Interviews with Signatories of the Declaration
by Dan Izenberg
Meir Vilner, who represented the Communist Party on the fateful day of May 14, 1948, says that "the word 'historic,' which I don't usually like to use, is appropriate to describe the signing. I was moved by the event," he adds. "It fulfilled the aims of the Communist Party by eliminating the British colony and establishing one of the two independent states which were meant to replace it."
Not that he regarded the Declaration as sacrosanct, then or now. "No one agreed with every sentence of the preamble," he maintains. "For example, most of us didn't particularly want to include the term 'Rock of Israel.' Had I drafted the document, it would have read differently. But the bottom line was the end of the Mandate, the removal of the British army and the establishment of two independent states. That's what I signed." Vilner saw the document for the first time a few days before the signing, when it was presented to the Provisional Council of State at a secret meeting in Tel Aviv.
Vilner, at 29, was the youngest person to sign the Declaration. And even though he represented the party of the proletariat, he wore a tie. Indeed, the only male signers who did not wear ties were the three representatives of the kibbutz movement.
After Ben-Gurion had affixed his signature to the Declaration, the other signers were summoned to the podium in alphabetical order. Six of them - including Zerah Warhaftig, the other surviving signer - could not get to Tel Aviv from blockaded Jerusalem. "Between the name of the person who signed the Declaration before me and mine, there is a space," remarks Vilner. "There has been a lot of political speculation over the years about the reason for that space. The truth is that it had been reserved for Warhaftig. In the end, Warhaftig signed at the top of the next column."
Then, as today, Vilner did not share the Zionist view that the State of Israel was the solution to the problem of anti-Semitism in the post-Enlightenment era. "We did not see the gathering of the exiles in Palestine, the Land of Israel, as a solution. Had the Nazis reached Palestine, they would have destroyed everything. We saw the only basic solution in the establishment of Socialist regimes which would prevent anti-Semitism in every country." As far as Vilner is concerned, there is no Jewish nation. "There are Jewish national minorities in each country, and the struggle for equality must be waged in each one of these countries," he says.
Vilner's opinions had undergone a drastic change before reaching this point. During his early high school years, he was a Zionist. Vilner, whose original name was Ber Kovner, was born in Vilna in October 1918. His father sent the boy to a Hebrew-speaking school only because a neighbor's child had enrolled there and walked him to class. That twist of fate determined his life.
Vilner became proficient in Hebrew. He also joined the left-wing Zionist Hashomer Hatza'ir movement together with two classmates. During the mid-30s, the three classmates led the Hashomer Hatza'ir movement in Vilna and the surrounding areas and were in charge of about 600 members. But two events changed Vilner's political orientation. First was the movement's decision not to fight for workers' rights in the Diaspora on the grounds that every member of the movement would immigrate to Palestine within a few years. Second was the movement's refusal to work to protect Jews together with the Communist movement, which was banned in Poland.
"The decisions shocked me," recalls Vilner. "I couldn't understand how a Socialist organization would not help its own working members or why the movement would reject the help offered by a legitimate organization to fight anti-Semitism. After a few weeks, I decided to leave Hashomer Hatza'ir and, at the same time, leave Zionism altogether. For the next two years I read everything I could get my hands on. I wanted to know what was right. I spent two years searching for the truth."
In 1938, when Vilner left Vilna after an anti-Semitic incident, he chose Palestine as his destination, although he had a large family in the United States. "I wavered a lot," explains Vilner. "What made up my mind was the fact that I knew Hebrew but didn't know English." And then, in his only hint at an emotional connection, Vilner adds, "furthermore, despite all that had happened, I wanted to see what life was like in Palestine, after having heard so much about it."
Vilner arrived in 1938 and immediately enrolled at the Hebrew University. Two years later, he joined the Communist Party and was elected to Israel's first Kneset as a member of the Israel Communist Party. He headed the party for most of the period between 1965 and 1990, when he retired.
Over the years, the Israel Communist Party had its ups and downs. Its initiatives in the Knesset plenum were often opposed on principle, although, Vilner reveals, many members of Knesset, including some from the right, informally consulted with him and wanted to hear his opinions. The party's influence expanded significantly between 1992 and 1996, when the Democratic List for Peace and Equality - not a coalition member - contributed to the Labor-led government's blocking majority in the Knesset.
Today, Vilner says that after being a "voice in the wilderness" for so many years, he is pleased to know that Israel has accepted the Communist position by recognizing the PLO. "I am certain," declares Vilner, "that just as the people of Israel recognized the justness of that position, they will one day acknowledge that there is only one solution which will lead to a true and just peace and an end to bloodshed. At the heart of this solution is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state... and peace with Syria and Lebanon..."