Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The great drama of the Declaration of Independence is being revived at Independence Hall museum on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

Some 200 documents and texts – both official and personal – bring the state’s birth back to life through the stories and anecdotes of those who took part in it. The documents were collected over months by Mordechai Naor, a historian specializing in Israeli history and a member of the museum’s steering committee.

Naor’s research is the first step in renovating the museum, which is located in the historic building that was originally the home of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, before becoming the location of the Declarationof Independence.

The museum has been neglected for years, its exhibits, most of them replicas, worn out and crumbled. Recently, at the initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office, the building has undergone a preliminary face lift and it is in the process of becoming a large modern museum, in which historic items associated with the Declaration of Independence will be displayed.

Naor’s research brings the state’s birth back to life through the eyes of those who took part in it – from the prime minister to the secretary who bought the pen with which they signed the scroll.

Fifty of the documents were collated in a new anthology, written and edited by Naor and published in Hebrew and English under the title “The Friday That Changed Destiny” (Yehuda Dekel Library and the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.)

One of the chapters deals with the 37 members of the People’s Council who signed the declaration, only two of whom were women. The first, Golda Meir, who would later become Israel’s fourth prime minister, is well known. The second was Rachel Cohen-Kagan, a feminist and social activist who fought for women’s rights in the first Knesset.

Cohen-Kagan came to the ceremony by chance. She got out of besieged Jerusalem on the last plane to leave the city, on a seat intended for Eliyahu Berligne, one of the founders of Tel Aviv, who was unable to travel due to illness.

“I was told at the last moment that I could go and flew immediately, without taking anything,” she said later. “I took a cab to the museum. The driver was a red-headed woman I’d already traveled with before. For some reason, I felt she was like a third partner, a feminine backup for the signatories.”

Only one of the signatories had been born in Israel - Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, a teacher, judge and politician from Tiberias, who later served as police minister.

“That morning, I sat in court signing civil and criminal verdicts, and in the afternoon I signed a document that gave us back our independence in our homeland,” he said afterward.

Only one of the signatories was born in an Arab state – Sa’adia Kobashi, a teacher who immigrated from Yemen.

Israel Radio broadcast the ceremony live, in what was also its first broadcast. Broadcaster Rita Persitz found that her microphone had been placed not in the hall itself but near the toilet. “I couldn’t see a thing, a wall of people stood in front of me. I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Other journalists came to her rescue. “Gideon Samet, from Haaretz, and other reporters brought me little notes on which they wrote what was happening. That’s what I broadcast,” she said.

Not all those invited made it to the ceremony. “I think I was the only one with an invitation who didn’t get thereI decided with a clear mind that I had to be in Jaffa,” said Michael Ben Gal, the Tel Aviv District commander of the Haganah, the pre-state paramilitary organization. He heard the Declaration of Independence on the radio.

“Not many cars had radio receivers in those days. One of the cars entering Jaffa belonged to the Tel Aviv municipality secretary, Yehuda Nedivi, who had a radio device. We gathered round his car and listened to the ceremony,” Ben Gal said.

Immediately after the ceremony, an unnamed Haaretz reporter asked Ben Gurion and some of the provisional government members “how do you feel at the first moment of the independent Israeli state?”

Moshe Shertok (Sharett,) later Israel’s second prime minister, said: “I’ve grown old in one moment. Let’s hope we can grow old, very old in this country.”

All the answers to this question that appeared in Haaretz were optimistic, except for one. “We’ll wait and see. There will be trouble. We’ll have to work very hard in the State of Israel,” said Golda Meir.

Haaretz reported after the event that the new state’s name, Israel, was suggested by Ben Gurion and was chosen over others such as Yehuda, Zion, the Hebraic Land etc.

Ben Gurion read the Declaration Scroll, or the Independence Scroll, as it is also called, from ordinary pages, as it had not yet been written on parchment. The signatories signed on an empty parchment with a gilded fountain pen bought a short time earlier in a Tel Aviv stationary store.

The scroll itself is in the state archive in Jerusalem.

Both the pen and the original pages from which Ben Gurion read the declaration have been lost. “We’re still looking,” says Naor.