I want to open this episode by wishing you all a chag sameach. That’s Hebrew for happy holiday. Uh, Noam? Passover is over? Yeah, I know, Passover has come and gone and Shavuot, aka, Pentecost (not sure anyone calls it that) is around the corner and National Ice Cream Day is still months away.
That’s real, by the way. It’s circled on my calendar and everything…it’s more for my wife than anything else, she’s a cookies and cream kind of person…and I’m definitely a pizza guy, so it’s not really for me.
But the holiday I’m celebrating today isn’t mentioned in the Bible. It’s not even universally accepted as a day of celebration. And worst of all, it usually doesn’t involve pizza. Seventy-five years ago today, a tiny, unsmiling man with flyaway hair ascended a stage in the Tel Aviv Museum.
Before him sat men and women who had dedicated their lives to ushering in this very moment. The dour-faced man rapped his gavel once on the slapped-together podium. But before he could get a word out, the room erupted in song. The Philharmonic Orchestra sitting in the balcony scrambled to match the tune.
Everybody knew the words. Because the song they were singing was Hatikvah. (Nerd corner alert: You may think of Hatikvah as the Israeli national anthem, and it is. But Hatikvah didn’t actually officially become the national anthem until 2004. For more on that, see our Hatikvah episode from Season 1.)
The man on stage was David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, leader of the Yishuv, and soon-to-be prime minister of the Jewish state. And the building where they stood? Its address was about to change. Because when Ben Gurion took the stage of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, he was entering a museum in a region known as Palestine. But when he left the podium, he was standing in the land of Israel in the State of Israel.
This is it, folks. The final chapter of the story we’ve been telling for the past two weeks, of the Jewish state’s six months in limbo. We’ve come to the end, to the moment that a promise became a reality.
The crowds dancing in the streets could not have known that this moment almost didn’t happen. That the lofty declaration from which Ben-Gurion read had only been completed a few hours prior. That its 37 signatories – 35 men, 2 women – were in fact signing a blank piece of paper, as there had been no time to copy the final draft of the declaration onto a scroll.
Nerd corner: You’ve probably heard of Golda Meir, and one day, we’ve gotta do an episode all about the other female signatory, Rachel Cohen-Kagan.) And they didn’t know that Ben-Gurion – their soon-to-be new Prime Minister, the man who had ushered the Jewish state into existence – wrote in his diary that night “I mourn in the midst of rejoicing… Will Tel Aviv be bombed tonight?”
Because, as you know from the previous two episodes, the newborn nation was locked in a war that was about to escalate significantly. There is no doubt that at least some of the celebrants dancing in the streets that night would be dead within the year. But tonight, they danced. David Ben-Gurion fretted. And just across the borders, Israel’s neighbors prepared to invade.
Now, maybe you’re thinking that I’m going to tell you about a particularly decisive battle in the fight against the Arab armies. Or, maybe you’re gearing up to hear about a massacre. Something bloody and dramatic.
But that’s not what this story is going to be about. The drama of today’s episode isn’t found in guns and death tolls and daring raids, but in cross-outs, in scribbles, in heated arguments over a single word. The heroes of this tale aren’t soldiers crossing enemy territory under cover of darkness, but a bunch of lawyers huddled around their tables in the wee hours of the morning, wrestling with questions to which there was no single satisfactory answer.
And maybe you’re thinking really, Noam? This is the last episode of the series, and you’re trying to tell me about… editing? And…I hear you! But I want you to consider this. Those arguments? Those cross-outs? Those amendments and revisions and debates? They’re still happening today. The three weeks that Yishuv leaders spent drafting and erasing and refining? They’re the reason that Israel looks the way it does today.
The Declaration of Independence that they produced is the basis for many of the country’s laws. And it represents the compromises required of a people who are famously unable to agree on anything. Who are still, in their way, figuring out what it means to have a Jewish state, in all its contradiction and complexity. Let me state this more empathically, the Israel you see today, the internal challenges, the internal debates… so much of that goes back to this moment.
