The Legend of Israel's Enlightened Declaration of Independence

If not for the UN, who knows what it would have said? (We can guess, though)

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David Ben-Gurion declaring the establishment of the State of Israel, in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948.
David Ben-Gurion declaring the establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948. Credit: Frank Scherschel/GPO

Independence Day is a day of waving, fanning and brandishing. We wave flags, fan barbecue flames and brandish victims, clichés and the Declaration of Independence.

Some hoist it with pain and frustration because it has become little more than a dead letter and they yearn for its full implementation. Some brandish it as though it were an exemption note from the halakhic ban on establishing a “Jewish state” (a meaningless word combination, similar in its logic to the conjunction “a Pravoslav tomato”). Some brandish it to boast of the announcement that ensures “complete” equal rights to all the state’s citizens, hoping that perhaps the glorious egalitarian rhetoric will hide the racist deed.

“Look how wonderful we are,” they cheer the founding fathers’ enlightenment, “in the midst of a bitter war, while the cannons roar, the armies storm and the blood spills, our leaders sit and draft such a magnificent document, so liberal, undertaking publicly to preserve the rights of the people trying to kill us. Is there anyone more moral than us in the whole world? More righteous than us? More enlightened?”

Indeed, a weighty argument. Regrettably, it is nothing but a fable. It wasn’t the “drafting fathers” who determined that the section about rights is included in the Declaration of Independence, nor was it the Provisional State Council. It was the UN, which Israel treated dismissively, that stipulated it, in Resolution 181 – also known as the UN Partition Plan for Palestine. There, in the clauses outlining the new state’s features, the Provisional State Council is required to declare and ensure that the new state grant full and equal human and civil rights to all people, regardless of religion, race or gender. There it is established and required that these full rights are immune and protected from any breach or diminution by law, regulation or procedure. It also stipulates and declares that the UN will be the one to supervise and be responsible for the upholding of all these enlightened conditions, and that only after the state fulfills all these stipulations “will its request to be accepted as a member of the UN organization be considered favorably.”

So the “section on rights” of the Declaration of Independence was compulsory. Its inclusion in the declaration and its implementation are preconditions for Israel’s recognition and membership in the UN. There’s no telling (although there’s guessing) what the declaration would have looked like if the UN hadn’t demanded this.

But the “drafting fathers” diluted the list of rights a little. For example, they weeded out the expression “civil rights,” leaving only “social and political rights.” They kept out the freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of organization, and what else? Oh yes, the ban on expropriating Arab property and the commitment to democracy were also left out.

In October 1948, a few months after the festive declaration of right, the “military administration” was activated and the Palestinians in Israel needed an internal travel permit even to go to the toilet. At the close of 1948, emergency regulations (which became law in 1950) were activated, allowing “confiscation of absentees’ property.” That is, institutionalized looting of massive-scale Arab property was permitted.

The UN, which had undertaken to supervise and ensure that all the conditions it had set before the new state were fully implemented, acted swiftly and resolutely. On May 11, 1949 Israel was accepted as a full member of the UN organization.

In brief, the “paragraph on rights” in the Declaration of Independence is no reason for admiration, celebration or a surge of pride. It did, however, give Israel a chance to prove that as far as it’s concerned, the written word, too, is only a word. And it gave the UN a chance to prove that it is indeed worthy of being dismissed.

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