Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Dedicated with great love and respect to the memory of my Rav, teacher, and friend, Rabbi Amnon Haramati, A”H, who, after being declared dead while fighting for Israel in its War of Independence, survived by Hashem’s grace and went on with his perfect faith to become one of the great Torah teachers of the ages.

 

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On Friday afternoon, 5 Iyar 5708, Jewish leaders assembled at Museum Hall (known today as Independence Hall) at 16 Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv to sign Israel’s formal Declaration of Independence and to announce the rebirth of the State of Israel after a 2,000-year exile.

Ben-Gurion opened the session by banging his gavel on the table, which prompted a spontaneous singing of the Hatikvah, soon to become Israel’s national anthem. On the wall behind the podium hung a picture of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and two flags, later to become the official flag of Israel. After telling the audience “I shall now read to you the Scroll of the Establishment of the State, which has passed its first reading by the National Council,” Ben-Gurion proceeded to read the Declaration aloud, ending with the famous words:

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).

After the reading, Ben Gurion announced, “Let us accept the Foundation Scroll of the Jewish State by rising” and called upon Rav Yehuda Leib Fishman to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing.

How I wish I could have been there! I still get chills thinking about what it must have been like to witness this incredible and seminal moment in Jewish history, to actually have been present at the reinstitution of the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Haramati, A”H, often commented on the incredible anomaly of a defeated nation exiled from its land returning to reestablish itself there. In fact, in all the eons of human history, this has happened only once: the return of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael. R. Haramati believed with all his heart and soul that the birth of Israel was an open divine miracle and a clear manifestation of Hashem’s hand in Jewish history and, as such, he was passionate about reciting Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut with a bracha.

Every Yom Haatzmaut, I think about how to best capture that feeling. One exceptional way is to talk to the people who actually signed the Declaration, to experience history through those who lived it but, unfortunately, all 37 signers are gone. [Meir Vilner, the youngest signatory at age 29 and the last surviving signer, passed away in June 2003.] As such, we are left with the next best thing: their written accounts.

Following are three correspondence from my collection in which Signers discuss their thoughts and emotions while affixing their names to Israel’s founding document.

* * * * *

Born in Yemen, Saadia Kovashi (1904–1990) made aliyah in 1909, settled in Jerusalem, became a leader of the Yemenite Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, and served as assistant director of the Department of Communities of the Union of Yemenite Jews. He signed the Declaration as a member of the Jewish National Council and Moetzet HaAm on behalf of the Yemenite Association, adding “HaLevi” to his name to indicate his status as a Levite descendant of the tribe of Levi.

After Israel’s independence, R. Kovashi moved to Tel Aviv and was appointed supervisor of the Religious-Zionist education system, serving also as supervisor and principals of Zionist yeshivot in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He also served as headmaster of a religious-Zionist school in Rosh HaAyin, where a street is named after him. After his retirement in 1967, he served as Rav of a small Sephardic congregation in Brooklyn, NY.

Kovashi’s letter on the Israeli Declaration

In this November 16, 1987 correspondence from Tel Aviv to Dr. Michael Yizhar, author of Bibliography of Hebrew Publications on the Dead Sea Scrolls (1948 – 1964) and other notable works, R. Kovashi describes his heartfelt gratitude to G-d for meriting the unique opportunity to be a Declaration signatory. His emotion is so overwhelming that, almost four decades later, he writes with “hands that are shaking:”

I received your correspondence dated October 27, 1987 but, because of illness, I did not answer until now. Please excuse me.

When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I felt that this was a great moment in my life because it is not every day that one merits something like this and very few people are fortunate to do such a thing. I was filled with emotion of this great responsibility. I signed with holy apprehension and with thanks to the Creator of the World that I merited the opportunity to do this.

With respect and gratitude

S. Kovashi

P.S. Please forgive the handwriting because my hands are shaking.

* * * * *

Born in Pinsk as Moshe Kolodny, Kol (1911 – 1989) studied at a local cheder and founded the Polish HaOved HaTzioni (“the Zionist Worker”) youth movement. He made aliyah in 1932, settled on Kibbutz Hamefales in Kfar Saba, and joined the Histadrut trade union, serving as representative of the workers’ faction in the Histadrut Executive.

Kol also sat on the board of the Jewish Agency Executive and headed its Youth Aliyah department, in which capacity he was responsible for the rescue, rehabilitation, and education of thousands of young Holocaust survivors. He developed programs to facilitate the aliya of Jewish teens from northern Africa and established youth residences, villages and schools across Israel.

After the establishment of the State, he was one of the founders and leaders of the Progressive Party and served on the Provisional State Council. First elected to the (Second) Knesset in 1951 and later in 1959, Kol joined Levi Eshkol’s coalition in 1965 and was appointed Minister of Tourism and Minister of Development. After losing his Knesset seat in 1977, he wrote several books on Israeli society and foreign affairs, including Masekhet Aliyyat ha-No’ar (1961), about youth aliyah, and On the Struggle for Jewish-Arab Cooperation in Israel (1979).