Let’s go back to April and May of 1948, the final, tumultuous weeks of the British Mandate, to the dark moments of worry and doubt. To the fight waged not for Israel’s existence, but for its character, its very soul. Because as we reflect on Israel’s 75th independence day, I want us all to reflect on the words of Daniel Elbaum, head of the Jewish Agency’s North America division and President and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development:
“Against all odds and in the most perilous situation, Israel managed to survive. Its early leaders overcame disagreements, disunity, differing ideologies. They set aside their egos and their differences and their doubts, and they worked together towards the goal they all shared: the creation of a Jewish state. And if they could overcome their challenges, so can today’s leaders, today’s communities, today’s Jews. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.”
That resonates with me on so many levels. And I think there’s something special about the fact that this statement comes from someone who works for the same agency that Ben-Gurion once headed. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without the Jewish Agency, there would be no Jewish state.
It was the Jewish Agency that brought the Zionist cause before the UN and world leaders, advocating for the right of Jews to immigrate to Palestine, to build an army, to declare a homeland. And it was as leader of the Jewish Agency and head of the Yishuv that David Ben-Gurion stood in the Tel Aviv Art Museum on May 14, 1948, to declare the state he’d been fighting for for so long.
So with that…
Chapter Three: The Hope
The clock was ticking in Mandate Palestine. Broadly speaking, the Jews of the Yishuv had rejoiced when the UN voted in November of 1947 to partition the region into two states – one Jewish, one Arab. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, the Jewish people would be the masters of their destinies. A free people in their ancestral homeland.
I’m going to rewind a little, because if you’re anything like me, you need a bit of a refresher before all of a sudden jumping into new content. Like, is it really possible to understand anything from season 4 of Succession without the cliff notes of season 3? It’s not!
So here we go: the transition was not going smoothly. Because within 24 hours of the UN vote, civil war erupted in Palestine. An Arab attack on a Jewish convoy. Hadassah. A Jewish raid on an Arab village. Deir Yassin. A massacre. Convoy of 35. An expulsion of a few communities. An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye, Arabs and Jews alike propelled by blind fury.
And now it was late April of 1948, and the British – who had administered the territory since World War II – were packing up their brollies and jumpers (that’s my British accent) and preparing to return to jolly old England.
Ben-Gurion had been working toward this moment for decades, but his diary entries from the time are decidedly somber. He knew that by pulling out of the region, the British may as well have been rolling out a welcome mat for invading Arab forces. Of course, he wanted the Brits gone. Of course, he wanted an independent state. But he knew, perhaps better than anything, that independence carried a hefty price tag. One that the tiny Jewish state might not be able to pay.
Compounding his worries was the Americans’ alarming about-face on the issue of the Jewish state. The United States had voted to partition Palestine back in 1947, but by March of ’48, the U.S. State Department’s enthusiasm had waned considerably.
In the words of Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler, who wrote the book on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which is called, cleverly, “Israel’s Declaration of Independence,” see what they did there? “American recognition of the Jewish state seemed foolish… around 600,000 Jews, without leaders… without a formal army, and besieged by the thirty million Arabs who sat on half the world’s oil.”
Plus, the U.S. feared that alienating the Arabs would push them straight into the arms of the Soviets. Worst of all, the Americans had turned to the UN Security Council to officially propose an alternate solution to partition. And as if all that weren’t enough, the Jewish community of Jerusalem was isolated and starving.
Yeah, it’s safe to say that Ben-Gurion had a lot on his plate. And yet, in the three weeks before the British were slated to leave, his mind turned to yet another battle — this one less bloody, but no less important.
A bunch of my friends love Settlers of Catan. They love those strategy games where you have to build a civilization from scratch. (I don’t….I kind of just look at them bewildered while they play with so much vigor and energy.)
But, I think they love getting to decide what resources they need. What they’re willing to sacrifice. How to conquer and create. But the thing about those games is that you can walk away when you’re getting frustrated (or if you’re like me, just not play altogether). The only thing at stake is bragging rights, and that’s only if you play against competitive siblings or friends.
That is not true of building an actual country. Ben-Gurion and his fellow Yishuv leaders had a lot of decisions to make. And they couldn’t simply walk away when they disagreed. The future of the Jewish people was at stake.
Simply put, they were fighting a war over the character of the Jewish state. Would it be a socialist paradise? A religious one? How would it be governed? What would its borders look like? What rights would citizens enjoy? Different kinds of citizens? As you might imagine, Ben-Gurion had strong opinions about all these questions. But so did other Zionist leaders.
