These Israelis Were Present at the Declaration of Independence. Their Main Memory? Boredom

Now in their 80s or 90s, three youngsters were all in the hall for various reasons during the historic event in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948. They look back on it wistfully, even if at the time they were unaware of its significance

David Ben-Gurion reading Israel's Declaration of Independence in what was then the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948.
Zoltan Kluger / GPO

Yael Medini was 17 when her father (and future prime minister) Moshe Sharett invited her to join him for a hush-hush ceremony in a small auditorium on 16 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv. Giora Hanoch, a pupil at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school, came to the ceremony to assist his uncle, who was recording the event. And Mordechai Rechtman, then 22, was there as a bassoonist in what was to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Seventy years have passed since these young people found themselves at one of the key moments in Israeli history: the Declaration of Independence by the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 (the fifth of Iyar in the Jewish calendar). Now in their 90s or close to it, they look back nostalgically, admitting that they didn’t grasp the momentousness of the occasion at the time.

“I didn’t attach much importance to it,” Medini, now 88, tells Haaretz from her home in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. On a wall hangs the front page of The New York Times from May 15, 1948, with the headline “Zionists Proclaim New State of Israel.” The story includes photographs of her father and David Ben-Gurion.

Alongside the NYT hangs another historical document: The draft declaration her father prepared for the founding of the state, in Yael Medini’s own handwriting.

“The day before the declaration, my father dictated this document to me from notes he held in his hand,” Medini recalls. “After that, the secretary typed it out and from there it went to Ben-Gurion.” In the end, Ben-Gurion used his own version, which he read out at the ceremony. In Michael Bar-Zohar’s biography of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, he writes that Sharett was offended by Ben-Gurion’s criticisms and the decision to “correct” his draft.

Yael Medini, daughter of Israel's second prime minister, Moshe Sharett. "I didn’t attach much importance to it," she says about the Declaration of Independence in May 1948.
Moti Milrod

Through all the corrections and deletions in Medini’s draft, one can still make out the opening sentence as proposed by Sharett for the Declaration of Independence, outlining one of the reasons the Jewish people deserved to establish a state in Israel: “Since the Jewish nation was exiled by force from its land, the Land of Israel, it remained loyal to it throughout its years in exile and in all the countries it was dispersed in,” it states. “In all its wanderings, the Jewish people never found a country to replace it and never ceased praying and hoping to gather its dispersed members and renew its independence in that land.”

Medini was born in 1930 and grew up in Jerusalem. She is a member of a distinguished family, one that also included Shaul Avigur, who headed the intelligence service that smuggled Jews into British-controlled Palestine; Eliyahu Golomb, head of pre-state underground Jewish militia the Haganah; and Dov Hoz, who carried out numerous diplomatic and defense-related missions.

On the eve of the ceremony, Medini’s father received two tickets. One was for himself – since he was sitting on the main stage and was one of the 37 signatories to the declaration. He gave the second ticket to his sister, Ada (Golomb’s wife), who shared it with Yael.

“We sat together on the same chair, me and my aunt,” recounts Medini. Her home features a photograph commemorating the historic event. However, only her forehead is visible in the picture of the crowd, comprised of several hundred people squeezed into a packed auditorium.

When asked if she was excited to see her father on stage, she answers in the negative. “I didn’t quite get what his position was,” she says. “I knew he was working to establish the soon-to-be state, laboring from dawn until he was exhausted. But I wasn’t involved in those things. I didn’t know any better then,” she says with a smile.

Yael Medini attends the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948.

After the ceremony, a Haaretz correspondent asked her father how he felt during the very first moment of an independent Hebrew state. “I grew older by one minute,” he replied, “and I hope I continue to grow very old in this country.” (He eventually died at age 70 in 1965.)

From there, Sharett and his daughter went to the Golomb family home on 23 Rothschild Boulevard (now the site of the Haganah Museum). After receiving hugs and kisses, he went out to the balcony. “Outside was a huge crowd, which appeared to be waiting for my father to say something,” Medini recounts. Sharett made do with a short sentence, which as she recalls went, “There is much work ahead. Let everyone go home and fulfill his role.”

Shortly afterward, Yael joined the just-formed Israel Defense Forces. “I worked in field kitchens, washing enormous pots. It wasn’t easy because there was no hot water,” she says. When asked if she could have had a more meaningful role due to her father’s status, she demurs: “I didn’t feel any lack of dignity doing that job; I saw myself as an essential cog in the war machine.” Later in life she became an author, writing books for children, teenagers and adults.

When asked her thoughts on the state today, she asks that we stop recording the interview. A hint of what she refused to discuss can be found in an interview she gave in 2012, when she told Haaretz: “I’m not certain that it would have been possible to establish a state today.”

An urgent request

Prof. Giora Hanoch, who also witnessed the declaration up close, is not optimistic 70 years on. “I’m very disappointed,” he says, talking to Haaretz at his home in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. Like Sharett’s daughter, he also got an invitation to the ceremony. However, unlike her, he was there for work.

Hanoch, who later became an expert in microeconomics and labor economics, was born in British Mandatory Palestine in 1932. His father, Gershon, wrote articles on art and cultural affairs, including for Haaretz.

