The incredible postal cover shown here – which bears the official February 16, 1949 cancellation Ha’Assefa HaMechonenet, the “Constituent Assembly,” Israel’s first legislative body after its independence – is signed by five “firsts”:
* Ben Gurion, first prime minister
* Chaim Weizmann, first president
* Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, first chief rabbi of Israel (after its independence)
* Yosef Sprinzak, first speaker of the Knesset
* Yaakov Dori, first chief of staff of the IDF
Following the November 29, 1947 United Nations resolution ending the reign of the British Mandate in Eretz Yisrael, Israel started establishing national institutions to govern the new state. These institutions were not elected bodies in a purely democratic sense, as their members originated from the ranks of Jewish Agency management and from the Vaad Leumi (Jewish National Committee). In March 1948, the National Committee and Jewish Agency founded the National Council, which consisted of 37 members representative of the various Jewish groups in Eretz Yisrael – socialists and revisionists, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, religious nationalists and secularists, liberals and communists.
Chaim Weizmann was elected to head the National Council, which selected from among its members an executive body of 13 members, headed by David Ben-Gurion. When, on Friday, the fifth day of Iyar, 5708 (May 14, 1948), the last remaining British forces left Eretz Yisrael, the members of the National Council met in Tel Aviv, declared the establishment of the State of Israel, signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and established themselves as the Provisional State Council, the highest institution of the new Jewish State. Shown here is an official document with photographs of each member of the Provisional Council.
Among other things, Israel’s Declaration mandated that a Constituent Assembly be elected no later than October 1, 1948, and directed that the Assembly write a constitution and determine the nation’s permanent governing institutions:
We declare that after the termination of the British Mandate, from the 15 May 1948 and until elected authorities of the state would be established in accordance with a constitution accepted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than October 1, 1948 – the Provisional State Council would act as the temporary State Council, and its executive institution, the Provisional government of Israel, would constitute the temporary Government of the Jewish state, which would be named Israel.
However, elections could not be held before October 1 because of the state of war. The elections to the Constituent Assembly, which twice had to be canceled, were eventually held on January 25, 1949, with an impressive 87 percent of eligible voters going to the polls. (A few months earlier, on November 8, 1948, and with war still raging, Israel took its first census, which showed 506.507 eligible voters.) Even today, Israel boasts one of the highest voter participation rates among the world’s democracies.
The first meeting of the Assembly was scheduled for February 14, 1949. Shown here is a February 7, 1949 invitation issued by Joseph Sprinzak on official letterhead to Mr. Menachem Bader (1895-1985):
Dear Sir: according to paragraph 2(A)…you are invited to the opening session of the Constituent Assembly on Monday, February 14, 1949 at 4:00 p.m., in the National Institutions building in Jerusalem.
Sprinzak (1885-1959) made aliyah from his native Russia to Eretz Yisrael (1910), where he helped found the Histadrut labor federation (1920) and served as its secretary general (1945-49). A socialist Zionist, he was a delegate to several Zionist Congresses and became the first labor representative elected to the Zionist Executive; was elected to the first three Knessets as a member of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, which he was instrumental in forming; and served as the first Knesset Speaker (see below) from 1949 until his death 10 years later. He became acting president of Israel when Weizmann became ill in December 1951 and served as interim president after Weizmann’s death (November 9, 1952) until Yitzhak Ben-Zvi’s inauguration (December 1952).
In a pointed and symbolic act of defiance, the Constituent Assembly chose to convene in Jerusalem, whose political future even then provoked enormous international controversy. Thus, on February 14, 1949 – Tu B’Shevat – the first sitting of the Assembly took place at the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem. After the singing of Hatikvah, Chaim Weizmann, president of the Provisional State Council, delivered the opening address:
It is with a sense of honor and awe that I rise to open the Constituent Assembly of the State of Israel, the first Jewish assembly of our day, in Jerusalem, the eternal city. At this great moment in the history of our people, we give thanks and praise to the God of Israel, by whose grace we have been privileged to see redemption, after generations of suffering and misery….
The first [direction of the Zionist movement] was spiritual arousal, the return to the ancient sources of our Jewish heritage, and the revival of the Hebrew language and its literature, focusing the widely-dispersed abilities of our nation on one aim… The second direction was that of concrete action, and was taken by those who had grown weary of waiting for the strength of the Jews in the diaspora to increase and for others to grant them recognition. They sought to hasten matters, and they came to Palestine, attempting to bring redemption to their people by the labor of their hands, the sweat of their brow, and their very lifeblood…
[After the War of Independence], we were unable to hold elections and establish the state on a permanent basis. A provisional ruling body was set up, comprising a legislature and an executive, deriving its authority from previous elections. The two former supreme institutions, the Executive of the Jewish Agency and the National Council, combined to form this provisional ruling body…Knesset Members, I congratulate you on your first meeting. Remember that the eyes of the whole Jewish world are upon you, and that the yearning and prayers of past generations accompany you. May we all be worthy of this great moment and this immense responsibility.
After Weizmann’s address, the Assembly elected Sprinzak as its speaker. Shown here is the actual historical document appointing Sprinzak in which Weizmann writes an emotional statement expressing his hopes that Sprinzak will fulfill to the magnitude of the hour, and offers a prayer for the success of the new state:
LETTER OF APPOINTMENT CHOOSING A CHAIRMAN
In the context of my designation as president of the temporary Council of State,
I hereby acknowledge through this document that Mr. Yosef Sprinzak has been chosen as Chair of the Constituent Assembly.
It is my hope that Mr. Sprinzak will meet the test of responsibility that we imposed on him, and my prayer is that my intention [in making this appointment] will not be stained and that he will raise the reputation of our state throughout the world.
At its first substantive meeting held two days later on February 16, the duly-elected Constituent Assembly, in its first act, passed the “Transition Law” by which it reconstituted itself as the “Knesset,” thereby becoming the legislature of the State of Israel. As a grand symbol of the continuity of Jewish sovereign history in Eretz Yisrael, it was named for the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (the “Men of the Great Assembly”), the supreme authority of the sages of Israel that convened in Jerusalem after the return of the Jewish people from their exile in Babylon during the 5th century BCE under the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah. In emulation of the Great Assembly of old, the number of Knesset members was set at 120 (which remains the number today).
Although Israel’s founding document – its Declaration of Independence – mandated that the Constituent Assembly/Knesset adopt a constitution, it never did fulfill that directive. A detailed analysis of the reasons for this failure are beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to note that the attempts by many to blame it on the “religious parties,” who maintained that the only permissible constitution for the Jewish State must be the Torah itself, is false, a disingenuous smokescreen that has persisted even to the present day.
In fact, it was Ben-Gurion and many secular leaders who opposed the adoption of a constitution because they feared – perhaps with good cause – a cultural war in which animosities spanning the political parties and social strata would materially threaten Israel’s ability to establish new national institutions and tear the nascent country apart.