It was against this tumultuous backdrop that the first draft of the Israeli Declaration of Independence came to be. And here’s the wild part. You ready? The first guy to take a crack at it was a guy that I am betting my mortgage on, 95% of those listening have never heard of, 33-year-old lawyer, Mordechai Beham. (To be honest, I had no clue who he was until researching for this episode.)
To quote Lin Manuel Miranda, this guy was writing like it was going out of style. That’s a big responsibility for a relatively young man in the early decades of his career. But here’s the thing. Beham’s boss was Felix Rosenblüth (later known as Pinchas Rosen), who would soon lead Israel’s justice ministry. And since he was busy doing things like, you know, setting up his new country’s legal system, Rosenblüth needed to delegate.
Crazy. Imagine being so important that you delegate your country’s Declaration of Independence to a junior member of your team. But honestly, this story is not out of character for the Israel of 1948. So many of Israel’s battles were fought by the young.
Think back to our last episode. The commander of the Lamed Hey, Danny Mas, was only 25 years old when he set out on his tragic mission to resupply the Etzion bloc. Israel — or at least, the community that would become Israel — was scrambling. It was all hands on deck.
Beham’s assignment just happened to coincide with the first days of Passover, roughly three weeks before the British were set to leave Palestine. No doubt the story of the Exodus weighed heavily on his mind as he drafted the document that ushered in a new era of Jewish liberation.
But equally heavy on his mind was the very important question of, “What the HECK am I doing?” And so he turned to three documents for inspiration: Do you know what they are? Do you? Here it is…the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the Hebrew Bible – not going to date that one. His draft, though short, covered a lot of ground…
Most importantly, he wrote about the historic and spiritual connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, as promised by God. The pain and danger of exile, which culminated in the extermination of a third of world Jewry. The validity of the Jewish state, as conferred by the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition Plan. The inalienable right of the Jewish people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Sounds pretty solid, right? But the Yishuv’s legal department tore it apart. See, many of the Yishuv’s top brass just happened to be secular socialists with family roots in Europe. Beham’s talk of God and natural rights — well, it made them uncomfortable. And by May 5th — a mere 10 days before the British were set to leave and the Yishuv was set to declare independence — Beham’s boss asked another lawyer to take a crack at drafting a declaration.
Tzvi Berenson was a pretty impressive guy: a legal advisor to the Yishuv’s labor union and legal department who later went on to serve on Israel’s Supreme Court. So it’s not super surprising that his draft is pretty, well, legalistic, emphasizing the sovereignty of the state.
But embedded in Berenson’s draft was a very important assertion: that of a single law for all citizens. Regardless of, quote, “race, religion, language or sex,” every citizen of the state of Israel would be treated equally under the law. He made his position on minorities even clearer in the next paragraph.
Quote, “We call on the Arabs in the Jewish state to cooperate as citizens bearing equal rights and duties.” Imagine that for a second. The Yishuv was in the middle of a war, attacked daily by Arabs within and outside of the proposed borders of the Jewish state. And yet, here was a vision for a state that wouldn’t always be torn apart by war. Here was hope for a better future. Here was both an invitation to the state’s minorities, and a promise.
As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, the promise wasn’t always honored…and the invitation wasn’t always answered. But I want to linger on this for a moment, because it’s incredibly important. I hope this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, but Israel has a lot of critics. You’ve heard all the buzzwords. Jewish supremacy. Judaizing. Apartheid.
But here, in a draft of its Declaration of Independence, is a preoccupation with doing the right thing. With ensuring equal rights for all. And while that ethos may have gotten lost at times, it nonetheless animated the Zionist project from the very beginning. Actually, it did not just animate the project. It defined it.
So the Yishuv adopted Berenson’s draft, right?
No, no, no. Not so fast. Because on May 12th, 1948 — yup, that’s two days before the British are poised to leave and the Yishuv is supposed to declare independence — the Yishuv’s leadership got just a little distracted. See, Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) — the head of the Yishuv’s delegation to the United Nations — had just gotten back from the United States with some alarming news.
