Birthing pains

The last living witness to the Declaration of Independence talks about his experience.

israel declare nation 29 (photo credit: GPO)
israel declare nation 29
(photo credit: GPO)
Arieh Handler participated in Israel's birth on two separate occasions. The lesser event, in his view, was on May 14, 1948, when he was among some 200 persons invited to the Tel Aviv hall where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the state. Handler, 93 this month, is believed to be the only one of those present still alive. The other occasion took place a month earlier in the auditorium of a girls' school on Tel Aviv's Rehov Frug. The Va'ad Hapoel Hatzioni, the parliament of the world Zionist movement, met there for six days to weigh the imminent departure of the British and the prospect of all-out war. Handler, a delegate of the religious Hapoel Hamizrahi movement, recalled in a recent interview the electric atmosphere at that April meeting as the participants took their places in the small hall, delegates grouped at separate tables according to party. At the front, facing them, sat Ben-Gurion and other leaders of the Labor movement, including Golda Myerson (Meir) and Moshe Shertok (Sharett). Fighting with Palestinian Arabs was already raging around the country, Jerusalem was surrounded, and several Arab armies were preparing to invade in a month on the heels of the departing British. Topping the meeting's agenda, however, was a political issue - the startling shift in the position of Washington toward Israel's establishment. President Harry Truman's approval half a year before of the UN partition proposal, and America's pressure on other countries to do likewise, had been major landmarks in the march toward a Jewish state. However, strong objections from the State Department and American defense officials had brought second thoughts. Washington's backing of a Jewish state, the officials argued, would undermine American influence among oil-rich Arab states and provide the Soviet Union an opportunity to penetrate the Middle East. On the basis of the Hagana's limited skirmishing thus far, secretary of state George Marshall and other officials were dubious about the ability of the Jews to repel the regular Arab armies. They warned against the overstretched American army being drawn into the conflict. Some senior officials in Washington argued that a state formed in good part by immigrants from Eastern Europe would inevitably go communist. In mid-March, Washington's shift took concrete form when the American ambassador to the UN proposed to that body abandonment of the partition plan and its replacement with a United Nations trusteeship that would serve as a stopgap until another political solution could be found. Truman expressed anger at this State Department initiative but he urged the Zionists to delay the Proclamation of Independence in order to forestall an imminent Arab invasion. According to the official account of the Va'ad Hapoel meeting, participants from all parties were united in decisively rejecting Truman's proposal. As Handler remembers it, however, this summation did not reflect the spirit of the meeting. "Every party was divided on the issue, including mine." Even Chaim Weizmann, the grand old man of the Zionist movement, was not dismissive of the American proposal, according to Handler. "He advocated waiting a little bit [before declaring independence]. He believed that whatever we did must be in conformity with the great powers." Weizmann was in New York but sent Abba Eban from there, as Handler remembers it, to speak on his behalf. Shertok, the future foreign minister, was likewise not eager to challenge Washington. The two principal American Zionist leaders were divided on the issue - Rabbi Stephen Wise opposing the American proposal, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver favoring it. THERE WERE weighty reasons to hesitate about proceeding without American backing. Washington had placed an arms embargo on the Middle East which affected the Jews but not the Arabs, who were getting their arms from the British and French. But the Yishuv - the Jewish entity in Palestine, numbering 650,000 - counted heavily on American political support and was seeking to raise desperately needed funds in the United States. "The Arabs were quite strong and the British didn't like us," said Handler. "We didn't know whether we could oppose the British empire." Some delegates favored accepting the American proposal for very different reasons; they believed that if the partition proposal were scrapped the Jewish state could expand beyond the territory allocated to it in the UN resolution. The debate was stormy, Handler remembers, and lasted close to six hours. "It seemed at times that people might come to blows." In the end, it was Ben-Gurion who decided the issue with a passionate speech. Despite the fact that neighboring Arab states had 40 times the population of the Yishuv, he said, and despite the abundance of weapons in the hands of the Arabs and the assistance they were receiving from the British, no Jewish settlement had yet been captured or abandoned. (This would change shortly.) The most difficult test still lay ahead, with the incursion of the Arab armies, he said, but the Yishuv would prevail if it summoned up the powers inherent in it. When the issue was put to a vote, Ben-Gurion won a clear victory. "We have decided," said the concluding resolution, "relying on the authority of the Zionist movement and the support of the entire Jewish people, that upon the termination of the mandatory regime there shall be an end to foreign rule in Palestine and the governing body of the Jewish state shall come into being." Says Handler: "This event was more important than the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence. We felt at the time very clearly that the meeting was decisive." Handler, who was among those Hapoel Hamizrahi delegates who voted with Ben-Gurion, recalls that an esteemed Hapoel Hamizrahi elder, Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan), was among those who voted against. It was clear to Handler that a difficult war was in the offing. "But I was so encouraged when I saw the