7.5 surprising facts about Israel’s independence

Few can deny that Israel has made its mark on the world, but most people don’t know that the Jewish state almost didn’t exist. And not just because the tiny country was invaded by all its neighbors on its first full day as a state.

Against all odds, the Jewish state is celebrating three-quarters of a century. So, in honor of Israel’s 75th birthday, here are seven-and-a-half facts you didn’t know about the founding of the Jewish state.

1. The name “Israel” wasn’t an obvious choice!

Although today we know of the Jewish state as “Israel,” before the Declaration of Independence, there was no name. 

In early 1948, the Zionists were busy fighting for their lives, lobbying international governments, taking care of Holocaust refugees, absorbing immigrants and trying to build a country from scratch — not to mention cooking dinner and folding laundry. 

But the country-to-be needed a name. In classic Jewish fashion, no one could agree on what it should be.

“Judea” was suggested, but according to the Partition Plan, the mountains of Judea will be outside the borders of the Jewish State, so that wouldn’t make sense. Plus, the country would be home to Jews and Arabs, and Judea put the emphasis on Jews.

“Ever,” a biblical character to whom both Jews and Muslims trace their lineage, was also thrown out there as an idea, but that too was rejected.

“Zion,” which means Jerusalem, was a possibility, but again, Jerusalem wasn’t part of the Jewish state in the partition plan.

Finally, it was decided that the name would be the State of Israel, which reaffirms the connection between the land and the Jews, as in “the children of Israel” in the Torah. And that’s how Israel got its name.

2. Eddie Jacobson saved the day.

Former President Harry S. Truman (right) standing in front of a building with Eddie Jacobson (left), in Kansas City, Missouri, 1954. (Photo: US National Archives)

Did you know that in 1948, American recognition of Israel hinged on a traveling salesman?

Let’s back up. On November 29, 1947, the UN voted to partition this piece of land into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. Yup, the original two-state solution. But the plan went south almost immediately.

The Arabs rejected the plan and promised to wipe the Jewish state off the map if it were announced. Without international support, the safe haven for global Jewry would be doomed.

The Zionists needed a friend. A big friend. An American friend. But it wasn’t that easy. The U.S. State Department was not ready to commit to the Zionist dream.

Given the Arab world’s strong opposition to the idea and their control over the world’s oil resources, it wasn’t necessarily in America’s interests to support the emerging state.

The unborn Jewish state was on the verge of instantly becoming a pariah state, unless the Zionists could convince U.S. President Harry Truman to recognize the new country after it was announced. But it was far from clear that he would.

So, the Jewish Agency sent the famous Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to Washington. Surely, this gifted leader could convince the American president.

But no dice. Truman had become so frustrated with the endless Zionist lobbying that he refused to take any more meetings with Zionist leaders.

In order to get Weizmann through the door, the Jews needed a man on the inside. That man was Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish traveling salesman who just so happened to be Truman’s close friend. 

Reportedly, Jacobson met with President Truman and pleaded with him to meet Weizmann, who he called “the greatest Jew alive.” Truman just couldn’t say no to his old friend, and he agreed.

Truman met with Weizmann, and the U.S. subsequently became the first nation to recognize Israel on May 14, 1948. And it was all thanks to a Jewish traveling salesman from Missouri.

3. Czechoslovakia came to the rescue.

Did you know that the Jewish state got its weapons from a country that no longer exists? Before the Declaration of Independence, every Jew in Palestine knew that war was coming. And they knew they didn’t have a chance of winning without weapons.

But the U.S. had instituted an arms embargo against the Jewish state and cracked down on American citizens who tried to smuggle weapons across the ocean. Yikes.

Salvation came from the unlikeliest of places: a country with a history almost as complicated as Israel’s. Czechoslovakia was created in 1918, disassembled in WWII, reformed in 1946 and split for good in 1992. 

All this chaos left the two-year-old country desperate for cash. So, they struck a deal with the Jews and with the Arabs, selling weapons to both the Zionists and the Syrian Arab Liberation Army.

These weapons shipments to Israel were critical and saved the new Jewish State from annihilation.

As for the shipments to the Arabs, at first the Haganah — the Jewish defense organization prior to the IDF — tried sinking a ship carrying the weapons. But the weapons were salvaged and put back on a ship headed to Syria. 