Remember when we mentioned that the American State Department was unenthused about the prospect of a Jewish state? Well, they’d just instituted an arms embargo against the Yishuv, even threatening a blockade of the coast, to prevent any smuggling. That’s right.
The Americans set up an arms embargo mere days before they knew — because everyone knew! — that multiple Arab armies were set to invade. Nerd corner alert: that embargo would continue into the early 1960s. Pretty crazy, huh?
To make matters worse, the State Department had its eye on the Jewish Americans anxious to help their brothers and sisters across the sea, explicitly forbidding them from moving arms to the Haganah or even enlisting in the fight for Israeli independence.
This policy, thankfully, was not really enforced; some of the greatest heroes of the War of Independence were Americans who had volunteered. Finally, if the U.S. managed to convince other powerful allies not to support Jewish independence, the Yishuv was, frankly, screwed.
And now, they were in crisis. An even worse crisis, I mean, beyond all the fun stuff they were already dealing with. Should they continue drafting a Declaration of Independence with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads? (Greek mythology nerds, that one was for you!) Or should they delay the declaration and buy themselves more time?
I remind you: two days. Two days til the Yishuv was set to declare independence. And yet, here they were, voting on whether to move forward. The Yishuv’s provisional government talked for 10 hours. What would happen? The suspense is killing me!
But in the end, six of the ten cabinet members present voted to move ahead with independence. So close! Think about where we’d be today if just one or two people had voted against independence. It’s one of those what ifs of history that sends a shiver up your spine, and I love asking those what ifs, you know that from all these episodes.
It was decided. They were moving forward. Which meant that they still needed a Declaration of Independence. The task fell to contestant number 3! Moshe Shertok – the bearer of the bad news himself, who had traveled from the U.S. to Tel Aviv to warn the Yishuv about the Americans’ hesitation.
It made sense to assign the job to Shertok. First of all, he was a former journalist with beautiful literary Hebrew. But more importantly, he knew the UN. He knew the Americans. And his draft of the Declaration sought to persuade them that everything would be okay. That a world with an independent Israel was better than a world without it.
And so his 22-point draft reminded the world of the Yishuv’s rigid commitment to honoring the borders proposed by the partition plan. Now, on its face, this was kind of ridiculous. The Yishuv could honor the original borders till the cows came home, but the Arabs certainly weren’t going to.
Plus, Shertok was conveniently omitting one tiny detail. The Zionists themselves were not exactly thrilled about the plan’s proposed borders. A small but vocal contingent of hardliners were quite displeased about the allocation of land. And since those hardliners were armed, they proved rather difficult to control. So Shertok’s commitment to honoring the proposed borders was — well, I don’t want to say it was insincere. But I think it’s safe to say that it was certainly optimistic.
Shertok worked through the night, again writing like it was going out of style, to finish his draft on May 13, 1948 — again, literally one day before Ben-Gurion was to declare independence….Are you getting as nervous as me? Literally one day! I like procrastinating as much as the next guy, but there are levels to the game…
Ben-Gurion didn’t appreciate Shertok’s response to the very real pressure from Washington. Because as far as Israel’s future prime minister was concerned, the state of Israel already existed. It didn’t need the approval of the United States or the legitimacy of the UN.
Nerd corner: seven years after this drama, Ben-Gurion would go on to coin a phrase that readily summed up his opinion of the UN. The official Hebrew name for the UN is Ha’oomot HaMeuhadot. But in vernacular Hebrew, the UN is known as Oom. Or, in Ben Gurion’s parlance, Oom, shmoom. You don’t need to speak Hebrew to understand that this is a Yiddish-inflected dismissal, shorthand for, “I can’t be bothered with these idiots. Nothing they say matters to me.“
So perhaps it’s not super-surprising that Ben Gurion rejected Shertok’s attempt to appease the UN. It’s not that he was opposed to the UN’s authority. But the UN hadn’t enforced the borders it had proposed, leaving the Yishuv deeply vulnerable. The Jewish people were done pandering to greater powers. They were done letting others dictate their destiny. I mean, wasn’t that the whole point of Zionism?
So after a lively public debate about the merits of Shertok’s declaration, with less than 24 hours till the British officially left, Ben-Gurion decided to draft his own Declaration of Independence, based on, but different from, the previous drafts.
