Israel: 74 years of independence

On Israel’s last Independence Day, Mosaic ran the first installment of my series on Israel’s declaration of independence. Since then, it’s published all seven parts. This Independence Day provides a splendid opportunity to read the whole series, and reflect on the subtle text of the declaration, as well as the dramatic events surrounding its drafting and proclamation. 

If you subscribe to Mosaic, you can do that right here. If you don’t (why not?), you can download the series right here. The series originated in lectures I gave under the auspices of the Tikvah Fund, and you can still watch them (they’re illustrated!) right here.

If you want to hear a stirring reading of the declaration (by my son Adam), go here. He does a splendid job.

Happy Independence Day!

Declaring Israel united it

Take a close look at the photograph above. You recognize it, right? That’s Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the site where, on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s declaration of independence, bringing into existence the Jewish state of Israel.

But take a closer look. That’s not Ben-Gurion on the dais. Behind the black spectacles, sitting about where he sat, is Menachem Begin, who on May 14, 1948 was the underground commander of the Irgun. And two seats to his right is Yitzhak Shamir, who on that day was commander of the Lehi underground. They weren’t in the room on May 14, and they never signed the declaration. Is this photoshopped? Alternative history?

Not at all. This is a photograph of the declaration ceremony as reenacted on Israel’s 30th anniversary in 1978. By then, Ben-Gurion was dead, Begin was prime minister, and Shamir was speaker of the Knesset. Begin and Shamir came to celebrate a declaration made (and partly written) by their 1948 nemesis, Ben-Gurion. 

Why? Because, as I argue in my “last word” on Israel’s declaration, at this link, the text remains unsurpassed in its capacity to unite. Its words capture the spirit not of a person or a party but of a people.

(I also respond to two distinguished legal authorities, Eugene Kontorovich and Yonatan Green, who last week assessed my earlier installment on the legal status of the declaration as a de facto constitution.)

That brings to a conclusion a series that began back in April. If you want to reread the entire series, all the links are here. (And if you liked the writing, please give credit to the legendary Neal Kozodoy, who weighed every word and whose judgment never fails me.)

Photo credit: Dan Hadani Collection, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel.

Israel’s default constitution

“We’re declaring independence, nothing more,” David Ben-Gurion told Israel’s proto-parliament in the hours before the declaration, on Friday, May 14, 1948. “This isn’t a constitution. As for the constitution, we will have a session on Sunday, when we will deal with it.” But they didn’t deal with it on that Sunday, or on any subsequent day. Israel has no constitution.

Or does it? Does its declaration of independence double as a constitution?

This is the question I address in the seventh and final installment in my series on that declaration. I discuss the so-called “constitutional revolution,” the nation-state law, and other controversies that give new salience to the declaration. “I didn’t attribute much value to declarations,” said Ben-Gurion when asked about his role on May 14. “Not that they didn’t have great value, but at the time I didn’t make much of them.” But since then, Israel has relied heavily on its declaration of independence for guidance in the present. Can it hold up under the weight?

Read the finale at this link, at Mosaic. Since it’s the monthly essay, there may be responses, in which case, I’ll respond in turn. Stay tuned.

(Illustration: inaugural ceremony of the Israeli Supreme Court, September 14, 1948.)