The stage had been set, the die cast. Only 48 hours remained to draft the countrys Declaration of Independence and plan some sort of ceremony this amidst ominous military reports from Jerusalem and the adjacent Jewish settlements of the Etzion Bloc. It was agreed to declare independence at 4 pm on Friday, eight hours before the Mandate was officially to end, so as not to conflict with the Sabbath. It was in no uncertain terms a surreal race against the clock.
A draft of the Declaration was presented at the May 12 meeting. It was not the first draft and, despite constraints of time, it was not the last. Three weeks earlier, Felix Rosenbluth (Pinchas Rosen), who was given the legal portfolio and who would later act as the governments first justice minister, raised questions that had to be answered prior to independence: What was the new state to be called? What would be its emblem and official language? (He proposed Hebrew, provided Arabic-speaking citizens could use their own language in the legislature, courts and administration.) Would the Declaration be made within the context of the UN Resolution and should the state boundaries be delineated at the time of the proclamation? If so, what boundaries those prescribed by the UN or others?
Rosenbluth requested Zvi Berenson, the legal advisor to the Histadrut labour organization (later a Supreme Court Justice) to draw up a preliminary draft of the Declaration. Given no guidelines whatsoever, Berenson addressed four basic issues: the historic connection of the Jewish people to Eretz-Israel; the background leading up to the establishment of the state, including international opinion and the Balfour Declaration; the meaning of a sovereign democratic regime; and finally, the proclamation of personal, social and legal rights. Berensons version is dated May 9.
A second draft or revised version of the first was prepared by three lawyers, A. Beham, A. Hintzheimer and Z.E. Baker. Ready on May 10, it did not mention the new state by name. It was this draft that was presented at the May 12 meeting together with a memorandum by Dr. Jacob Robinson, legal advisor to the Jewish Agency in New York (he later served as legal advisor to the Israel delegation at the UN), in which he addressed the legal ramifications of deviating from UN guidelines. According to Robinson, the UN had not created the legal right of the Jewish people to a state; it had only endorsed it. With the Mandatory government withdrawing its troops and a UN implementation agency (a directive of the Partition Plan) non-existent, Robinson found no legal impediments. A similar conclusion was reached by Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, an international jurist, who later served on the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
Little time was spent on the legal issues at the May 12 meeting. What did provoke heated discussions was the question of boundaries. Rosenbluth argued that the boundaries of the new state should be incorporated into the Declaration. Ben-Gurion and Aaron Zisling, a left-wing labour leader, were vehemently opposed. Ben-Gurion pointed out that the the American Declaration of Independence "contains no mention of territorial boundaries." With the country on the verge of war, Ben-Gurion did not want to limit themselves from the outset: "We accepted the UN Resolution, but the Arabs did not. They are preparing to make war on us. If we defeat them and capture western Galilee or territory on both sides of the road to Jerusalem, these areas will become part of the state. Why should we obligate ourselves to accept boundaries that in any case the Arabs dont accept?"
Ben-Gurions position was adopted by a five to four vote. It was the only issue brought to ballot on May 12. The name of the state was raised a subcommittee on an Arabic name raised no objection to "Israel" in Arabic phonetics. Other alternatives included "Zion," the "Land of Israel," "Yehuda," and "Ever" (from Ivri Hebrew). No decision was taken and the actual framing of the declaration was relegated to a committee of five: David Remez, Rosenbluth, Moshe Shapiro, Shertok and Zisling.
It was further decided that the ceremony would take place in the main gallery of the Tel Aviv Museum. Although the Habimah Theatre or a large synagogue were raised as alternatives, the National Administration feared an aerial bombardment the entire leadership of the fledgling state could have been wiped out and therefore preferred to keep the time and place secret. Pomp and circumstance were discarded in favour of a small ceremony in a much less conspicuous venue. On neutral ground with no religious or political affiliations the museums main gallery had the added advantage of being partly below ground level with high windows.