A few hours later, he brought it before the Yishuv’s de-facto government. For the next two hours, they debated. And what do you think the biggest point of contention was? Borders? Citizens’ rights? The structure of the government?
No, no, and no. The biggest sticking point was… God. See, Ben-Gurion never mentioned God explicitly, choosing instead the phrase Tzur Yisrael, or the “Rock of Israel.” It seemed like a decent compromise, acknowledging a higher power without referring to one by name.
In Israel, as in other countries, God is a controversial subject. The religious want Him front and center. The secular want Him out of their hair. And unfortunately for Ben Gurion, representatives from both sides were in his proto-government.
On the religious side was Rabbi Aryeh Leib Fishman Maimon, who argued for amending the phrase to Tzur Yisrael v’go’alo — Rock and redeemer of Israel. It seems like a relatively small change, right? It’s not explicit-explicit, and after all, was this or was this not a Jewish state? And what is a Jewish state without reference to God?
But on the secular side, Aharon Zisling – who would soon become the Jewish state’s Minister of Agriculture – argued to strike the phrase entirely. Zisling was an atheist, more interested in the here and now than in some theoretical concept of “redemption.”
It was the eternal argument of Israeli society. One we’re having to this day. (Check out the links in the show notes, you’ve got to see more for all of this.) But after two hours of arguing, Ben-Gurion struck a compromise.
As he wrote later: quote, “I explained that [Rabbi] Fishman and his associates could interpret the words with trust in Tzur Israel to mean trust in God, and Zisling and his associates could interpret it to mean the strength of the Jewish people… in the end they accepted my argument.”
Well, sort of. Because Rabbi Fishman Maimon did something a little sneaky when the time came to sign the Declaration. Along with his name, he included the Hebrew acronym “Bet Hey,” for “B’Ezrat Hashem,” or “With the help of God.” Love the hustle, Rabbi, love it!
Honest question — all these arguments sound a bit exhausting. And perhaps, a bit silly. Was this the best use of the Yishuv’s time? Wasn’t there a war to fight? A country to run?
But here’s the thing. The Yishuv’s proto-government took its job extremely seriously. They were very much aware that they were building the blueprint for the Jewish state. That the Declaration would, at the very least, enshrine Israel’s principles and values, even as so much else remained uncertain. For example, the declaration did not delineate the country’s borders. There were too many variables to consider. Too many unknowns. 75 years later, Israel’s borders remain unclear to many.
And so does its interpretation of democracy.
Now, I want to be clear. Israel holds free and fair elections open to all citizens. But the question of what it means to be Jewish and democratic still lingers. And so it’s interesting that Ben Gurion’s version of the Declaration does not refer to Israel as a democracy. Fun fact: The word “democracy” is simply not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.
But before we assign some nefarious motive to Ben-Gurion, let’s use Occam’s razor here…I think we should remember that the simplest explanation is most likely to be true. And that is that the Yishuv was already democratic, choosing its representatives through direct elections.
Universal suffrage was extended, too, to Arab citizens of Israel from the moment of its founding. And the text emphasized that the Jewish state would “be based on freedom, justice and peace” and “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
After three weeks of revision and rewriting, time was up. The moment had arrived for Ben-Gurion to read the declaration that had inspired such fierce debate. So much was still up in the air. The new country lacked clear borders. A constitution. A single friendly neighbor.
Remember, at this point, some in the Yishuv were still operating under the assumption, or perhaps the hope, or maybe even the delusion, that a Palestinian Arab state might emerge, ending the hostilities.
But the time to contemplate the future was over. Because here it was; the future had arrived.
And now, we’re right back to where we started: 4 PM on May 14, 1948. A room full of people bursting into an impromptu version of Hatikvah. Ben Gurion, unsmiling, announcing that he would read the text that had been so painstakingly worked and reworked.
And whether they heard the declaration read through the crackle of the radio or in the hush of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, Jews all over the world paused. David Horowitz — one of the Jewish Agency delegates in the museum that day — later reflected “a feeling that grips a man but once in his lifetime came upon us. High above us we seemed to hear the beating of the wings of history.” For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people had a home. Fractious and imperfect and embattled and theirs.
