Sorry Folks, Israel's Declaration of Independence Made No Mention of Democracy

Records show that Israel was born as a Jewish state with some democratic traces. We can only hope that future generations make it a democratic state with Jewish traits.

Yoram Shachar
David Ben-Gurion declaring independence in 1948.
David Ben-Gurion declaring independence in 1948.Credit: AP
Yoram Shachar

The defenders of democracy are using the Declaration of Independence as the main authority in their fight to save the State of Israel’s democratic character. Time and again they repeat the statement that, according to the Declaration, the State of Israel came into being as “a Jewish and democratic state.” But that is not so. While an early draft of the Declaration of Independence proposed declaring the state a democracy, the word “democratic” was deliberately struck off several drafts. In the end, Israel was declared a “Jewish state,” not a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Although several commitments to its democratic character remained, they were also weakened substantially compared with earlier drafts. The State of Israel never existed as a perfect democracy at any time since the Declaration of Independence was written, though reasonable democratic norms were built into it – with much work – over the years. Some of these norms surpass the little that was promised in the Declaration, while others fall short of it.

While the legislative proposals being discussed before the Knesset was dissolved last week threatened to shrink these norms still further, and are offensive for that reason, the sacred nature of the struggle over our country’s character requires that we stick to the historical truth. I will repeat this simple truth: On the fifth day of Iyar in 5708, according to the Hebrew calendar – May 14, 1948 – the State of Israel was declared a Jewish state.

About a week before that ceremony, then-Justice Minister Pinchas Rosen handed the draft of the Declaration, which had been prepared in his ministry, to jurist Zvi Berenson. Rosen was not pleased with the work of his staff, and expected Berenson to breathe new life into the document.

Berenson, one of the most energetic and fluent spokesmen of the socialist center-left, proposed important corrections, including changing the Declaration’s central paragraph, which stated, “We hereby declare the establishment of a free and independent Jewish state,” to “We hereby declare the establishment of a free, independent and democratic Jewish state.” He also suggested adding a large section of commitments that had not appeared in previous drafts. At the heart of the proposed section was the specific statement, “There shall be one law [in the state] for all inhabitants, regardless of race, religion, language or gender.”

When the draft was returned to Rosen with Berenson’s excellent suggestion, Rosen’s staff wrote him a memo, suggesting the word “democracy” be removed from the section of commitments and that the main obligation, regarding “one law for all inhabitants...” be stricken from the operative paragraph. That principle, they wrote, was “only one of many principles of the United Nations Charter, and it would be better to mention these principles only in a general and vague manner.”

If such a despicable suggestion were to be made today, it would probably be attributed to the right wing in the spirit of MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Orit Struck (Habayit Hayehudi). But Rosen, a politico from a small centrist faction that would later give rise to the center parties that have been diluting Israel’s political discourse ever since, accepted the proposal in letter and spirit.

Rosen erased the mention of democracy in the proposal he submitted to the political leadership, and it was not restored, even in the declaration’s final draft. On the Friday of that fateful week, David Ben-Gurion stood in Tel Aviv Museum and declaimed, in his high-pitched, emotion-filled voice, the most quoted sentence in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “We are here assembled ... and hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” Jewish, he shouted. Not democratic.

Where did democracy disappear to in the section on commitments that Rosen removed? The embarrassing answer is that Moshe Sharett erased it both from there and the Declaration as a whole two days before the ceremony, with no protest from any of his colleagues in the leadership on the left or right. Sharett rewrote almost the entire first section of the Declaration of Independence, about the story of Zionism and the justifications for it. But in the second, more practical, section, he adopted Rosen’s proposal and made changes only in the wording.

Sharett restored to the commitments section a portion of the heart that Rosen had removed, writing that the state would grant “full, equal social and political rights to all its citizens, regardless of race or religion.” But at the same time, he removed the mention of the state’s democratic character. Almost every word of Sharett’s draft was discussed in the various circles of leadership over the days preceding the declaration of Israel’s establishment, and everyone was well aware of the ethical implications of every word. A reading of the minutes of these meetings shows that each person there was every bit as capable as Berenson, Rosen or the Justice Ministry staff of understanding the meaning, placement or absence of the word “democracy.”

The politicians of the time, sharp of eye and courageous of speech as they were, argued over the finest points and used them to express every shade of their political beliefs. Had any of them believed that democracy and Jewishness should share equal billing as the state’s main trait, he would, without a doubt, have overturned worlds to make that happen. But no one of that generation, except Zvi Berenson, thought so.

On the evening before the state was declared, Ben-Gurion sweetened the gloomy picture somewhat by adding the clause about gender equality to Sharett’s version, which mentioned only racial and religious equality. But when a member of his party tried to slip the clause about language equality back into the document about two hours before the ceremony, Ben-Gurion silenced him with his typical brusqueness.

These latter actions only prove what I believe needs no proof – that every single person in the leadership was well aware of the omission of democracy from the state’s basic character, and that not one of them saw that as a flaw. The parsimonious equalities that had been compromised upon at the end of a tough argument faithfully expressed exactly what they were willing to grant – and had no intention of granting what they were not. The State of Israel came into being as a Jewish state with some democratic traits and no walls came tumbling down, no lightning struck out of the blue, and no conflagration consumed it.

I regret that deeply. The State of Israel should have come into existence as a democratic state with some Jewish traits. I hope with all my heart that a future generation will reestablish my state according to that formula. While I am willing to work for that goal with all my strength and all my might, I am not willing to lie or invent a mythological past to get there. My opponents will always do that better than I.

If we ever go back, all of us, to telling the truth, we will also be able to agree that the “Jewish” component in the Declaration of Independence included ethnic baggage that contained no iota of what the new lawmakers seek to put there today. If we can agree on that, we can rescue the Declaration of Independence from the political battlefield and restore it to its rightful place: As a fascinating historical document whose most important component is the questions that arise from it, rather than the answers it provides.

Prof. Yoram Shachar teaches criminal law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya

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