Reliving history

Arieh Handler, the last surviving witness of the signing of Israel's Declaration of Independence, recalls that fateful week in Tel Aviv.

arieh handler 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arieh handler 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It began in a way that Jewish functions are not supposed to begin: on time. As the ultimate Jewish function - the declaration of the State of Israel - it was entitled to run by its own rules. Arieh Handler received his invitation to the event that Friday morning - May 14, 1948 - from a messenger who arrived at his Tel Aviv home on a motorbike. The card was from the Minhelet Ha'am, the provisional government of the state-in-the-making headed by David Ben-Gurion. "We are honored to hereby invite you to the Declaration of Independence session," the card said. The venue was the former home of Tel Aviv's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, at 16 Rothschild Boulevard, which had been converted into an art museum. Guests were asked not to tell anyone the reason for the assembly or reveal its hour. Starting time was 4 p.m. Guests were asked to arrive at 3:30. "Dress: Dark holiday clothing," the invitations instructed. There was no crowd outside the museum when Handler arrived. Inside, he chatted with some of the other arrivals, including Meir Wilner, head of the Israeli Communist Party, who was to be one of the signatories of the independence proclamation. Handler was not a signatory. An official of the religious Hapoel Hamizrichi movement, he was one of some 200 guests from across the political spectrum of the Yishuv - the Jewish community in Palestine - who had been invited. Aged 91 this month, Handler is believed to be the last person still alive from among the invited guests that day. The museum's largest exhibition hall had been fitted with a podium, where 11 members of the provisional government would sit during the ceremony. Everyone, even Ben-Gurion, was wearing a dark suit and tie. Just below the podium sat members of the provisional council, or legislature, who would sign the proclamation. Around the room were rows of chairs for the guests. Handler found a chair with his name on it and took his place. An air of tense expectancy filled the hall. The British mandate was ending at midnight, but it had not been certain even two days before that independence would be declared. Ben-Gurion had called a meeting of the leadership on Wednesday, May 12, to decide whether to go ahead with the proclamation. Washington was pressing the Zionist leadership to put it off - for three months, it said - to forestall an invasion by the armies of the surrounding Arab countries, an event that American leaders did not believe the Yishuv capable of withstanding. America's powerful secretary of state, George Marshall, the U.S. chief of staff during the Second World War, had put that grim prognosis to Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), provisional foreign minister, in a meeting in Washington five days before. At the May 12 meeting in Tel Aviv, which lasted 11 hours, Shertok repeated Marshall's blunt words, as well as the American's warning not to expect help from the U.S. Golda Meir, just returned from a secret visit to King Abdullah in Jordan, reported that his army, the best in the Arab world, would join in the attack despite the king's previous pledge that Jordan would stay out of the war. Ben-Gurion summoned Yigal Sukenik (later Yadin), operations officer of the Haganah, and asked him to give the council his frank appraisal of the chances of standing up to the Arab invasion. Frankness is what he got. "If I wanted to sum it all up and be cautious," Sukenik said at the end of a disheartening calculation of the respective forces, "I'd say that at this moment our chances are about even. If I wanted to be more honest, I'd say that the other side has a significant edge." Despite the pall these reports threw over the meeting, Ben-Gurion pressed on. There was no turning back, he argued, and the historic moment must be seized or forever lost. When he put it to a vote, the ayes had it, but barely, 6 to 4. Almost all political parties were sharply divided internally over whether to declare a state or accept the American proposal for a three-month ceasefire. "I was one of those who favored an immediate declaration," said Handler in an interview last week in Jerusalem. "I believed that if it didn't happen now, it would never happen." It was Handler's understanding that Chaim Weizmann, who was soon to become Israel's first president, was among those who favored postponing the declaration. (Others challenge this account. Weizmann was at the time in the U.S., where he played a significant role in persuading President Truman to recognize the Jewish state despite Marshall's urgings to the contrary.) Shertok also favored