Exhibited here is an incredible document from my collection that is surely one of the most significant documents dating from Israel’s founding, a print of Israel’s Declaration of Independence originally signed by thirteen of the original 37 signers of the document including, as shown: David Ben Gurion (in both Hebrew and English), Rachel Cohen, Moshe Kol (Kolodny), Pinchas Rosen (Rosenbluth), Berl Repetor, Sa’adia Kobashi, Zerach Warthaftig, Kalman Kahana, Golda Meir, Eliyahu Dobkin, Meir Vilner, Herzl Vardi, and Mordechai Ben-Tov. To my knowledge, this document boasts the greatest number of original autographs by the original Declaration signers other than the original Declaration itself, which may be seen at the Knesset building in Jerusalem.
Virtually every American schoolchild is taught about the American Declaration of Independence and knows that it was signed on July 4, 1776 – except, of course, that it wasn’t. The final document wasn’t even written until two weeks later (that parchment is now one of the greatest treasures at the National Archives building) and the American Declaration wasn’t signed until August 2 – and several signers were unable to sign until an even later date.
The American Declaration begins with Jefferson’s inspired statement: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .” This, too, is purportedly taught to all our elementary school children. However, I remember reading many years ago (circa 1970s) that, on a multiple-choice civics exam administered citywide to eighth-grade students in the New York City public school system, a high proportion of students identified this phrase as “communism.” One can only weep.
By comparison, very few Israelis pay much attention to Israel’s Declaration of Independence or accord it respect comparable to the reverence that Americans feel – or, in the wake of “woke” anti-Americanism, used to feel – for America’s founding document. There are many theories as to why this is so, but the one that I believe resonates strongest is that the delegation assigned to enact Israel’s Declaration included Marxists, atheists and secularists on one side, and Torah-observant Jews and the religiously devout on the other. As the result of bitter wrangling on virtually every word in the document, each side was forced to make difficult compromises so that, according to some, the final document was watered down to the point of being rendered virtually meaningless.
In fact, only hours before independence was officially proclaimed, Ben Gurion downplayed the significance of the Declaration; he urged his fellow Zionist partners not to get tied up in detail because it was “just a declaration” and that no one believes that it does, or even should, reflect perfection; and that “we’re merely declaring independence, nothing more. This isn’t a constitution.” [Ironically, the fact that Israel lacks a constitution has become an important contemporary issue with respect to Israel’s current government’s plan to curb the excesses of Israel’s Supreme Court.]
In any event, few know that an early draft of Israel’s Declaration was written by Mordechai Beham or that Beham cribbed Jefferson’s poetic language from the American Declaration.
Beham (1915-1987) was born in the Ukraine, and in 1924, a few years after his family moved to Berlin, they made aliyah to Eretz Israel, where Beham attended school at the Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusalem and then in the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel-Aviv. Upon his graduation, he studied law at London University and, upon his return to Israel, he commenced work for the legal service of the British Mandate government.
The story begins a few days before Passover 1948 when Felix Rosenblueth (aka Pinchas Rosen, who would become Israel’s first Justice Minister), tasked Beham with writing a draft declaration.
Rosenblueth provided Beham with virtually no guidance, his only direction being to come up with “An introduction . . . pointing out . . . the chain of events leading to” independence. A few days later on April 24, 1948, Beham broke down in tears at his family seder and confided to his family that he had been chosen to draft a declaration of independence for Israel but that he had no idea how to begin writing a document that he knew would be of enormous historical import.
When Beham received his assignment, it was clear that some form of Jewish sovereignty would be declared on the termination of the British Mandate on May 15, but the situation was fluid; the parameters of the pronouncement of such sovereignty had not been determined and the exact form of Israel’s “independence” was vague. The Partition Plan was essentially silent on the issue, and the very idea of issuing a unilateral public declaration in a formal ceremony was only considered at the last minute in response to developments and internal and external political considerations. In fact, the form that “independence” would take was so amorphous that a mere two days before Ben Gurion publicly read the final and official form of the Declaration, he was urging the nascent cabinet to remove all references to independence from the document and to call it simply “The Declaration of the Establishment of the Jewish State.”
Beham’s family suggested that he discuss the matter with Harry Solomon, aka Rabbi Shalom Tzvi Davidowitz, a Lithuanian Jew who had been an American Conservative rabbi before making aliyah in 1934 and who was known for his large library. There he found a copy of Jefferson’s Declaration and began by transcribing key passages from the document, which ended his “writers block,” and he opened his draft with a phrase equivalent to “When in the course of human events . . .”