Perhaps not considered relevant at the time, the fact that independence was formally declared in what was one of the first homes in the first Jewish city, bolsters the sites appropriateness, if only in retrospect. The State of Israel was born on what was once simply Lot No. 43, the first plot drawn at the Ahuzat Bayit ("Housing Property Society") lottery on a deserted sand dune known as "the Jibalis Vineyard" on April 11, 1909 considered by most the founding day of what was to become the city of Tel Aviv. The lot went to Meir Dizengoff, who later became Tel Avivs first mayor, and his wife Zina, an accomplished pianist. Completed in 1910, their one-storey home became the cultural and intellectual centre of the embryonic town. Artistic and literary luminaries, such as Chaim Nachman Bialik, S.Y. Agnon and Nahum Gutman were among Dizengoffs frequent guests; foreign visitors included Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. To accommodate this steady flow, Dizengoff added a second storey in 1926 and upon his wifes death in 1932, he transformed his home into an art museum convinced that no self-respecting city should be without one. The dedication of the remodeled three-story Tel Aviv Museum took place on February 23, 1936, only a few months before Dizengoffs death.
Although Ben-Gurion had little to do with the actual planning of the ceremony that was left to Zeev Sharef, Secretary of the National Administration, and later Cabinet Secretary, he did request that only Jewish or Jewish-related art hang in the hall. The current exhibit was removed and was replaced by, among others, Chagalls "Jew Holding a Scroll," Moldowskys "Pogroms," and Hirshenbergs "Exile." Sharef asked the Tel Aviv graphic artist Otto Wallish to prepare the hall and the scroll of the Declaration.
The preparations took on the intensity of a last- minute dress rehearsal. Two carpenters worked for 24-hours straight to build a low stage; chairs (not matching) were borrowed from nearby cafés, as were microphones from a music shop and a rug from another local merchant. Wallish bought additional lighting fixtures. The far wall was covered with blue fabric (purchased by Wallish at the Hamashbir department store) on which hung a large photo of Herzl, brought over from the building of the Jewish National Fund, where the National Council held its meetings. The flags that were to hang on each side of Herzls likeness were laundered and pressed.
Arye Rifkind of the Keren Hayesod National Committee was responsible for issuing the invitations. Briefly worded and signed simply, "The Secretariat," the invitation stipulated that the time and place be kept secret. (Kept abreast of the situation, the press was also sworn to secrecy. Cables to foreign press agencies were censored.) Dark festive attire was requested. With the invitees limited to 350, Rifkind had the unpleasant task of singling out a few members of the National Council and Administration, Zionist elders and party leaders, mayors, religious officials and high-ranking members of the Haganah and thereby insulting many.
Among those invited was Dr. J. Shalit, who had been Herzls secretary. At the First Zionist Congress in Basel, he had unfurled the flag which was to remain the banner of the Zionist movement. fifty years later, Shalit asked if he might be given the same role, unfurling what was now to become the flag of the state. Due to constraints of time and space, Shalit had to be turned down. A year later, on the eve of the first Independence Day, the flag was sent to Shalits home and he flew it from his balcony railing "a mute apology," Sharef explained "for not having been able to meet Shalits request."
The invitations were sent out on May 13. At 6 pm on that day, the National Administration met for the last time to consider the text of the Declaration. Rabbi Y.L. Fishman (Maimon) arrived for the meeting from Jerusalem in a one-passenger aircraft. The same plane was scheduled to take Golda Myerson back to Jerusalem for a final meeting with the British High Commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, and then return to Tel Aviv with Yitzhak Grunbaum. However, the aircraft, developed engine trouble halfway to Jerusalem and not wanting to risk a flight over the Judean Hills, the pilot returned to Tel Aviv. Myerson remained in Tel Aviv for the ceremony and Grunbaum in the besieged city.
