Text size

The State of Israel came into the world hastily, as did its Declaration of Independence. There wasn't time. The British Mandate was about to end, Arab armies were about to invade, and throughout the entire land a cruel Hebrew-Arab war was raging. Gush Etzion was about to fall, Jaffa was about to surrender and tens of thousands of Palestinians were being expelled from villages and towns in the north, in the country's center and in the south.

On May 10, 1948, Zvi Berenson's team of legal experts completed the first draft. On May 11 and 12, Moshe Shertok (soon to be Sharett ), Aharon Zisling, Felix Pinchas Rosenblueth (later Rosen ), David Remez and Moshe Shapira formulated the second draft. However, at a meeting of the People's Administration on the evening of May 13, there were still reservations. There was a huge debate about God and borders. As in so many other matters, David Ben-Gurion had to have the final word. He took the papers home to his apartment on Keren Kayemet Boulevard in Tel Aviv and worked on them throughout the evening and the night. In the morning he gave Sharett, Zisling and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman (later Maimon ) a concise and firm version. By the afternoon agreement was achieved.

Four hours before the establishment of the state there was a document declaring its establishment. An hour and a half before the ceremony, the declaration was approved by the People's Council. The achievement was impressive: Within four days the founding document of the State of Israel was agreed upon and polished. Thus when Ben-Gurion opened the ceremonial assembly of May 14, 1948, he had in hand an approved and final version of the Declaration of Independence. When he completed the reading of it, Rabbi Fishman said in a trembling voice the blessing "Shehekhiyanu" ("who hath given us life and sustained us and brought us to this occasion" ). The audience responded: Amen.

Many shed a tear. The strains of "Hatikva" coming down from the second story of the Tel Aviv Museum building, where the Philharmonic Orchestra was playing, gave the feeling that the gates of heaven were opening. Even though the text was secular and the ceremony was secular, this moment was almost religious. The state of the Jews had arisen.

The gaps between the versions of the document prepared by Berenson, by Sharett and by Ben-Gurion are astounding. Berenson's is short, to the point, and very much of the Land of Israel. For him there is no Holocaust and there are no survivors. From his perspective the rights that justify the establishment of the new state are the historical connection and the covenant of blood between the people and its land, and the sacrifices of the pioneers. For Berenson the purpose of the state is to end the disgrace of the Diaspora, to lift the curse from the Jewish people and to ensure a life of peace and honor, freedom and liberty. He undertakes that the Jewish state will be free, sovereign and democratic, but he does not list the rights and liberties it will respect.

By contrast, Sharett is long-winded, rhetorical - and enlightened. He opens by stating that the people was exiled by force from its land, and goes on to the people's longing for the land, the illegal immigration, the building, Theodor Herzl, the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, the Holocaust, the participation in World War II, the Holocaust survivors, the partition resolution at the United Nations and the end of the Mandate. Paragraph 15 in his version is exalted and full of importance: "We vow that our State of Israel will be based on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace in light of the vision of the Prophets of Israel; it will be wide open to Jewish immigration; it will grant absolute equality of social and political rights to all its citizens regardless of race and religion. It will attend diligently to the development of the land for the good of its inhabitants; it will ensure freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; it will maintain the holy sites for followers of all religions; it will adhere to the principles of the UN charter."

Down-to-earth

Ben-Gurion puts things in order. He begins with the classic opening: "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books." He adopts Sharett's claims to rights, but makes them sharper and more decisive. He cleans the text of Sharett's high-flown rhetoric and apologies but retains his liberalism and moderation. From the earlier, convoluted versions he distills a clear and strong formulation. Within four days the lawyers' draft becomes a constitutive national document.

Wherein lies the power of the Declaration of Independence? In its restraint. Yes, it gives the Rock of Israel to the religious. But it also gathers the religious into the story of the historical act. The pathos is secular, factual and down-to-earth. There is no messianism here. There is no kitsch here. There is no divine truth and there is no nationalistic emotionalism. At the same time, in the Declaration of Independence there is no self-hatred, self-criticism or sense of guilt. The Jewish-Zionist-Israeli story is depicted in it in an irrefutable way.

The declaration has an almost Cartesian quality about it: From out of solid facts it derives an entire world. In a rational and universal way, it established the State of Israel's right to exist and the purpose of its existence. The document's text constitutes a masterpiece of balances. First and foremost it balances between the national and the international. It recounts the narrative of a persecuted people in terms the world cannot reject outright. However, the declaration also balances between the national and the liberal, between the adamant and the peace-seeking, between the religious and the secular. It balances between the Hebrew and the Jewish collectives, between Zionism both before and after the Holocaust. Between the imperative of the moment and eternal life.

At base the declaration is a warlike document. It was written during a war, it was signed during a war and it was aimed at serving the needs of a war. Its role was to help Israel win the diplomatic war accompanying the military one for its establishment. But precisely because it was a war document, the declaration was formulated as a peace document. It did not taunt the enemy but rather extended a hand to the enemy. It did not whine like a victim, but proudly stood its own. It positioned Israel in the midst of the family of nations.

In recent decades the left has often cited the declaration and has clung to it. However, the declaration was not a leftist document. The state it declared was not a state of all its citizens. It was not even a Jewish-democratic state, but a Jewish state, pure and simple. A state intended for realization of "the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State."

However, the right, too, must hang its head when it reads this document. If there was glory in Zionist history, the declaration embodies this glory. None other than Ben-Gurion, Sharett and Zisling were the ones who brought Israel to be one among the nations like a lion among lions. Without arrogance and without self-denigration, without boasting and without meekness. Both with a straight back and at eye level. With a precise balance between the particular and the universal, between the nationalist and the diplomatic, between the tough and the moderate.

Neither Ze'ev Jabotinsky nor Menachem Begin nor their successors realized Herzl's vision. In his study on Keren Kayemet Street, Ben-Gurion realized Herzl's vision. Ben-Gurion and Ben-Gurion alone.

It is sad. Very, very sad. How can it be that a nation yet to arise was more mature than a nation 63 years old? How can it be that three years after Auschwitz, we were saner than we are now? Where has the wisdom vanished to? Where has the nobility gone to? What has happened to us?

I read it again. The text is not marvelous. It would have been possible to improved it and shorten it, but what is there is a real dialogue with our past, our future and our fate. What is there is a supreme effort to transform our contradictions into constructive contradictions. This dialogue and this effort have constituted us. They made Independence Day into the day of a miracle. They brought about the wonder called the State of Israel. Will they ever return to us? Will we know how to return to them?