Sixty-five years ago today, on the fifth of Iyar 1948 and in the shadow of war, David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence at what was then the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Rothschild Boulevard, laying out a vision for the just-born State of Israel. The scroll containing the text of the declaration has become one of the country’s symbols, so this year, Bina, the organization behind secular yeshivas in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, chose the Declaration of Independence as the centerpiece for its annual commemoration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Eight public figures—writers, scholars, an actress and a journalist—appeared on stage last night at what is now called Independence Hall and took turns reading portions of the scroll, just as one might read the Scroll of Esther on Purim. As the author Dov Elboim, who hosted the event, put it, “it is one of Judaism’s canonical texts, alongside the Bible, the Talmud and the Siddur.” When it was written, its words reflected the broad consensus of the Israeli public, Elboim said, “and today, when Israel desperately needs to redefine its values, vision and purpose, reading the Declaration scroll anew is the perfect place to start.”
Some readers verged on the midrashic. The writer Yariv Ben Aharon read the scroll’s opening sentence—“Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people”—and then offered his own political riff. “Only part of Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish State,” he said. “Our rights to all of Eretz Israel lay the grounds for the historical compromise that entailed establishing the state on only part of the land.”
The much-loved actress Yevgenia Dodina, best known for her work with Tel Aviv’s Gesher theater, established by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, recited a segment that dealt with immigration. “Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses,” she read. But for Dodina, who was born in Belarus, home is not just a question of place but of language. During her first performances on stage in Israel, she said, she could barely understand the words she was uttering. The Jews who came to Israel may have “revived the Hebrew language”, as the scroll says, but it took Dodina a very long time before she was comfortable with Hebrew to truly feel that at home in her homeland.
Professor Gabriela Shalev, one of Israel’s preeminent legal scholars and its former ambassador to the United Nations, noted that the scroll makes six mentions of the United Nations. “Israel and the U.N. were both established in reaction to the horrors of the Second World War and thus share common values,” Shalev pointed out. She said that Ben-Gurion’s legendary maxim—what the goyim say isn’t important; what’s important is what the Jews do—was misguided. “Today, perhaps even more so than 65 years ago, there is tremendous importance to Israel’s integration among the nations. A nation apart no longer.”
The evening’s most powerful moment came when Dr. Yariv Ben-Eliezer stepped up to the podium. Ben-Eliezer is David Ben-Gurion’s eldest grandson. Sheepishly apologizing that his Israeli accent doesn’t do his grandfather’s idiosyncratic speech justice, Ben-Eliezer recited the scroll’s most important words:
Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Israel and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.
But Ben-Eliezer, not unlike his grandfather, is not one for sentimentality. “Sixty-five years after the country’s establishment,” he said, “the Declaration’s optimistic tone has shifted to disappointment in how the country is run, in its crisis of values, widening social gaps and general lack of empathy.” Israel still has no constitution, Ben-Eliezer pointed out, and has trouble fully guaranteeing the rights so progressively laid out in the scroll:
The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Ben-Eliezer, who was 8 years old when his grandfather declared statehood, said he still remembers the sad look Ben-Gurion had on his face when he heard the U.N. resolution for the partition of Palestine on November 29, 1947. “He told us he knew we would pay for our independence in blood,” Ben-Eliezer said, “but in grandfather’s sadness there was also hope for the future. Hope that the younger generations would continue to advance our country, to fight for the character of our society and make the desert bloom.”