Ben-Gurion reported on the fall of Kfar Etzion and the Arab surrender of Jaffa. Shertok then submitted, on behalf of the Declaration sub-committee, a 22-clause draft proposal which he had essentially rewritten, transcribed in long-hand by his daughter, Yael. A long, legalistic document, Ben-Gurion objected to the opening of each clause with "Whereas" as not Hebraic in style, and to some of Shertoks more rhetorical expressions. While other questions were raised about style and content, the main thrust of the debate centered around the use of "God" in the last article of the Declaration. Zisling strongly opposed the proposed wording, "and placing our trust in the Almighty." He and others, Zisling argued, should not be required to proclaim "I believe" against their will. The two orthodox members of the committee, Fishman and Shapiro, countered that a document signed on behalf of world Jewry could not omit the Divine Name. Shapiro expressed his preference for "God of Israel" or at least "the Almighty and Redeemer of Israel."
A Hebrew phrase for the Almighty is Tsur Yisrael, which translated literally means "Rock of Israel." Ben-Gurion agreed to convene a smaller sub-committee to finalize the text (himself, Fishman, Shertok and Zisling) on condition they agree on leaving in Tsur Yisrael, its interpretation left to everyones individual conscience and conviction. It was agreed upon without a formal vote.
That evening, in his home on Keren Kayemet Street, Ben-Gurion rewrote the Declaration. He cut the text extensively, trimmed it of some of its flowery language ("defending itself courageously and valiantly," was not Ben-Gurionss style); he omitted the "Whereas" (Shertok continued to believe that its deletion weakened the documents legal status) and eliminated any reference to the UN partition plan. Heeding an earlier suggestion that the Declaration should begin with the Jewish peoples long settlement of the land and not its exile, Ben-Gurion wrote a new opening sentence: "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people." Ben-Gurion presented his draft to the committee at his home on Friday morning.
The Declaration was subsequently presented at the final meeting of the National Council that afternoon. The question of Gods name was once again raised (to no avail), as was the issue of boundaries, this time by the revisionist camp. Committed to a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan, they insisted that the words "within its historic borders" be added. Wanting to go to the ceremony with the full support of the council, Ben-Gurion suggested that all objections and reservations be raised at the first session of the new government, on the following Sunday. The only change suggested and agreed upon was the addition of the word "language" to the list of guaranteed freedoms: "religion, conscience, language, education and culture." It was Ben-Gurion who decided that "Israel" would be the name of the new state. The wording of the Declaration was agreed upon unanimously, on the second ballot, one hour before the state was to be established.
National Council members rushed home to change their clothes. Sharef remained in the JNF building, waiting for the secretarial staff to complete typing the final changes there was certainly no time to have the scroll inscribed by a calligrapher.
Despite the attempts at secrecy, word had leaked out and crowds filled the streets near the Tel Aviv Museum. The entire area was cordoned off; an honour guard stood at attention on the steps of the museum. At a few minutes before four Sir Alan Cunningham had already boarded H.M.S. "Euralyus," scheduled to sail from Haifa Bay at midnight Ben-Gurion emerged from his car. As the crowd cheered and a policeman raised his hand in a salute, he entered the Tel Aviv Museum.
With the dramatic event just moments away, a potential fiasco was unravelling as a panic-struck Sharef found himself at the Jewish National Fund building, the Declaration in hand and no means of getting to the ceremony on time. The consummate organizer, Sharef, who had arranged cars for everyone else, had neglected to order transportation for himself. With no taxis in sight, Sharef flagged down the first passing car. At first, the driver refused to give Sharef a lift insisting he must get home in time to hear the Declaration on the radio. "If you dont take me to the museum immediately, you wont hear the declaration, because it is right here in my hands," Sharef informed the youngster, who apparently was driving a borrowed car without a license. According to Nahum Nir (who later served as Speaker of the Knesset), who was with Sharef at the time, the car was then stopped by a police officer for speeding. Nir explained to the officer that no authority stood behind the ticket because the Mandatory government no longer existed, and if he detained them any further, the state wouldnt come into being. "He didnt give us a ticket," recalls Nir, "but waved us on."