Beham probably felt the need to begin with a template and, perhaps because of his English legal education and his practice under the British, what better template could he use for Israel’s Declaration than Jefferson’s beautiful stirring text – particularly since America had obtained its independence from Great Britain and Israel was emerging as an independent nation from under the shadow of a Mandate under the very same British government? In Jefferson Goes East: The American Origins of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, universally recognized as the foremost work on Beham’s role in drafting Israel’s Declaration, author Yoram Shachar suggests that Beham chose the American Declaration because “like the majority of mankind, it was the only declaration he ever knew and the only one available to him” and that “his remarkable results were achieved through the adaptation of Israeli answers to a long list of questions asked in Christian America two hundred years earlier by Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers.”
Shachar notes that although the cabinet agreed that there would be some kind of formal proclamation ceremony to prevent a political void and a possible weakening in national and international support for a Jewish state, it was not clear until the last minute that it would take the shape of a unilateral declaration of permanent full statehood. He argues that Beham’s adoption of the American Declaration as a model effected “a sense of grandeur and confidence in the last crucial moments leading to independence” and that “if both the act and the text of Israeli independence are epic rather than formal and if both endure beyond their immediate moment,” it is because Beham drew his inspiration from Jefferson’s inspired – some would say divinely inspired – text.
Shachar further notes many similarities between the birth of America and that of Israel that may have inspired Beham to looking to the American Declaration. First, both nations gained their independence from the British crown, and both benefited from having a long period of some degree of autonomy under British rule to prepare for independence. Second, both were founded in a loosely defined colonization process by nations who drew their identities, at least in part, from the Bible. Third, both were committed from the beginning to democratic rule, but excluded some communities from the discussions regarding the political form of the respective new governments. Fourth, both emerging states involved a regional realignment and the assembly of various political entities into a national government.
Beham was particularly committed to the idea that the State of Israel should be a socialist society, with a strong emphasis on social justice and equality, and he was instrumental in including language in the Declaration that called for the establishment of a socialist economy in Israel. He was not an observant Jew – in fact, he was so unfamiliar with tradition that he used biblical quotations from an English-language Bible and, ironically, he began writing his first draft on Shabbat – and ordinarily would not refer to the G-d in his ordinary discourse. Nonetheless, he understood that he was not writing for himself; he recognized that his task was to reflect the Jewish ethos, and he believed that mentioning G-d was necessary to ensure that the new nation would be recognized as a homeland for the Jewish people. Accordingly, he was one of the leading advocates for including language in the document that would establish Israel as a specifically Jewish state.
In a “memorandum” that Beham attached to his first draft, he noted:
[T]he declaration was composed assuming that one should not only rely on the decisions of the UN and the League of Nations, but also on the historic rights of the Jewish people in light of the Law of Nations . . . The three fathers of the people of Israel [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] are mentioned by name on purpose, since they were promised to keep Eretz Israel as mentioned in the Bible . . . The last paragraph of the introduction, just as the declaration itself, is inspired by the American declaration of independence, relating to legal aspects and to the virtues of an independent state.
Interestingly, Ben Gurion also cited America’s Declaration as support for his passionate insistence that Israel’s founding document not refer specifically to the borders of the new Jewish State, which was a particularly contentious issue among the delegates:
This is a declaration of independence. For example, there is the American Declaration of Independence. It includes no mention of territorial definitions. There is no need and no law such as that. I, too, learned from law books that a state is made up of territory and population. Every state has borders. [But] we are talking about a declaration [of independence], and whether borders must or mustn’t be mentioned [in one]. I say, there is no such law. In a declaration establishing a state, there is no need to specify the territory of the state.
Beham also cited relevant international political resolutions, including the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition Resolution, as justification for the establishment of the Jewish state, and placed them in historical and ethical context:
. . . and whereas the opinion of mankind as expressed in the Balfour Declaration . . . recognized the historical connection of the Jewish People and Eretz Israel . . . and whereas following the extermination of one third of our People at the hands of the enemies of mankind since the outbreak of WWII, the United Nations General Assembly has decided to end the British Mandate and to establish an independent Jewish state in Eretz Israel . . . and whereas the Jewish People had never given up the right to reestablish its State in the Holy Land . . .
Beham’s draft is particularly significant because of the way he decided to describe the Zionist narrative and the chain of events leading to the establishment of Israel, including language regarding “the destruction of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem” by the Roman legions; the subsequent Jewish exile from Eretz Yisrael; “the loss of life and property at the hands of their many oppressors such as no people has been called upon to endure since time began”; and the “cruel extermination of one third of our people” in the Holocaust – but later drafters cut out most of this. In contrast, Ben Gurion, while not discarding the importance of the exile, persecution, and extermination of the Jews, was concerned that evoking these historic themes in the Declaration would not convince the world of the need for a Jewish state – and that, in fact, it might permit those unsympathetic to the birth of Israel to argue that there is no justification for such a Jewish state because the people for whom a Jewish state had been designed were long gone.
