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It was late at night on May 11, 1948, when a rumpled Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) stepped off a small aircraft, likely a well-worn six-seater, accompanied by his daughter Yael, then 17. The slender and unassuming Shertok had just flown to Tel Aviv from New York. There had been stops for refueling along the way, some political business in Paris, and finally a connection in Athens where he was picked up by one of the Yishuv’s very few functioning aircraft for a bumpy, dangerous plane ride at low altitude across the Eastern Mediterranean. After this exhausting ordeal, Shertok, probably without a shower or change of clothes, was whisked to a meeting with the “Old Man.”
The legacy of the Declaration of Independence went on to exceed the most expansive ambitions of its authors. The Declaration’s drafters had thought that they were writing a document whose appearance would change the fate of the Jewish people and whose text would be judged by the standards of history. This was already quite ambitious. David Ben-Gurion had ensured that the document would create a state, that it would be the “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.” At the ceremony at which the Declaration was read, Ben-Gurion referred to the Declaration for what it was: “the Declaration of Independence.” A state would be established, and its fate would be determined in the realm of states.
“By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” This sentence forms the center of the Declaration of Independence of Israel. Recited by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948, it announced the creation of the first Jewish state in the land of Israel since the fall of the remnants of the Judean Kingdom in 133 CE.
In 1948, the year in which the State of Israel came into being, Saturday, April 24, was the first day of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt – the Jewish political beginning. Like millions of other Jews, a 33-year-old Tel Aviv lawyer named Mordechai Beham gathered with his family 1948 to recite the Passover Hagadah, the classical Jewish text which narrates Israel’s flight from Egypt and deliverance to the land of Israel.
The dominant political theory of the Yishuv was Labor Zionism. But it was more than a theory. It comprised the institutions of national economic life such as the Histadrut labor union and the rural kibbutzim. It dominated the apparatus of national security in the Haganah and its strike force the Palmach whose soldiers and commanders addressed one another as comrade. The cultural markers of daily life such as the Hashomer Ha’tzair youth group with its red bandanas and youth communes, the worker’s bank cooperative itself owned by the Histadrut (along with the worker’s health and life insurer), and the purchase of food and clothing from grocery and clothing cooperatives – these were all carriers of the spirit of Labor Zionism in its many forms and textures.1
Politics would triumph over both diplomacy and law in the drafting of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Minhelet ha’Am reconvened on May 13, the day that Shertok completed his draft of the Declaration, and a discussion of the text was on the agenda. Time was short. Independence would be declared on May 14 in advance of the Jewish sabbath that evening. Shertok had written through the night of the May 12 into the morning of May 13. The leadership of the Yishuv had to weigh in. There were decisions to make regarding its Declaration of Independence.
The place of the Declaration of Independence in the subsequent national life of Israel points not only to the lasting importance of the text, but as well to inevitable uses that such a text will be put to. It is a founding text. Implicitly, its uses would be vast.
The hope that the nations of the world could be governed by an overarching system of law rose to the forefront in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War. The United Nations Charter promised to ensure that “justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.”1 This hope was echoed in the rhetoric of the leaders of its founding states. US President Truman had said upon the signing of the United Nations Charter that:
[t]he Charter of the United Nations which you have just signed is a solid structure upon which we can build a better world … . With this Charter the world can begin to look forward to the time when all worthy human beings may be permitted to live decently as free people.2
“Declaration of Jewish Independence” read the April 12, 1948 headline on the front page of the Tel Aviv daily
Davar. Ha’aretz said something similar: “The Zionist Actions Committee declares Jewish Independence.” Beneath the Davar article ran the full text of a document announcing the creation of “the highest authority of our political independence.”
This book was first conceived by Dov Zigler in the mid-2000s. It was catalyzed by the rediscovery of Mordechai Beham’s draft of the Declaration of Independence by Professor Yoram Shachar of IDC Herzliya. Professor Shachar produced clean manuscripts of Beham’s work, published them, compiled along with them other drafts of the Declaration of Independence derived from a variety of sources, and traced the historical path of their authorship and strands in the text. Absent Shachar’s work, this book might never have been written.