Israel 67 Years Ago Today: Newspaper Reports From the First Independence Day

Statehood was declared amid unrest and threats of invasion from neighboring Arab states. Haaretz’s archives describe jubilation mixed with fear for the future.

Zoltan Kluger

On May 14, 1948, somewhere in the center of Tel Aviv, passers-by noticed a poster of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism. It was wrapped in the blue and white of the soon-to-be State of Israel’s flag, and on it was written the legend: “If you will it, it is no dream 1898. We willed it – so it is no dream 1948.”

Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed that day, as the British Mandate in Palestine was set to end at midnight. As the by-now well-known story goes, the very next day, the nascent state was attacked by Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq and Syria, a war that would last until the following year. Haaretz archives from the days surrounding Independence Day show that for Jews in Palestine, the atmosphere was a heady, schizophrenic mix of joy for independence and fear of the war to come.  

The day before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Tel Aviv was jubilant. The coming event “filled the heart of every resident of Tel Aviv with happiness,” Haaretz reported. That day, Jaffa to the south had surrendered to the Haganah, the underground, pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews, which seemed to portend that the state would really be declared. Stores displayed pictures of Zionist leaders, and Tel Avivians were already waving Israel’s blue-and-white flag. All around the soon-to-be-declared country, synagogues were organizing thanks-giving prayers.

There was also a sense that the world was watching. An international press corps was in town to cover the event, and the world’s interest in the new Jewish state had “hit a record,” according to Haaretz. “Foreign reporters – British, French, Czechs, and yes many American reporters, sent tens of thousands of words by telegraph,” the paper said. One American journalist from a “large U.S. press agency” was ordered to send a telegram with updates every 10 minutes. “This is one of the biggest events in the history of humankind,” his editors back home told him.  

The war, which Israelis refer to as a War of Independence, and Palestinians as the Nakba, the catastrophe, wouldn’t begin for another day. Violence between Arabs and Jews was already a regular occurrence, however. A civil war had broken out on November 30, 1947, triggered by the United Nations’ adoption of Resolution 181 in favor of partitioning Palestine the previous day. The Partition Plan proposed to divide the territory – which had been under British rule since 1920 – into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under a special international regime. Most Jews supported it, while most Arabs opposed it.  

The signing ceremony itself was to be a small affair, open only to members of the Jewish leadership and invited guests. Still, Haaretz reported, droves were expected to descend on Tel Aviv, and the municipality warned against processions or gathering in large crowds at the time of the ceremony, for fear of attacks, including from the air.

The expected post-independence escalation loomed large on everyone’s minds. Haaretz’s front page warned, “Tonight, invasion from Egypt,” as Cairo had declared its troops would cross the border into Israel one minute past midnight on Saturday, when the British Mandate was to expire. Another report noted that in Iraq, “Zionists and ‘Communists’” had been arrested ahead of future Iraqi military involvement in Israel. A National Loan had been declared in April to finance the war effort. Haaretz carried ads urging people to contribute. “Your money is needed by the nation today – hurry!” read one. Meanwhile, news from the front lines of the ongoing hostilities in Palestine was grim, with myriad reports of attacks and evacuations, of losses of Arab and Jewish lives.

The paper’s analysts looked with gloom on what lay ahead. “On the eve of the almost certain invasion of the Land of Israel, we need not just a military repair, but also a psychological one,” wrote Jon Kimche. The editorial that morning was bittersweet. It hailed the beginning of a new era, but warned of “hard days and bitter news” yet to come. Making no mention of local Arab opposition, it prophesied that the Jews were entering “a phase of a greater danger [in our] desperate struggle with our neighboring Arab states, who have refused so far to make peace with the historical necessity of Israel returning to its land.”  

The ceremony itself on the afternoon of May 14 lasted exactly 30 minutes. When the state was declared, those present “stood up as one. Hearts were beating with happiness ... and eyes shone with tears of joy,” Haaretz reported. Outside, crowds had gathered at roadblocks near the ceremony – “they waited quietly, anxious to see the leaders of the new state arriving.” Asked by journalists how he felt after the ceremony, David Ben-Gurion, who would be Israel’s first prime minister, replied: “The State of Israel is established. Israel’s exile is over.”

Jews around the world celebrated, too. Some 60,000 people attended an event at Madison Square Garden, addressed by the soon-to-be-appointed first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. In Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, London, and across the United States, houses were decorated with Israeli flags, and – at least in Romania – people danced until the morning hours. In Cypriot internment camps, where some 20,000 Jewish refugees were waiting to immigrate to Palestine, there was “a wave of happiness” as British Mandate controls on immigration were lifted.

U.S. President Harry Truman declared de facto recognition of the new state just as the Mandate ended at midnight on May 15. The good news was interspersed with dispatches of war, however. Neighboring Arab states invaded, and there were air strikes on Israeli cities. May 16 saw six waves of strikes on Tel Aviv. One of the casualties was the old Haaretz newspaper building itself. The paper urged parents of infants “to take them to school, and pick them up, so they aren’t walking the streets alone.”

Still, as the war continued, the new state was busy with the business of its own establishment. Israel’s Basic Laws were to be published on May 16. The 2,000-strong government staff would govern from 600 rooms in Sarona, an area of German Templar houses in Tel Aviv. A special office was to be responsible for organizing bomb shelters.

The mood of excitement and work to be done was overshadowed by foreboding, but the newspaper also reflected a sense of hope, if tinged somewhat with harsh reality. An editorial on May 16 argued that war was par for the course for newly independent states. “Such was the beginning of the United States and the French republic,” it said.