While the signers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence all believed that the document should express the fundamental values and principles that would define the new Jewish State, which would create a homeland for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael after 2,000 years of exile, the great religious divide between Torah Jews and secular Jews, which continues to vex the Jewish state to date, manifested itself most significantly with respect to the inclusion of language in the Declaration regarding Hashem as the G-d of the Torah of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Land of Israel. Jewish religious leaders, led by Rav Yehuda Leib Fishman-Maimon, sought an unambiguous reference to Hashem, but the secularist and socialist leadership demanded a clear separation between church and state in Israel’s formative document.
The issue came to a head when Aharon Zisling, the left-wing leader of Mapam, refused to sign the Declaration if it contained references to “a G-d in whom I do not believe.” The disagreement grew to the point where it threatened to derail the proclamation of the establishment of a Jewish state. Ben Gurion spent the morning of May 14th mediating the dispute between Rav Maimon and Zisling and, after hours of talks, Rav Maimon agreed to omit the term “Redeemer” from the text of the Declaration.
The false narrative that has been passed down through the generations is that religious and secular Israeli leaders devoted considerable resources in the days and hours leading up to Israel’s public announcement of its independence over the mention of G-d and that Ben Gurion saved the day with a sudden and dramatically original idea to employ an ambiguous and malleable reference to Tzur Yisrael (the “Rock of Israel”). In fact, it was not Ben Gurion who came up with the phrase but, rather, he put forth the language that Beham had used in his draft weeks earlier before the politicians became involved in redrafting the document.
The final language adopted in the last paragraph of Israel’s Declaration reads:
Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel (“Tzur Yisrael”) we affix our signatures to this Proclamation at this session of the Provisional Council of State on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel-Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the 5th day of Iyar, 5708 (14th May, 1948).
It is interesting to note that, in this regard, Israel’s Declaration, with its reference to the Rock of Israel in its final paragraph, copies Jefferson’s placement of a citation to “Divine Providence” in the final paragraph of the American Declaration: “We . . . appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions . . . with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence . . .” In fact, Jefferson, a Theist/Deist, also struggled with the reference to G-d and, seeking to keep the dominant Christian God of American society out of the text, resorted to using terms such as “divine Providence,” “Nature’s G-d;” “Creator;” “and “Supreme Judge of the World.”
At the end of the day, although next to none of Beham’s actual text made it into Israel’s final Declaration, its structure did, and every subsequent drafter worked within Beham’s structure, including particularly that the Declaration be arranged in two segments, one presenting Jewish history and the second proclaiming future objectives. Moreover, Beham is the one who promoted the idea that Israel was founded by Diasporan Zionists as well as by Jews living in Eretz Yisrael and, as we have seen, he was the drafter who first inserted G-d into the final paragraph in the form of “Tzur Yisrael.” And although much of his content mirroring the American Declaration was lost in the substantive subsequent drafting, Jefferson’s text was undeniably the starting point for the final document and includes many of Beham’s ideas. There is great historic irony in that the most revered Israeli Founding Fathers implemented decisions made by a timid, low level 33-year-old civil servant who remains essentially unknown and that they adopted his language while generally unaware of its source in the American Declaration of Independence.
In November 2015, the Kedem Auction House (an eminently trustworthy Israeli auctioneer with whom I frequently deal) offered for sale a number of documents presented as “First Drafts of the Israeli Declaration of Independence – Written by Lawyer Mordechai Beham [Beham].” They included the “Verses Draft,” in which Beham copied sources that he considered appropriate to be used as a basis for the Declaration of Independence; the “English Draft” of the Declaration; the “Hebrew Draft,” which consists of three handwritten pages by Beham in Hebrew and titled “Declaration in the matter of the Jewish State”; the “First Draft,” which is the typed version of the Hebrew Draft; and “The Beham Memorandum,” in which he explains his draft.
Arguing the documents were government property because Beham had produced them as an agent for the State, the Israeli government brought suit in the Jerusalem District Court seeking an injunction barring the auction of the documents and an order that these important and historical documents be returned to the State for transfer to the Israel State Archives. The auction house argued that Beham’s prior work for the Legal Department of the People’s Administration was voluntary and had been performed as a private individual and that, as such, the documents were his private property; and that, in any event, the State had delayed its action so that the cause of action had lapsed under the law.
The District Court dismissed the suit both for exercising unreasonable delay in asserting its claim and on the merits but, when the State appealed the ruling, Israel’s Supreme Court reversed the decision on May 20, 2019, and granted the State its requested remedy.
Wishing a happy Yom Ha’Atzmaut to all!