And in the hushed, expectant silence, Ben-Gurion reminded every Jew in the world of his and her connection to the State of Israel.
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here, their spiritual, religious, and national identity was formed. Here, they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here, they wrote and gave the Bible to the world…” And then, the declaration’s most iconic words – which might just sound familiar to listeners of this podcast. “Anu Machrizim B’Zot,” We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.
In the room, around the world, a rustle of surprise. Because, you see, up until that very moment, no one knew what their new home would be named. What do you name a country that is simultaneously brand new and thousands of years old? That holds special significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike? That would be a Jewish state with a sizable non-Jewish minority?
Zion? Judea? Ivriya? Herzliya? Even Eretz Yisrael?
Ben-Gurion had been the one to propose, simply, Israel. A name that reiterated the Jews’ connection to their ancient homeland, without implying exclusivity. Judea was for Jews. Zion or Herzliya was for Zionists. Eretz Yisrael smacked of maximalism, of the Revisionist vision of a Jewish home on both sides of the Jordan River.
But Israel seemed neutral enough to appeal to all the state’s inhabitants, whether or not they were Jewish or Zionist. After all, you can be an Israeli without being either of those things. Plus, Israel was easy enough to translate into Arabic: Eesra’il.
Nerd corner alert (wow, we’ve done a lot this episode): the Yishuv’s proto-government had even discussed giving the country an Arabic name in addition to the Hebrew. That Arabic name would be, of course, Filastin. Palestine. But this idea was quickly discarded under the assumption – or again, maybe the hope – that Palestine would be the name of a future Arab state elected along Israel’s borders.
There’s something so sad and so beautiful about that hope. It reminds me of just how much Israel’s founders didn’t know. Because that’s the nature of building something for future generations. You’ll never get to see it bear fruit. You just have to hope that it does. That your efforts will be appreciated and stewarded and maintained. And that, I believe, was likely the spirit in which Ben-Gurion read the Declaration.
He knew the world could very well end tomorrow. That his newborn state might not survive. And still, he spoke the state into being, in the hope that it would endure. Against all odds and likely surpassing Ben Gurion’s wildest dreams, it did. Exactly 75 years later, here we are.
Who’s we? An educator who has dedicated his life and career to teaching the story of the Jewish people, including Israel. An audience, you, that’s engaged and electric and hungry to learn. A team that works tirelessly to bring you the story.
Seventy-five years of history. The unknowable vistas of the future, beyond the horizon.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence wasn’t perfect. I mean, how could it be? The thing was written hours before the deadline, amid endless debate. Ben-Gurion reassured his cabinet that they could change it later. That they had more immediate concerns. That they would draft a Constitution… later. That all they needed for now was this declaration, and also the will to survive the tidal wave about to engulf them. But none of these promises came to be. The text of the Declaration remains unchanged. Israel still lacks a constitution — a fact that has recently sent the country into a tailspin.
Was the rush to declare independence a mistake?
Should they have waited?
Stalled for time so they could add a constitution or perfect the declaration?
After all, they were building a state. Should they have been thinking a little more long-term?
I posed this question to Dan Elbaum, our friend from the Jewish Agency. And he said something that I can’t get out of my head. I’m going to quote it here.
“For me, the central takeaway is not that David Ben-Gurion and the other members of The Jewish Agency were godlike figures who made no mistakes. They made many, some of them that deserve to be judged harshly through the lens of history. Yet, that is perhaps exactly the point. They did not know what we know now. They did not know that they would succeed in creating a Jewish state that would thrive and succeed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. They were struggling to do something that had never been done – to create a state for a people who had been stateless for 2000 years. What they accomplished was nothing less than the most impressive accomplishment of the 21st century, and to understand that, it is vital that we be honest about how it all happened.”
So here we are, being honest.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence was put together hastily, under tremendous pressure. It left certain enormous questions unanswered. And, the country has not always lived up to the lofty ideals enshrined in its declaration.
