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.)

The right of the Jewish people

“All men are created equal… they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” These two principles, from the American Declaration of Independence, form the very bedrock of the United States. Did Israel, in declaring its independence in May 1948, assert the same principles?

In my latest (sixth) installment on Israel’s declaration of independence, I examine its treatment of rights. The bedrock of Israel isn’t individual rights; it’s the collective right of the Jewish people to independence in its own homeland. The fact that Israel has a secure Jewish majority makes it possible for the Jewish state to function as a democracy that recognizes the equal political rights of its citizens, and the collective rights of its minorities. But that majority wasn’t self-evident in May 1948, and the language of the declaration reflects it.

The word “democracy,” present in the drafts of the declaration, was ultimately struck. But the declaration does guarantee the “full and equal citizenship” of all. So just where does the declaration come down on the question of collective versus individual rights? And what’s the one right that is totally unique to Israel?

Read the full essay at Mosaic.