In 1863, Jules Verne wrote a science fiction novel set almost a hundred years later. It described a future in which people traveled on roads paved with asphalt in carriages powered by gas-fired engines. A war between the great powers would be universally feared as it might involve the detonation of super-bombs that could flatten entire cities. Among its other predictions were that inhabitants of these technologically advanced metropolises would be able to speak with one another at vast distances, but that many poor people would huddle in rags under bridges. Verne’s publisher rejected the manuscript, considering its tale too improbable.
Roughly three generations later, Nikolai Tesla predicted the creation of cell phones and the internet. His prognostications were likewise dismissed as absurd.
However, there was one group who, long before it happened, anticipated another of the last century’s greatest marvels: the creation of the state of Israel. Christians awaiting the end times knew the Jews would reassemble in Palestine, recreating their ancient state. Not only was this destined, they said, but it would be a certain harbinger of the coming apocalypse. Yet a hundred years prior to Israel’s declaration of independence, virtually everyone else—including a great proportion of the Jews returning to Palestine—thought the idea was preposterous. How could a country be fashioned from among a people whose nation had been obliterated almost two thousand years earlier and who were oppressed minorities, speaking countless tongues, in dozens of countries on every inhabitable continent?
That event prompted the country’s Declaration of Independence. This is the subject of Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler’s excellent new book Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Remarkably, it’s the first that makes a serious examination of the subject, one that becomes far more timely and relevant as the country faces another war. With missiles both targeting Israel and being launched from within its borders, it seems especially worth examining: What did its authors intend? Is Israel what they hoped it would be?
Doubtless, nearly all of us know the resounding concluding lines that Jefferson provided to America’s Declaration: “We mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” For the signers of that document knew that all of them might be hanged. But in many respects, the circumstances under which the Israeli version was produced were even more treacherous. Not only was another war raging—one which would take the lives of one percent of the country’s population—but the Israeli pronouncement was made in a small Tel Aviv building chosen in part because it was believed that it was sufficiently inconspicuous that it would not serve as a target for Egyptian air force pilots. Moreover, the copy that Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion held before the press was blank as there had not been time to print it, and the name of the country would be Israel was unknown even to many members of Ben-Gurion’s government.
Five complete drafts of the declaration were prepared. The first three of these were entirely different from one another. That partly reflected the fact that the numerous Jewish factions in Palestine had radically divergent ideas of what Judaism was and what the new state should be. Even so, the Zionists seeking a formal status of nationhood had organized themselves into an umbrella organization that functioned under the name of the Yishuv. The term literally means “settlement” in Hebrew, as it reflected the fact that Jews who sought to recreate a Jewish state had been returning and settling in Palestine since the early nineteenth century, and it was these Jews—rather than those who had remained as an oppressed minority under centuries of Ottoman rule—who guided the fight for a Jewish state.
The Yishuv had three main competing factions. On the far left was Mapam. This was a Communist front group, and some of its leaders were likely Soviet agents. While Mapam’s members were intensely conscious of their ethnic identity, they were, unsurprisingly, averse to the Jewish faith, anti-capitalist, hostile to Britain and the United States, and pro-Soviet. On the right were the Revisionist Jews. Followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky were typically religious, ardently militaristic, and opposed to a partition of the country into Jewish and Arab sections. In the middle stood Labor Zionism. Led by David Ben-Gurion, it composed much the largest section. As it was socialist, its members were often agnostic or atheist. At the same time, it was proud of Jewish tradition, and its members typically venerated the Bible, whether or not they believed in it as a revealed religion. As large as the Labor Zionist faction was, it included large numbers of Marxists, non-Marxist socialists, and what would probably today be called left-of-center Democrats.
Yet the first three versions of the Declaration did not separately represent the beliefs of these three factions. That was because by April 1948 all three groups understood that as Britain’s mandate was set to end in the middle of May, a document had to be produced quickly. This is also why many of the functions of the government had been delegated into a thirteen-member committee called the Minhelet HaAm, or the People’s Administration. As the largest faction, Labor Zionism dominated, but it also included representatives from Mapam, the Revisionists, and important religious authorities, including one on behalf of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.
Their urgency was compelled by the facts on the ground. The British army and administration were already retreating, and everyday life was becoming chaotic wherever the Yishuv lacked direct influence. Moreover, as the British were convinced that the new Israeli regime would be pro-Soviet, they re-supplied Jordan and Egypt with weapons and then imposed an arms embargo on the region. Meanwhile, Arab troops were attacking Israeli civilians, Jewish forces in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had been cut off from one another, and the leader of the Palestinian cause, Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini of Jerusalem, had rejected the U.N. partition of the country and was openly calling for a second Jewish genocide and speaking out in favor of the actions of his war-time ally, Adolf Hitler.
So a Declaration would have to be issued on or before the day that the British Mandate ended. In the minds of the Revisionists, this meant that the proclamation ought to be issued immediately. However, the Labor Zionists, under Ben-Gurion’s leadership, correctly recognized that this would offend the countries invested in the creation of the U.N., and that it was, therefore, necessary to wait until the formal end-date of the Mandate. Yet even this left only a few weeks for the declaration’s composition.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the first draft was solicited from a British-educated attorney named Mordecai Beham, and, either acting alone or in partial collaboration with a cultured Israeli-American rabbi named Harry Davidowitz, Beham composed a conscious and unembarrassed imitation of the American Declaration. This version ended with a parallel phrasing, calling for a “mutual pledge to each other of our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Prominently set within it as well, is the expression “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as it incorporated an Anglo-American conception of natural rights. Brief as it is, the Beham-Davidowitz draft also made unabashed reference to a biblical claim to Israel.
