'It's a feeling I never had again'
Aryeh Handler misses the post-Independence War spirit.
He's well over 90, but Aryeh Handler has never forgotten the excitement inside the main hall of what was then the Tel Aviv Museum, during the moments when David Ben Gurion declared Israel's independence nearly 60 years ago. Handler - a leader in the religious Zionist Mizrachi movement - is the only surviving person to have attended the historical afternoon session when Ben Gurion stood under the larger-than-life portrait of Theodor Herzl and read the scroll establishing the Jewish state. "It's a feeling I never had again in my life," he said this week in an interview in his Jerusalem home.
"I was a very young man and I hadn't yet proven myself much, but I had a feeling that I was present for the greatest moment in modern Jewish life and civilization. After thousands of years in which Jews had been dispersed throughout the whole world, it was the first time I felt that we were really one nation."
He added, "On that day, in that room, I felt that the Jewish nation was starting again. When I came home, I said to my wife, 'this afternoon has shown me that we are not only a nation, but that we are a great nation.'"
Handler, who was born in Czechoslovakia, has been a stalwart of the British Jewish community for decades. Though he was in Israel for the establishment of the state and the few years that followed, he has lived for much of his life in London and only returned here permanently in January 2006. Among the founders of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, he was an active member of the Mizrachi movement, served on the executives of the United Synagogue and World Zionist Organization. He was also key a player in the struggle to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
When he speaks, he casually and modestly mentions friends like Moshe Sharett, the former prime minister, and Yosef Burg, a leading religious Zionist, who he said was "like my brother."
For Handler, much has passed since that Friday afternoon at what is now called Independence Hall, but there are moments that he still recalls vividly. When the session ended at 4:30, Ben Gurion came over and asked him to accompany Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman, a signatory on the Declaration of Independence known for reciting the prayer said on special occassions during the session, to his hotel before Shabbat began. "Ben Gurion came over to me - I was a nothing - and said, 'you take him to his hotel, make sure he is satisfied, make him comfortable and then you can go.'"
At the hotel Handler drank a l'chaim (toast) with Rabbi Fishman before proceeding to a synagogue on Ben Yehuda Street. "(David) Remez and Sharett were there, even though they were not so Orthodox. That night, we danced in the streets of Tel Aviv, in spite of all the dangers - even though we knew Egyptian planes could come or that other bad things could happen." In the months leading up to the proclamation, he remembers unending discussions over whether to delay the establishment of the state, as some world leaders had urged. But he sided with Ben Gurion and believed "that if we don't do it now, it will never happen."
Sixty years later, Handler has his disappointments with elements of Israeli society. He laments the gap between wealthy and poor, as well as what he sees as the weakness of the country's leadership. But he is no longer willing to leave Israel despite its shortcomings. "We need the spirit of togetherness, the same way we had it then," he said referring to the period following the state's establishment. "It didn't matter if you were religious or not, or whether you were a socialist or a capitalist. We knew that this was our country, that we needed to live together and that we needed to help each other."
He often thinks back to that May 14 afternoon 60 years ago to remind himself of Israel's potential. "We make a lot of mistakes, we are not always nice to each other and we often fight with each other," he said of the situation now. "But that day showed me we can come together and be one people."