enthusiasm of Ben-Gurion and his Labor colleagues. Ben-Gurion was almost the only person who didn't care what the US or Britain said. Or Russia." BEN-GURION'S leadership would be demonstrated again on May 12, two days before the independence proclamation, when he addressed the newly formed provisional government (Minhelet Ha'am). He had less reason to be optimistic now than the previous month. He had just learned from Golda Meir, who had returned from a secret visit to Amman in Arab dress, that Jordan's King Abdullah would reinforce the attack against the Jewish state with his crack Arab Legion despite his earlier promises to the contrary. Ben-Gurion had also heard with dismay the appraisal of Yigael Yadin, the Hagana's operations chief, that the Jewish army had no more than a 50-50 chance, probably less, of holding its own. With the weight of Jewish history and the fate of the Jewish population of Palestine resting squarely on his shoulders, Ben-Gurion projected a clear vision and a self-assurance that carried the hesitant with him. Coolly outlining the options facing the still unborn state, he said that if the British maintained their blockade and continued to prevent arms and reinforcements from reaching the Yishuv, the situation would indeed be dire. "I don't say hopeless, but there is the possibility that the Arabs would take control of the whole country and every settlement, if not worse." However, it was more likely, Ben-Gurion said, that there would be no blockade. In that case, Israel would win, although not without heavy casualties and the loss of some settlements. The Hagana's successes to date, he warned, had created unrealistic expectations. Noting the look on Golda Meir's face upon learning that day of the loss of 70 men in battle, he said it was vital to prepare the population for the inevitability of heavy losses. There were only 13,000 men in military formations at present, he said, but they would be supplemented by some 15,000 men from kibbutzim and other settlements who would be formed into mobile units rather than continuing to protect only their own settlements. More men would be recruited, including Holocaust refugees arriving from British detention camps in Cyprus. Women and children would have to be evacuated from some frontline settlements even though, he said, not even Tel Aviv was entirely safe. "The question is, is there a realistic chance of standing up to the [Arab] invasion or not? My answer is that by expanding [military] manpower and training, and by expanding our supply of armaments, mainly by bringing in what we have already acquired abroad, we can stand and we can win decisively, not without losses and severe shocks." The decision by the Va'ad Hapoel to proclaim independence was now put to the provisional government which approved it, barely, 6-4. POSTPONEMENT OF independence, says Handler, would have cost the Zionist camp precious political momentum and would likely have lost it the important support of the Soviets. Moscow was an enthusiastic supporter of a Jewish state in the expectation that the Labor Party leadership would bring it into the socialist camp. "If we had followed America [and postponed independence], Russia would have backed off and would have been trouble. I was convinced, and still am, that if we had waited there would not have been a state." Handler had already seen historical opportunity slip away in the 1930s when, as a young Zionist official in Germany, he attempted to acquire foreign visas for German Jews - with the assistance of the Gestapo, no less. The refusal of the West to open wide its doors sealed the fate of German Jewry. Born in Bohemia, part of today's Czech Republic, Handler began his Zionist activities in the German city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, where his father had established a prosperous metal enterprise. There were 2,000 Jews in the city, including 200 in the Orthodox community to which the Handlers belonged. In 1935, at 20, Arieh attended the 19th Zionist Congress in Lucerne, Switzerland. He found the delegates not sufficiently focused on the implications of the Nazi rise to power two years before. "It was clear to me that this was a life-or-death situation but they were arguing [internal] politics. The tragedy was that they did not relate seriously enough to the existential danger." At that congress, Ben-Gurion was elected to the Jewish Agency Executive and Weizmann returned as president. Notable by their absence were the Revisionists, led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who had seceded from the mainstream Zionist movement to establish their own movement after their call for a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan was rejected. Moving to Berlin, Arieh was named director of Religious Youth Aliya, which sought to send German Jewish youths to Palestine. It was a task that brought him to the attention of the Gestapo. "Until 1938, the Nazis were interested in having the Jews leave Germany, not killing them," says Handler. The Gestapo summoned him and a handful of others engaged in aliya work and offered to cooperate. Jews who obtained a foreign visa were permitted to leave Germany but were not permitted to return. Aliya officials like Handler, however, were issued special papers by the Gestapo enabling them to come and go in order to expedite their work. "There was one condition. We had to report to the Gestapo on what we did abroad and our success in obtaining visas. We had to give them a typewritten report after each trip in eight copies." On one such trip to London, Handler called on Rabbi Joseph Hertz, chief rabbi of the British empire. Hertz was deputy chairman of a movement calling for boycott of Germany, so Handler thought it best to leave the meeting out of his report to the Gestapo. A few weeks after his return to Berlin, he received a telephone call in his office ordering him to report to Gestapo headquarters a few blocks away. The official who summoned him said that postal authorities had intercepted a shipment of 1,000 Bibles sent to him from London by Rabbi Hertz whom Handler had evidently visited. Why had he not mentioned this in his report? Handler said the visit had been only a courtesy call