Reuven Rivlin / Israel's Declaration of a Dream

Israel's Declaration of Independence was the formative document of the state, but that doesn't mean it is immune to criticism or that it didn't demand additional work of its creators or their heirs

I was a boy growing up in Jerusalem in the period before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and that time is still etched vividly in my memory. Those were moments of tension, fear and hope, of international pressure and a war effort, in the shadow of fierce and complex ideological disputes. Above all, the dimensions of the appalling Holocaust were becoming clearer, heightening the urgency of establishing a state, but also the apprehension about such a step.

For me, the Declaration of Independence is the declaration of the Jewish dream, and simultaneously the expression of its realization. It is a formative document, proclaimed, formulated and written at a moment of civil and religious sanctity, when the Jewish people fulfilled a 2,000-year-old hope. The Declaration of Independence was effectively the first document of the State of Israel, which by its very promulgation established the Jewish state.

Israel-Egypt border - DO NOT USE
Uriel Sinai

The fact that the declaration is a formative document does not mean that it must be impervious to all criticism or that it admits of only one reading and interpretation. On the contrary: This document embodies the obligation to read it anew in every generation and to examine its content at every national and social intersection. An overly rigid reading, or one that interprets it divorced from its spirit and purpose, can foment injustice or even worse.

It is difficult and unfair to judge from the distance of time whether the declaration should have been formulated differently. However, it seems to me that if we were given the opportunity today, we would do well to hone two substantial issues of principle whose ambiguity has caused distorted attitudes and obstacles in the past 63 years.

The first ambiguity refers to the occurrence of the Holocaust as a factor that influenced the founding of the state. The horrors of the Holocaust induced the leaders of the great powers and the United Nations to support the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, and spurred the leaders of the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community, to act on behalf of this. Since then, the perception has taken root in many countries, and even within circles in Israel, that giving the Jews a state was recompense for the terrible tragedy that befell them. This is a mistaken, sometimes tendentious approach, which often nourishes moralistic arguments against Israel by other countries and by international organizations, according to which the Jews received compensation in the form of a state at the expense of other populations between the Mediterranean and the Jordan - and because of which the Jews must implement far-reaching territorial concessions.

The State of Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, and never was. This message should have appeared sharply and clearly in the Declaration of Independence. True, the declaration takes note of the Holocaust as part of the historical continuity of a people rooted in its land and exiled from it in order to return. But in my view, this should have been stated more cogently. The vast destruction constituted moral proof of the need for a Jewish territory for a people lacking a land and sovereignty, but did not create the justification for this.

If I were able to influence the formulation of the declaration today, I would emphasize that the forces driving the state's establishment - the prayers, the longings, the pioneering - stemmed at their foundation and their root from Zionism that strives for Zion, and not from Zionism that is fleeing from a Holocaust. Our resurgence was effected by right and not by favor, by destiny and not by coercion, as a sacred historical duty of a people returning to its land to live in it a life of sovereign independence. The national home came into being because there were those who labored here in the Land of Israel for many years, even before the Holocaust, to establish the Yishuv and its institutions, to forge a fighting and defending Jewish force, and to prepare the ground for the absorption of millions of Jewish migrants from around the world.

My second comment refers to the legal status of the Declaration of Independence. I believe that the framers of the document never purported to consider it a constitutional document, one that would render superfluous the drafting of a constitution. At most, they infused it with immediate principles of action for the fledgling state, which express, in the words of Justice Shimon Agranat, "the nation's vision and its credo."

It is evident that the Declaration of Independence was well aware of its temporary legal status; it proclaimed the need for a future constitution, to be drawn up by the Constituent Assembly. The founding fathers defined the role of the Knesset also as a constituent authority responsible for framing a constitution, while David Ben-Gurion, himself a jurist - he was a graduate of the University of Istanbul - entrusted the task to the Knesset's Law and Justice Committee, which henceforth was known as the "Constitution, Law and Justice Committee." Ben-Gurion set a timetable of six months for this challenge, which under the force of circumstances have now stretched into more than 60 years.

Regrettably, in the era of the constitutional revolution, there are those who insist on viewing the Declaration of Independence as a constitutional document instead of a declarative text of intention. In their view, it is a document from which clear constitutional principles can be inferred and also possesses the power to exercise a judicial review of Knesset legislation to the point of annulling laws. As such, this group questions the authority of the Knesset to draft a constitution, because according to their approach, the Declaration of Independence is sufficient. However, the obligation still exists. Even today, after 63 years, the injunction instructing the Knesset to draft the constitution remains fully valid, and the fact that it has not yet been implemented does not shift the task to any other branch of government.

The Basic Laws that were enacted by the Knesset in the 1990s were indeed promulgated "in the spirit of the principles enshrined in the declaration of Israel's establishment." However, this was not tantamount to a declaration that the Knesset had abandoned its task to write a constitution and that henceforth it would make do with the Declaration of Independence as an ambiguous substitute that leaves overly broad leeway for interpretation in the hands of the judicial branch. The mistaken approach to the declaration as an "unwritten constitution" - one that can remain unwritten - infringes on the principle of the separation of powers and creates a dangerous breach, which invites other branches to wrench the task from the Knesset.

If it were up to me, I would enshrine unequivocally in the Declaration of Independence the Knesset's exclusive authority, as a constituent branch and as the sole representative of the sovereign authority, to carry out the mission of the generation, from then until today: to write a constitution for Israel.

Likud Party Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin is the speaker of the Knesset.