. It also spoke to his own affinity for the Bible. Ben-Gurion decided to let God back in. But just a crack, at the very end of the document. He reintroduced Be’ham and Harry’s original sign off – ‘placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we affix our signatures.’

“Rabbi Maimon and Sizling read over Ben-Gurion’s amended proposition, and both were immediately up in arms. ‘How can it be,’ wondered Maimon, ‘that we are returning to our homeland after 2,000 years of exile and not mentioning God’s name even once in thanks and recognition?’

“‘What does God have anything to do with this?’ retorted Sizling. ‘We made this happen. We are declaring independence. Leave God out of it.’ He called the document ‘religious coercion’ and vowed that he would refuse to sign.

“With only one day to go, Ben-Gurion shushed the two opposing politicians.

“‘Gentlemen,’ he bellowed, ‘each one of us believes in Tzur Israel – the Rock of Israel – as he understands it. For you, Harav Maimon, Tzur Israel is the God of Israel. And for you, Mr. Sizling, it is the might of our people. Please, let’s get on with it.’

“I imagine there was some pounding on the table. The two shook hands, and the matter was settled. Invitations to the ceremony were hastily sent out: ‘Please arrive in your Sunday best,’ the letter read, ‘and keep the location top secret.’

“As this whole drama was taking place – yes, ‘God,’ no ‘God’; yes, ‘whereas,’ no ‘whereas’ – war is literally raging all around them. The Egyptians had already vowed to bomb the assembly if Israel decided to declare sovereignty.

“On Friday morning, May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion sat in his home office, looking over the text one last time. Reading sentence by sentence aloud, he practiced his delivery. As he recited the 13th paragraph: ‘The State of Israel will ensure complete equality [...] to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion and race,’ Paula, his wife, who was listening from the other room, stopped him in his tracks.

“‘And sex,’ she said.

“‘Excuse me?’ Ben-Gurion asked, annoyed at the interruption.

‘And sex. What about us? ‘Hmm...’ Ben-Gurion told her he would try it out, see how it rolled off his tongue.

“‘Sure, honey,’ he said, ‘that works.’

“With only several hours to go, the text was finally ready. Ben-Gurion’s aide rushed it off to the graphic designer, who was able to inscribe it on parchment paper in time for the ceremonial event.

“He arrived a little before 2 p.m. and was unceremoniously shooed away. War or no war, declaration be damned, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. was Ben-Gurion’s shlaftstunde, his siesta. The inscription would have to wait.

“The signatories would have to sign a blank piece of parchment, and Ben-Gurion would read the declaration from a printed piece of regular old scratch paper.

“There is one other issue that needed to be addressed. Megilat Ha’atzmaut is widely referenced and quoted as the bedrock of Israeli democracy. But in truth, the word itself, ‘democracy,’ is lacking. Although it did appear in some of its earlier iterations, in the final, signed text it’s surprisingly absent!

“But why? The truth is, there isn’t a clear answer. Only speculations. Some hypothesize that no one could agree on what the word ‘democracy’ even meant. The signatories to the Declaration were people with ideologies ranging from theocracy to communism. If Herzl himself had been given a say, he certainly would have advocated a monarchy.

“How do you even begin to bridge those differences? You don’t. You stay vague. You paint with broad strokes – sticking to generalities like ‘freedom,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘equality.’ Nice-sounding words that are harder to measure on a yardstick, harder to be held accountable for.

“Others write this off as almost an oversight. The pre-state Jewish settlement – the old Yishuv – was so thoroughly democratic that any other system of governance was unthinkable. The Jewish institutions of British Palestine held frequent open elections, with significant voter turnouts. Kibbutzim would famously hold votes on things like what color to paint the dining hall or what names to call the new sheep in the petting zoo.

“It seemed unnecessary to waste valuable real estate on the precious parchment by stating the obvious – the nascent nation would be a democratic one. It went without saying.

“So there isn’t direct talk of elections or democracy, a parliament or a judicial system. There is, however, a vague non-committal statement that a constitution shall be drafted within several months. We are, to date, still waiting for it.“

Mishy Harman: “The group that did sign the document represented many factions of the Jewish population. There were revisionists and Labor party operatives; there were communists and socialists and capitalists; kibbutznikim, moshavnikim and city folk; Haredi rabbis and atheists; 35 men and two women; 35 Ashkenazim (mainly Russians and Poles) and two Mizrahim (one Sephardi and one Yemenite). There was a single signatory who had been born in the Land of Israel and a few whose mother tongue was Hebrew.”

Yochai Maital: “On May 14, 1948, the last British troops were loaded on ships at the Haifa port. General Sir Alan Cunningham – the high commissioner of Palestine, a veteran of World War I and II, a decorated soldier who fought valiantly in theaters all over Europe and Africa, who had the Wehrmacht and the Italian army on its hind legs – lowered the British flag off its mast, neatly folded it, boarded a little dingy and sailed off toward a British warship that was waiting for him at the edge of the colony’s territorial waters.

“Meanwhile, 60 miles south, in Tel Aviv, the national assembly of a not-yet nation convened. The honorary guests showed up in their bigdei hag – their nicest apparel. Word of the secret location had gotten out, and a crowd formed outside the Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Boulevard – the house that was previously mayor Meir Dizengoff’s residence.

“With only two hours to the scheduled declaration, Ben-Gurion presented his colleagues the final version. There were still some grumblings, but Ben-Gurion pressed on. He knew that time had run out. The big moment was nigh, and no one wanted to be remembered as the guy who after 2,000 years sabotaged the founding of the state. He calls for a vote, and the Declaration is ratified – unanimously.

“It was perhaps the last time the Jewish people agreed on anything in Israel. As one historian put it to me: ‘The true miracle of Israel isn’t that we managed to stave off the enemies around us but that for a brief, fleeting moment, we came together and actually agreed on something.’

“In that cozy hall on Rothschild Boulevard, chairs were hastily assembled. The radio recording crew set up the equipment that was smuggled in from Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion took the stand and made the historic proclamation.

“After going to such great lengths to tiptoe around the sensitivities, to dismantle the literary bombs of ‘democracy’ and ‘God,’ it is perhaps ironic, or maybe symbolic, or – if you are so inclined, even ordained – that just after Ben-Gurion finished reciting the 664th word, Rabbi Maimon – our pious, God-fearing committee member – sprang to his feet in a spontaneous act of jubilation, and his lips uttered an ancient prayer: “Praised are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for helping us to reach this day.”

“Caught up in the excitement, even the die-hard communists and left-wing Mapam members all answered in unison – ‘Amen!’” ■

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com.