At one minute to four, a breathless Sharef rushed into the museum and handed Ben-Gurion the document. The room was packed; too small to hold the invited guests, the local and foreign journalists, the film cameramen and photographers. The Philharmonic Orchestra, commissioned to play Hatikvah at the ceremony, had to be relegated to the second floor of the museum. (A young boy had to ring a buzzer to let them know when to play but somehow the orchestra was not informed in time the boy was stuck in the lavatory, one eyewitness claimed to accompany the first singing of the national anthem.) Kol Yisrael, formerly the principal Haganah radio station, was assigned one corner of the hall. Its field of vision obstructed by the crowd, Kol Yisrael delivered its maiden broadcast as the official state broadcasting station, based in part at least, on hastily scribbled second-hand reports.
Eleven members of the National Administration sat at a table on the recently-completed stage, with Ben Gurion in the middle. Below them and facing each other were 14 members of the National Council. Two members of the National Administration and ten Council members were absent.
At exactly four pm, Ben-Gurion stood up and struck the table with his gavel. The gathering rose and began singing Hatikvah. Ben-Gurion then proceeded: "I shall now read to you the Scroll of the Establishment of the State which has passed its first reading by the National Council." In a controlled monotone, he then described the background and reasons for the declaration and in an almost imperceptibly-raised voice declared: "We hereby proclaim the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, to be called the State of Israel." The audience once again rose, this time breaking into tumultuous applause.
Ben-Gurion continued to read the rest of the declaration: the establishment of duly-elected bodies of state; the social and political rights of all citizens, including the safeguarding of all holy places; an appeal to the UN to admit Israel into the family of nations and to the Arab inhabitants to participate in all state bodies and institutions. He called upon the Jewish people throughout the world to rally around the fledgling state.
Ben-Gurion then came to the concluding paragraph: "With trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand to this Declaration, at this session of the Provisional State Council, on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the fifth of Iyar, 5708, the fourteenth of May 1948."
It had taken 17 minutes to read the Declaration of Independence.
Rabbi Fishman, his voice choked with emotion, then recited "Shehihiyanu vekimanu vehigiyanu lezman hazeh" the benediction: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hath kept us and sustained us and has brought us unto this time." A fervent "Amen" echoed throughout the small hall.
Ben-Gurion then read aloud the "Establishment of the State Ordinance," passed earlier in the day which charged the Provisional Council with supreme legislative authority and which revoked all laws arising under the British White Paper of 1939. With the formal abolition of the reviled ordinances which had so severely restricted Jewish immigration, the audience once again applauded with unrestrained fervour.
The Declaration of Independence had yet to be signed. Zeev Sharef called each member of the National Council to step forward and sign, beginning with Ben-Gurion and the rest in alphabetical order. Sitting next to Ben-Gurion, Moshe Shertok helped straighten the essentially blank parchment, the typewritten text attached to it with a paper clip. In the succeeding weeks, the Jerusalemites and those abroad made their way to Tel Aviv to sign the scroll which had to be taken out of its safe each time at the Anglo-Palestine Bank (now Bank Leumi). The scroll was given to a scribe and whether he used poor-quality ink (some said he left blotches on the document) or simply did a bad job, his work was deemed unsatisfactory and returned to Walllishs studio. A new scroll was inscribed and the signatures were attached to it with a needle and thread.
It was Ben-Gurions request that everyone sign using their Hebrew names. Many did not, including Golda Myerson and Moshe Shertok. Herzl Rosenblum, editor of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper and a member of the Revisionist Party admitted that he regretted signing "Herzl Vardi" and continued to use Rosenblum almost immediately following the ceremony. Mordechai Ben-Tov signed in tiny letters as an act of humility and Rabbi Fishman, initialed "with the help of God" alongside his signature, his final comment on the omission of the Divine Name from the declaration itself. Some say a space was left for Chaim Weizmann. Although not a member of the National Council, it is ironic (and was considered a personal insult by the states first president) that the elder statesmans signature is not affixed to the Declaration.