And despite all of this, to me, the Israeli Declaration of Independence — like Israel itself — is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that required human participation. Yes, it’s an imperfect document with an imperfect history. But it was the very first example in 2000 years of the Jewish people writing their own destiny. And for that reason alone, I’m wishing you a chag sameach. Because regardless of your views on the Israeli government or Israeli policy, this is a holiday. One that marks our rebirth not as objects, but as subjects. A free people in our land. The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
Now, this was in no way the end of the story. In fact, it was the beginning. But it’s the end of this particular story, of the six months between partition and independence. It was a pleasure and an honor to recount it to you. And now, at long last, here are your fast facts. Normally, we do five facts per episode, so I hope you’ll permit me to do six — two for each episode in this series.
- On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to split Palestine into two states – one for Jews, one for Arabs. Though the Yishuv generally celebrated the news, the Arab world thought an injustice had been done to them. Arab gangs began attacking Jews in the streets, and skirmishes soon escalated into a civil war.
- Israel’s war of independence had two stages: the six months of internal fighting, and then the invasion of multiple Arab armies on May 15, 1948. Though the Arab forces were disorganized and poorly supplied, they had one advantage: control of the roads that linked vulnerable, isolated Jewish communities to one another.
- Arab forces found some of their greatest triumphs on the road to Jerusalem, where the Jewish population was effectively cut off from the rest of the Yishuv. Supply runs were perilous, and hundreds of Jews were murdered trying to bring food and aid to Jerusalem.
- During the civil war, Jews and Arabs alike built their national narratives. On the Jewish side, the Arabs’ brutal attack on and mutilation of 35 Haganah fighters took on the status of myth. And on the Arab side, the massacre at Deir Yassin had a similar effect.
- Amid this chaos and peril, the leaders of the Yishuv were fighting their own war, for Israel’s soul. The new Declaration of Independence would define the country’s character, outline its priorities, and guide future generations. The Yishuv’s leaders wrote and rewrote, debated and bickered, until Ben-Gurion finally read out the Declaration on the evening of May 14, 1948.
- The Declaration of Independence reaffirmed the historical and spiritual connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, reflected on the past 2,000 years of exile, and laid out the ideals and aspirations of this modern Jewish democratic state. Mere hours after Ben Gurion read out this historic document, multiple Arab armies attacked, ushering in Phase Two of Israel’s bloody War of Independence.
Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it…and it’s the last one of the season, so stay with me here.
As I was researching this episode, I thought a lot about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (you may have picked that up throughout the episode). If you don’t know the music, I’ll spare you my rapping, but seriously, check it out, what are you waiting for?
Anyway, there are a decent number of parallels between Hamilton and the founding of Israel. The fight for independence. The infighting about the right way to build a state. Semi-villainous Brits. But two lines keep bouncing around in my head. (Of course, in addition to “writing like it’s going out of style.”)
Like the American founding fathers, Israel’s first leaders certainly felt that history has its eyes on you. It’s apparent in every line of the declaration, which honors the past and looks toward the future. They couldn’t have known how their country would turn out. They could only hope that they were making the kinds of decisions that would allow the Jewish state to flourish long after they were gone.
I don’t know what they’d think of the Israel of 2023. But I am very, very certain of one thing. And that is that every single person who fought to usher Israel into the world in 1948 – whether on a battlefield or in front of the UN – would remind us that history has its eyes on us, too.
We are not simply inheriting. It’s our responsibility to keep building on their vision. To be prophets who demand and envision a better future for all inhabitants, including the most vulnerable, and guardians, to safeguard the values that have been outlined for us. To protect this legacy.
Which brings me to the second line from Hamilton. Because then, as now, Israel is “a great unfinished symphony.” We’re still answering the questions that the Declaration of Independence posed. What does it mean to be Jewish and democratic? What should Israel’s relationship be to world Jewry? To its neighbors? To the Palestinians? What should its borders look like? Its constitution?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. And I’m sure that all of the listeners of this podcast would have vastly different opinions, just like our founding fathers and mothers. But we have something that they didn’t have. We grew up with a Jewish state.
Today, literally, as we release this episode, we celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary. But tomorrow, and every day after, we have to confront the enormity of our task. Israel’s founders gave us the privilege and that responsibility of building up and safeguarding the Jewish state. It’s up to each of us to decide how to use it.
I close this miniseries with words from the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory. Quote, “I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll.” Friends, let’s all add our letters.