and he had not considered it relevant to the report. He was not punished. The Nazis did not permit German Jewry to send delegates to the Zionist congresses, held every second year in Switzerland. But the Gestapo permitted the aliya functionaries from Germany to attend so that they could urge foreign Zionists to persuade leaders of their home countries to expedite the issuance of visas to German Jews. Handler was permitted to visit Palestine on the same mission. He was there in November 1938 when hundreds of synagogues in Germany were gutted on Kristallnacht and tens of thousands of Jews sent to concentration camps. Josef Burg, a future cabinet minister in Israel with whom Handler worked closely in Berlin, sent a coded message to Youth Aliya headquarters in Jerusalem warning Handler that he faced arrest if he returned. He traveled instead to London and it was from there that he attended the 1939 Zionist Congress in Basel. "The penny by now had dropped," he says. "At the congress's final session, Weizmann had tears in his eyes when he said good-bye to the delegates returning to Germany and Eastern Europe." At the first postwar congress in 1946 in Basel, Handler would see the few who had survived. His parents had managed to get out on the eve of the war. Of the 500,000 Jews in Germany when the Nazis rose to power, close to half had perished. "If the West had given visas before 1938, all the Jews of Germany could have been saved," he says. Handler was in England when World War II broke out and remained there until 1948. He arrived in Tel Aviv on the eve of independence and assumed a senior role in the Hapoel Hamizrahi movement. It was in this capacity that he participated in the Va'ad Hapoel meeting and witnessed the signing of the independence proclamation in the former home of Tel Aviv's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, Sderot Rothschild 16. The building, which had been converted into an art museum, was fitted out with a podium and chairs for the proclamation on Friday, May 14. Everyone in the hall, even Ben-Gurion, wore a dark suit and tie. Rising on the dais promptly at 4 p.m. as scheduled, Ben-Gurion began reading the proclamation of independence, which he had rewritten from a draft by Shertok. "...The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave the world the eternal Book of Books... With trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand to this declaration." The ceremony was over in half an hour and synagogue goers hurried home to prepare for Shabbat. After prayers and dinner with his family, Handler joined Tel Avivians dancing in the street, an extraordinary departure for him and other Orthodox Jews from the normal sobriety of the day of rest. They knew what lay ahead - a grueling war - but they still did not know if they would get the recognition of Washington that would confirm the state's legitimacy. TWO DAYS earlier, a decisive meeting had been held on this issue in the Oval Office. Truman was now of very mixed mind about supporting a Jewish state. The anti-recognition arguments made by Marshall and the State Department about Arab oil and Soviet penetration could not easily be dismissed. But neither could domestic political considerations if Truman wanted to be elected president in November. Public support in the US for a Jewish state was immense, and not just among Jews. The Jewish lobby itself was implacable. Truman had no particular love for the Arabs but they were not pushing their cause upon him with the ferocity of the Jews. "Jesus Christ couldn't please them when he was on earth," Truman was quoted by former vice-president Henry Wallace as saying, "so how can anyone expect that I would have any luck?" When Rabbi Silver, at the head of a Zionist delegation, slammed his hand on Truman's desk at the end of a peroration, Truman reportedly told him that only the president of the United States slammed that desk and had the group escorted out. Exasperated, Truman soon closed his doors to importuning Jews and said to aides one day: "I don't want to hear the word Palestine anymore." However, one Jew he continued to see was Eddie Jacobson, his old World War I comrade-in-arms and subsequent business partner. Jacobson prevailed on him to have one more meeting with Weizmann. The Zionist statesman, then 74, spoke to the president softly and persuasively. Truman would subsequently call him "one of the wisest men I've ever met." On May 12, still apparently undecided, Truman arranged a confrontation at his desk between Marshall and White House special counsel Clark Clifford, who argued the case for recognition. In his presentation, Clifford cited history and morality - the Bible, the Balfour Declaration, the Holocaust. Marshall, opposing recognition, cited the national interest. Domestic political considerations must not determine foreign policy, he said. If the president decided otherwise, he warned, he, Marshall, would not support Truman's election in November. After the booming silence that followed that remark, Truman suggested that they all sleep on it. As American chief of staff in World War II, Marshall enjoyed tremendous national prestige and Truman's deep respect. He was universally regarded as a patriot who placed the national interest above all else and who gave formidable weight to Truman's cabinet. His resignation would be a personal blow for Truman and disastrous for his election hopes. Like Ben-Gurion, Truman weighed the conflicting data - in his case, global strategy, elections, Marshall's position, the post-Holocaust moral argument - and came to what seemed to him an inescapable conclusion; he would support a Jewish state. This was conveyed to Marshall. As Handler and his neighbors danced in the streets of Tel Aviv Friday night, Marshall telephoned Truman to say that although he could not support the president's position, he would not oppose it publicly. Truman needed no more. From the White House, Clifford telephoned a Jewish Agency official in Washington to inform him that the US would that day recognize the Jewish state. At midnight, the British Mandate formally ended. Within hours, the Arab armies had begun advancing on the country's borders to begin the decisive confrontation.