Moshe Shertok was the last to sign. Applauding, the audience rose and the Philharmonic Orchestra began playing Hatikvah. As the music died down, Ben-Gurion once again struck the table with his gavel and declared: "The State of Israel is established. This meeting is adjourned." It had taken a 32-minute ceremony to restore independence to a people who had remained stateless for 2,000 years. In his diary, Ben-Gurion simply wrote: "At four the Proclamation of Independence. Throughout the country, profound joy and jubilation, and once again, as on 29 November, I feel like the bereaved among the rejoicers."
Outside the museum, many danced, others wept. People grabbed copies of Yom LaMedina, "Day of the State," a joint newspaper published by the major dailies they had put their party ideologies aside for the day while others read notices announcing that army recruitment would go on throughout the Sabbath. The Haganah posted signs urging citizens to build shelters and avoid large gatherings. Later that night, the United States accorded the new state de facto recognition and as dawn approached, Ben-Gurion addressed the people of the United States in a direct radio broadcast. While he was speaking, Egyptian planes swooped down on Tel Aviv and began bombing the city. Ben-Gurion finished his broadcast and rushed to the Sde Dov Airfield which had been hit. Riding in an open jeep, Ben-Gurion looked around the city: "Pyjama-clad people looked out from all the houses. They did not seem to be excessively frightened. I had the feeling that they would stand up to the challenge."
Fifty years later, Ben-Gurions voice still reverberates at 16 Rothschild Boulevard. Following the War of Independence, the Tel Aviv Museum continued to flourish and in 1971 moved to the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion a few blocks away. The building on Rothschild Boulevard, the former Lot No. 43, was handed over to the Bible House, a research institute and pet project of Ben-Gurions. In the late 1970s, the Municipality of Tel Aviv took over the bottom floor and restored the main gallery to appear as it had on May 14, 1948. Independence Hall, under the directorship of the Eretz Israel Museum, opened its doors to the public in 1978. Photographs, maps, newspaper clippings and relevant documents (including the many versions of the Declaration) are on display in rooms adjacent to the main hall.
Although Independence Hall was virtually unknown until relatively recently (according to one estimate, 80% of the Israeli population have no idea where independence was declared), it is finally making its mark on the countrys historical and cultural map. As Israel nears its golden anniversary, thousands of school children and tourists have begun visiting this national gem.
Guides offer a dramatic presentation on the history of Zionism and the months leading up to May 14, 1948; a short film recaptures the pioneering spirit of Tel Avivs early days.
What is most moving, though, is sitting in the hall in which statehood was proclaimed. Although the chairs now match and most of the original paintings now hang in the Tel Aviv Museum or the Knesset in Jerusalem (less valuable substitutes were found), the aura is hauntingly authentic. There is the photograph of Herzl and the Israel flags; there is the long table with the original microphones; there is the spirit of the past impinging on the present. A recording of Ben-Gurions voice declaring the establishment of the State of Israel resounds throughout the small hall. As visitors stand and join those early statesman in singing Hatikvah, independence is somehow reaffirmed and in an emotional, even mystical sense, the state is established anew.
In the Pri-Or Studios in Tel Avivs Allenby Street, the storefront of which has not changed since it opened in 1940, are kept close to a quarter of a million negatives taken by the studios founder, Rudi Weissenstein, during more than 50 years of his professional career. The collection faithfully reflects the events of the decade preceding the declaration of Israels independence, and are a photographic account of the state-in-the-making. The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the series of photographs taken at the proclamation ceremony of the State of Israel which took place on May 14, 1948.
Weissenstein, the only still photographer allowed to enter the hall, managed to take 26 photographs during the course of the ceremony 23 in the hall itself and three outside. The following is a portfolio of Weissensteins photographs taken on that occasion.
* The Jewish community of pre-state Palestine.
** The pre-state forerunner of the Israel Defence Forces.