Haganah ship Jewish State at Haifa Port, October 1947 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

So, the Haganah decided to teach the Syrians a lesson in Israeli chutzpah. The tiny Jewish navy seized the ship and ended up shooting the Syrians with their own weapons.

Without those Czechoslovakian arms shipments, the war could have ended differently. So, raise your glass to a country that no longer exists.

4. An exiled people’s return home was unprecedented.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence marked the first time that an exiled people successfully returned to their homeland en masse.

Throughout history, empires have conquered and wiped out smaller civilizations, either by force or assimilation. Even many mighty empires have been lost to history. But the Jews — a tiny, stateless nation — managed to survive, much to everyone’s astonishment. 

Three hundred years ago, when the French king, Louis the 14th, asked the famous philosopher Pascal to prove the existence of a supernatural force, Pascal responded: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty. The Jews.” 

Pascal never dreamed that this unlikely group of survivors would one day return home, build a state, fend off powerful invading armies, and go from an ancient tribe to a tech powerhouse. But Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists envisioned this, saying: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

5. “Rock of Israel” in the Declaration of Independence was a compromise.

The Jewish State’s Declaration of Independence doesn’t refer to God…or does it?

In the weeks leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an argument broke out over whether or not it should include God.

Religious Jews demanded the Jewish State’s Declaration of Independence include a reference to God. The secular block was firm that God had no place on the new state’s founding document. Talk about drama!

The morning of the signing ceremony rolled around, and still, no decision had been made. Future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion spent hours negotiating with both sides.

David Ben-Gurion signs the Declaration of Independence held by Moshe Sharet with Eliezer Kaplan looking on at the Tel Aviv Museum, on May 14, 1948. (Photo: Israel Government Press Office / Wikipedia Commons)

Finally, they came to an agreement with the declaration ending, “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel…”

This might sound like an odd compromise, but it’s actually brilliant. “Rock of Israel” can either be interpreted as a reference to God, as in “Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer,” or, as Ben-Gurion later explained, a reference to Jewish history and tradition.

So, what does it really mean? Rock of Israel only knows. 

6. Not all of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were present that day.

Not all of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence actually signed it on May 14, when statehood was announced.

At the bottom of Israel’s Declaration of Independence are the signatures of all 37 members of the Moetzet Ha’am, a provisional state council created before the state’s founding. 

However, only 25 of them were present in Tel Aviv when the actual declaration took place on May 14. The rest of the signatories could not be physically present for various reasons. 

One member was abroad, and the others were involved in defending the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. As a result, the 25 signatories present signed the declaration in alphabetical order, leaving spaces for the remaining members to sign at a later time.

The document with all the signatures is currently housed in Israel’s national archives in Jerusalem.

7. The Declaration was signed in a basement for logistical reasons.

Look closely at this image of the founding of the State of Israel:

The Israeli Declaration of Independence made on May 14, 1948, the British Mandate terminating soon afterward at midnight. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If you zoom in, you’ll see a few details that hint at the precarious nature of this moment.

Take the windows, for example, located at the top of the wall near the ceiling. Yes, Israel declared independence from a basement, a decision driven by the imminent threat of war.

The specific location was the basement of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, whose walls were covered in paintings that, let’s just say, weren’t quite appropriate for the Jewish State’s founding family photos.

So, they covered the paintings with a giant curtain and the sideways Israeli flags which…have the Jewish star 90 degrees off! Whoops. It’s finally time for that half-fact, and trust me, it’s a doozie.

7.5. Many Palestinians refer to Israel’s independence as the Nakba.

Many Palestinians refer to Israel’s independence as the Nakba, or Catastrophe.

For them, Independence Day is a day of mourning over the loss of their homes and the dispossession of Palestine by so-called Western colonialists.

The refugees who fled in 1948 were largely ostracized by the countries where they fled.

The UN has perpetuated their status as refugees and turned a blind eye to laws in Arab countries that continue to discriminate against Palestinians. 

Today, many people refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Jewish State, perpetuating the suffering of people on both sides of the conflict.

But, over the decades, there are those who have left behind the trauma of the Nakba and chosen the path of peace.

Today, in 2023, some countries that once refused to recognize Israel’s existence are now home to Israeli embassies, which fly Israeli flags for all to see.

Seventy-five years later, Israel is still building the plane while flying it, still beating the odds in order to survive, and still celebrating the many miracles that got us here.

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