Prof. Giora Hanoch. "It took ages for everyone to ascend the stage, sign it and then come down. It was a bit annoying."
Moti Milrod

On May 14, 1948, when Giora Hanoch was 15, his uncle, Lucien Zaltzman, called and asked for his help. Zaltzman owned a recording company called Tslil – the Palestine Electrical Recording Company.

“He told me he’d been invited at the last minute to record an important event and asked whether I could help him carry different things,” recalls Hanoch. The previous day, his uncle had received a letter from the Philharmonic Orchestra, asking him to come to their offices “on a very urgent matter.” He was also asked to be prepared to record.

The young Hanoch was busy at the time in the pre-military Gadna program, which included observation and guard duty, and different missions for the Haganah. But his uncle’s request sounded very important.

“We bypassed the audience and the crowds that had begun to assemble outside, and entered the auditorium in order to prepare the recording equipment,” Hanoch remembers. “It was very crowded in the hall. Everything there was set up at the last moment, while we were busy installing the recording devices,” he adds. On one of the microphones they placed a white cloth band with the name Tslil. In retrospect, this would be the country’s first “advertisement.”

As described in historian Mordechai (also written Mordecai) Naor’s book “The Friday that Changed Destiny,” Zaltzman and Hanoch used a vinyl record-engraving machine to capture the 30-minute ceremony; only four minutes could be recorded on each side. Seventy years on, only one of the six records made at the time has survived. Baruch Zaltzman, Lucien’s son, saved it from the Philharmonic archive, where it had been gathering dust over the years.

This was not the only artifact from the event that was not adequately preserved. The pages from which Ben-Gurion read out the declaration have disappeared without trace. Another draft (aside from the one hanging in Medini’s home) was recently put up for auction, but its fate is currently being decided by the courts.

Hanoch, who was apparently the youngest person present on the big day, remembers being bored by the wait as the declaration was being signed.

“The whole process was a bit long and tedious,” he recalls. “They read out all the names of the people in the provisional government – including the people who couldn’t attend because of the Siege of Jerusalem. It took ages for everyone to ascend the stage, sign it and then come down. It was a bit annoying,” he admits.

Later, when Hanoch compared the recording of Ben-Gurion’s remarks with the text that appeared on the parchment – which was prepared only after the ceremony – he found some differences. For instance, the written declaration says that “the State of Israel will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” But Hanoch says that in the live version, the wording was in a different order: “Freedom of religion, conscience, education, culture and language.”

When the ceremony ended, Hanoch returned to his parents’ home near the Habima Theater, at the top of Rothschild Boulevard. “I told them about it, but I wasn’t very emotional. Neither were they. I didn’t think my presence there was that special,” he recounts.

Concerns about what lay ahead probably overshadowed the happiness. “There was joy in people’s hearts, but the atmosphere was very tense,” Hanoch says.

In later decades, he reflects, “the state had great achievements and solved many economic problems. But all the definitions of public morality we dreamed about were violated.”

A divine inspiration

Another professor who emerged from the group of youngsters lucky enough to be present at the ceremony is musician Rechtman, who will celebrate his 92nd birthday in May. In contrast to Medini and Hanoch, he is optimistic as he looks back. “I’m not only a proud Jew, I’m a proud Israeli,” he says, reflecting on the last 70 years. “I don’t think there’s a country in the world that doesn’t have negative aspects, but I want to talk about the positive things,” he explains.

Prof. Mordechai Rechtman. A day after playing "Hatikva" after the Declaration of Independence was signed, he was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.
Moti Milrod

Rechtman was born in Germany in 1926, immigrating to Israel at age 8 after the Nazis came to power. He used to practice the recorder and harmonica on his balcony, where his playing caught the attention of a musician neighbor. The neighbor recommended that he try the bassoon, and from there Rechtman’s progress was meteoric. In 1941, at the age of only 15, he became the first bassoonist in the then-Palestine Opera Orchestra. In 1946, he assumed the same role in the philharmonic orchestra.

Two years later, he became part of that orchestra’s smaller ensemble, which got to play the national anthem, “Hatikva,” at the declaration ceremony. When asked if his participation had left a mark on him – given the countless international achievements he racked up in later decades as an arranger, conductor and professor at Tel Aviv University – he admits, “No, not a thing.”

However, he doesn’t deny the national significance of the Declaration of Independence. “It was simply divine. Until then I’d held a British Mandatory Palestine passport, and all of a sudden I was Israeli,” he says. “It was very moving. What could be more moving?”

Mordechai Rechtman practicing the bassoon as a youngster in the 1940s.
Prof. Mordechai Rechtman

He was drafted into the IDF the next morning, where he continued to perform – but this time for the soldiers.

“I don’t think there’s a precedent for a country surrounded by enemies, declaring its independence and continuing to play music during a war,” Rechtman says excitedly. “We played on the Burma Road; we appeared in front of wounded soldiers in hospitals and camps. We played the whole repertoire – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. The soldiers, who were 18, 19 and 20 years old, kept asking for more.”

Speaking at his home in Ramat Aviv, a suburb of Tel Aviv, he relates many fascinating stories about 1948 and the decades that followed. But then he stops, noting, “For such stories, not even a phone book will suffice.”