Kol’s letter on the Israeli Declaration

In this incredible September 20, 1987 correspondence to Dr. Yizhar – who apparently wrote to many of the Signers to ask for their thoughts and recollections on being Declaration signatories – Kol provides fascinating detail and broad background regarding how he came to sign the historic document. (He also explains how he came to change his name to “Kol” and why he signed the Declaration as “Kolodny.”)

Greetings!

Signing the Declaration of Independence was, for me, the realization of a lifetime dream. For many years I fought with the Zionist institutions and the Labor Federation [Histadrut] for the recognition of the Resolution for the Establishment of the Jewish State. I forwarded various suggestions to the Zionist General Counsel and the small branches in which I was a member and I sent suggestions to the governing body of the Histadrut during World War II. I signed the Declaration of Independence with incredible feeling. I was not invited to the celebration [of the Declaration’s signing] in Tel Aviv, because I was stuck with other Signers inside Jerusalem during the siege. Only when the first cease-fire did they send me in a mall Piper Cub [airplane] which was shaking and couldn’t fly straight, and then the Secretary of State, Zev Sharef, invited me to descend with him to the basement/shelter and to sign in the space designated for me. I signed with great angst because I was in the siege of Jerusalem, and I refused to leave the city while the war continued. I was then responsible for the Youth Aliyah, and many settlements and youth villages were at the border and it was necessary to evacuate them. With worry and fear I signed with the realization that it is forbidden to delay such a singular historic opportunity, when the two large countries [the United states and Russia] are supporting us. I knew that the war was continuing, indeed, this is the hope of the nation and Zionism, after the Holocaust, and one must risk it. I signed with my family name, Kolodny, because I wanted to thereby repay [honor] my family and my wife’s family, most of whom perished in the Holocaust. Later, Moshe Sharett suggested to me that I split off a portion of the family name, and as such I became Moshe Kol.

P.S. On the 12th of May, we were gathered in Yitzchak Gruenbaum’s room and we decided to send a memorandum to Ben Gurion after we heard rumors that America was pushing to delay the declaration [of the birth of the Jewish State]. Here is a photocopy of this historic transmission [not exhibited here.].

* * * * *

Born in Galicia, Rav Kalman Kahana (1910 – 1991) studied Philosophy, Semitic Languages, History and Pedagogy at Berlin University and Würzburg University. He headed the Charedi Students Organization and, after earning a PhD in Philosophy and semicha from the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, he made aliyah (1938), settling in Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim.

R. Kahana joined the Secretariat of the Executive Committee of Poalei Agudat Yisrael, served on its central committee, and eventually became Agudah president. As head of the largest Ultra-Orthodox workers union, he became a member of Provisional State Council in which capacity he signed the Declaration. He was elected to the First Knesset as a member of the United Religious Front, an alliance of Agudat Yisrael, Mizrachi, and Hapoel HaMizrachi. After the 1951 elections, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Education and Culture, and he served in the Knesset until 1981.

He published several Rabbinical studies, including particularly the halachot of agriculture in Eretz Yisrael, publishing Mitẓvot Haaretz (1976) and tractate Sheviit (1980) according to both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud.

In this correspondence dated 13 Tishrei Simchat Olam — “Joy of the world,” a beautiful phrase he uses for Simchat Torah – Rav Kahana writes to Dr. Yizhar, essentially punting on the question of his feelings which, he says, have been lost to history:

R. Kahana’s letter on the Israeli Declaration

Greetings and blessings

In response to your correspondence dated this year

Because we are conducting research, it appears that I will be unable to answer your letter. After 40 years [of the signing of the Declaration], it is clear that I would not be recounting my feelings and emotions but, rather, I fear that it would be more from my imagination than what actually happened. At the end of the day, there has not been invented a shelter for preserving one’s feelings [i.e., no way to explain now how it felt].

It seems to be that it was not so long after the Declaration of Independence that we saw — in a film – about all those who signed the Declaration. I think that these materials were saved in the State archives. I remember that they were put away for the future without being able to review them until they are officially opened. I will probably ask them to waive confidentiality.

This is a film that was done in English by Shmuel Citron through Friends of the Jewish Theatre in New York, 426 W. 58th Street in 1972. As I recall,you have footage from that very film from 14 signers. Maybe this will be helpful to you.

If you have the opportunity to come to Jerusalem, I will be ready to speak with you, but subject to the above limitations.

Lawyer/writer/educator/dramatist Dr. Samuel J. Citron (1908 – 1979) immigrated at age 13 from Poland to the United States, where he practiced law after his admission to the N.Y. State Bar (1932). After earning a Hebrew Teacher’s License and transitioning from law to Jewish education, he served the Jewish Education Committee as Director of its School Dramatics Department and Chairman of its Audio-Visual Materials Committee. Through his well-received plays and the Jewish Theatre for Children [this is undoubtedly the institution to which R. Kahana is referring in our correspondence], which he founded and directed, he encouraged Jewish youth to integrate Jewish culture and history into their broader outlooks.

Throughout the 1970’s and until his death in 1979, Citron interviewed leading authorities on Israel and contemporary Jewish history, pulling together personal accounts of many of the most significant events of contemporary Jewish history, including particularly the birth of the State of Israel. The result was Voices of History Israel: The Complete Set Audiobook, which is still available for purchase.

Wishing everyone a meaningful Yom Haatzmaut.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.