postponing the declaration, although under Ben-Gurion's pressure he kept that view to himself. The same view was held by other prominent leaders whom Handler prefers not to name, including leaders of his own party. Even those favoring an immediate declaration were filled with trepidation at the prospect of Arab armies pouring across the country's borders, at the likelihood of an Egyptian air attack on Tel Aviv, at the cost of defying the Americans. "But what worried me most of all," says Handler, "was that the opposition of Weizmann and the others would lead to a split in the Zionist movement. Thank God, it didn't happen." Countering all the weighty doubts was the steely will of Ben-Gurion. Promptly at 4 o'oclock, he rose from his chair on the podium and without preliminaries began reading in his high-pitched, decisive voice: "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave the world the eternal Book of Books." The proclamation was being broadcast live, and virtually everyone in the country was listening, including soldiers and kibbutz fighters along the borders. There had been a sharp debate among the drafters of the proclamation over whether to include a reference to God. In the end, it was decided to compromise with "Tsur Yisrael" - the Rock of Israel - a metaphor that the secular Zionists could live with. "With trust in the Rock of Israel," Ben-Gurion read in conclusion, "we set our hand to this declaration at this session of the Provisional State Council in the city of Tel Aviv on this Sabbath eve, the fifth of Iyar, 5708, the fourteenth day of May, 1948." All proceeded now in turn to place their signatures at the bottom of the proclamation scroll, first Ben-Gurion, then the rest, as Shertok called them in alphabetical order. Twenty-five people signed that day, and six others would add their signatures later. The scroll they signed was in fact blank: Ben-Gurion had taken exception to the version of the proclamation drafted by Shertok and rewrote it at the last moment. His historic announcement had been read from three separate sheets of paper, and it was this text that would later be written on the scroll above the existing signatures. After the declaration, a rabbi pronounced the sheheheyanu prayer, praising God "who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this hour." Then everyone rose to sing Hatikva. Within 32 minutes, it was all over. "We shook hands with each other and said 'shabbat shalom‚' and 'b'sha'a tova‚' (May it go well)," recalls Handler. "It was the greatest moment of my life." Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman, a member of the Provisional Council, had been cut off in besieged Jerusalem, but at Ben-Gurion's insistence a light plane was sent to the city to bring him out for the signing. "Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Frishman had been in prison together during the Turkish times, and they were close," says Handler, who was asked to escort the rabbi after the ceremony to a hotel on Ahad Ha'am Street, where they made a toast before Handler hurried home and from there to synagogue. At 32, Handler had been among the youngest people present at the ceremony. Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1915, he had moved with his family to Germany after the First World War, in which his father had served as an officer in the Austrian army. As a member of a religious youth movement, he was active after the rise of Hitler in arranging for Jewish children to reach Palestine. He made several trips to Palestine to find places where religious youths could be absorbed. He was there in 1938 when he received a message from a friend, Yosef Burg, not to return to Berlin because he would be arrested. (A fellow student at the rabbinical seminary in Berlin, Burg would in time serve as minister in several Israeli governments.) Instead of returning to Germany, Handler was sent to London to work in the Youth Aliyah movement, and after the war worked in displaced persons camps. Returning to Palestine in 1946, he became treasurer of the Orthodox labor movement, Hapoel Hamizrachi, and it was in that capacity that he was invited to the proclamation ceremony. Among those in Handler's synagogue that Sabbath eve was an ecstatic Zalman Rubashov, who as Zalman Shazar would become Israel's third president. People who did not ordinarily come to synagogue were there, too. After Shabbat dinner, Handler left his wife and two young sons with his parents and went to a friend's home. "There were 20 to 30 people there," Handler recalls. "Everyone was excited. We didn't know what was going to happen. There was joy but there was also fear. We said, 'The most important thing is to be strong.' We went down into the street and began dancing. Other groups were dancing in the street too. When I went to bed that night I knew that we were touching history."