Little of this version survived. Indeed, an argument may be made that the only important feature of the first draft that turned up in the final rendering was the phrase “Rock of Israel,” as a euphemism for God. This terminology proved desirable as it is not one of God’s holy names, and most religious Jews believe that these epithets should never be pronounced in full.
Because the country lacks a written Constitution, Israel’s Declaration of Independence has special significance.
The lawyer who next took a crack at authorship, Zvi Berenson, re-wrote the document in toto. His aim was to produce a draft that would meet the needs and wants of the Labor Zionists and to place the Declaration in line with the United Nations partition plan for Palestine, along with U.N. ideas of human rights.
Conscious that many members of Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionist coalition would not want too much emphasis placed upon biblical claims, Berenson hacked away at these, as he also removed Beham’s natural rights language, replacing this with a more statist conception for the derivation of national powers and authority. Included, however, in Berenson’s version was the statement that everyone living in Israel would have the same rights within a democratic state, one that guaranteed equality under the law regardless of race, sex, or religion. It also included language from the United Nations and from Franklin Roosevelt’s idea of the Four Freedoms under which the state should assure its citizens not only of freedom of speech and conscience but from want of basic things like food, shelter, and water. All of these pronouncements would remain except for the explicit reference to the future country as a democracy.
A third draft was then prepared by an attorney with an unusual background: Herschel Lauterpacht was a professor at the University of Cambridge, specializing in International Law. At the same time, he had been raised Orthodox and born in the Pale of Settlement. Reflecting his legal training, his somewhat lengthier draft included a number of statements in favor of Kantian notions about peace among fraternal and law-abiding states, and it attached these beliefs to a series of claims that Israel’s creation was demanded as a form of “justice” for the sufferings of its people, most particularly in the Holocaust. These legalistic assertions were placed alongside expansive references to Israel’s biblical claims to statehood and explicit mention of the ”Lord of Hosts.” Most of these latter references were removed in the penultimate draft, which was prepared by the Ben-Gurion ally Moshe Shertok, who would later become Prime Minister as Moshe Sharett. This rendering is close to the final version which was presented by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948.
The last, late-night conferences on the draft which had been prepared by Shertok involved all the factions within the 13-member guiding committee of the Minhelet HaAm. Because three members could not attend in the midst of the fighting, there were only ten votes to count. With six voting in favor, the resolution for the Declaration passed by a single vote at three in the morning. Ben-Gurion’s announcement followed within an hour.
Nonetheless, several important points were decided in these meetings. First, Ben-Gurion wisely persuaded his confrères that the Declaration should not reference the borders for Israel proposed by the U.N. as these might change through the fighting already taking place. Second, the committee agreed to the name Israel for the new nation. Lastly, the Declaration said that Israel would have a written Constitution by that October—something it still does not have.
Because the country lacks a written Constitution, the Declaration has special significance. This statement needs to be qualified though as in the first years of the country’s founding the Israeli Supreme Court repeatedly ruled that it was not a binding statement of national law but rather a guiding set of principles. Still, because it holds such a vital place, it is remarkable that Rogachevsky and Zigler are the first to examine its history in detail, and ignorance about its history remains profound. Indeed, as I am writing this, I can look at Wikipedia’s account of the writing of the declaration, and see that it makes no mention of Lauterpacht’s draft. In addition, it incorrectly states that Beham worked only on revised drafts and not the initial one. It would be hard therefore to understate the importance of Rogachevsky and Zigler’s work, which is clear, intelligent, scrupulous, critical, and informative.
One point that they mention may be especially worth emphasizing. The progenitors of Zionism believed that the possession of a state would transform Jewish thought. Perhaps it has done that. Thomas Sowell has written of the so-called middle-men minorities—Jews, South Asians, and overseas Chinese—who have historically specialized in trading and certain types of finance. He notes that in spite of their record as adept capitalists, commitment to a government based on equality.
In recent years, Ben-Gurion’s diaries have become a subject of scholarship. They reveal that the country’s first leader was ardently searching during the nation’s first years for a Palestinian leader who could broker peace, and perhaps even help create a democratic law-abiding state to stand alongside Israel. Ben-Gurion never succeeded in that, and no one has been able to in ththey have tended to be left-wing and even anti-capitalist. This was the intellectual path of most of the early Zionists. It may be worth noting that in actually running a country the Jews of Israel have gradually moved to a due regard for property rights and shown an increasing intensity of Jewish faith, even as they have maintained their decades since.
Gaza is a special tragedy in that it possesses many of the finest beaches in the whole of the Mediterranean. It is a natural tourist destination. Of course, this is impossible though, as Hamas will not permit people to walk about in bikinis and one-pieces. Nor is it receptive to the idea of liberal democracy.
We can only hope that present events will not lead to the apocalypse so feared by evangelical Christians.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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