COMMENTARY: The birth of a nation

Print More

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

(RNS)-Etched in America’s collective memory is the image of Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and the other founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Our newborn nation was at war against Britain, but we often forget the tensions and anxiety that accompanied this significant moment in our history.

So it was with the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948.

The embryonic Jewish state was already under fierce attack from Arab armies as delegates met in Tel Aviv under tight security. There was strong diplomatic pressure from the United States and other nations to delay the proclamation. And the distressed citizens of Israel were divided over whether God should be mentioned in their Declaration of Independence.

But David Ben-Gurion, who would soon be Israel’s first prime minister, seized the moment. In just 17 minutes he proudly read aloud the 947 Hebrew words of the declaration that marked the end of nearly 2,000 years of Jewish statelessness.

Few today are aware of the passionate emotions and intense debates that were so much a part of that brief but historic event.

Jewish leaders in Tel Aviv were acutely aware that the American Declaration of Independence, whose chief author was Jefferson, spoke of”all men … endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Some of Ben-Gurion’s colleagues passionately argued that it was inconceivable to omit the name of God from the Jewish people’s most important document since the Bible. Others argued with equal fervor that every state, even a Jewish one, is ultimately the creation of human effort and religious terminology has no place in national documents, especially a Declaration of Independence.

Then, as now, the grim shadow of the Holocaust hovered over Jewish life. Because the murder of 6 million Jews had ended only three years earlier, many people in 1948 had enormous psychological and theological problems in affirming God as”redeemer”or”deliverer.”No agreement was reached during a meeting on May 13, and a four-member subcommittee, headed by Ben-Gurion, was assigned the task of deciding whether the name of God would appear in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s greatest leader, has sometimes been described as an aggressive atheist or agnostic. Yet his actions and behavior during those fateful days of May 1948 do not fit that picture.

He wanted”Almighty God”in the declaration, but not”redeemer.”Finally, a compromise was reached and the Hebrew term,”Tzur Yisrael,”was included in the final text. The two words are usually translated as”Rock of Israel,”a phrase open to many interpretations that satisfied all points of view.

Ben-Gurion told his colleagues:”Each of us, in his own way, believes in the Rock of Israel as he conceives it. I should like to make one request: Don’t let me put this phrase to a vote.”There was no vote, and the text concludes:”With trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand to this Declaration …” When he finished reading the Declaration of Independence, Ben-Gurion asked 74-year-old Rabbi Yehuda Fishman, whom he had personally arranged to have flown from the embattled city of Jerusalem at great peril to attend the ceremony, to recite the traditional Jewish prayer of thanksgiving. In a trembling voice, the frail rabbi thanked”God, the Sovereign of the Universe, for bringing us to this day.” The ceremony concluded with an orchestra playing the new state’s national anthem”HaTikvah”(The Hope). And with his usual crisp directness Ben-Gurion said:”The State of Israel is established! The meeting is ended.” But he knew that this was the end of only one chapter of his people’s struggle for independence. There were to be many more.”The people are profoundly happy. And I am filled with foreboding,”Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that night.”I feel like the bereaved among the rejoicing.” Despite the inner dread that the nascent state would be overwhelmed by its enemies, Ben-Gurion and those who signed the declaration,”trusting in Tzur Yisrael,”had taken an awesome step. A sovereign Jewish state was no longer a dream.

The rest, as we like to say, is history.


Comments are closed.