Israel's proclamation of independence promised a convening within six months of a “constituent assembly” charged with drawing up a constitution. But because of the war and then postwar politics, this never happened. A proclamation that was never meant to serve as the basis of law became a kind of quasi-constitution, retroactively vested with legal standing. Has the proclamation stood up to this test? Is it really the ultimate bulwark of the Jewish and democratic state?
It is often assumed that Israel's proclamation of independence declares Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state. In fact, the word “democratic” doesn’t appear in the text. The omission wasn’t just a matter of carelessness. The word appeared in earlier drafts but was then deleted. Why? Do other passages, establishing the equality of all Israel’s citizens, effectively enshrine the state’s democratic character?
And what of individual rights? Israel’s proclamation, like America’s, justifies the establishment of the state in terms of its pledge to uphold the rights of its prospective citizens. But in the proclamation, all but one reference to rights is to the collective rights of the Jewish people. What does that say about how the founders understood rights?
How did Israel’s founders express in words the legitimate claim of the Jews to statehood? What was the mix of biblical, historical and legal claims put forward in the text? And why were some kinds of claims preferred over others?
In particular, how much significance should be attached to the issue of international legitimacy? The proclamation refers six times to the United Nations, mostly in connection with UN General Assembly resolution 181, recommending the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. To what purpose? And did the proclamation reject an Arab state in Eretz-Israel?
If readers are familiar with any aspect of the proclamation’s composition, it is the dispute over whether or not to mention God. The debate was famously resolved by this compromise formula: “Placing our trust in Tsur Yisrael”—the “Rock of Israel,” an ambiguous term—“we affix our signatures to this proclamation.”
But other passages in the proclamation also required that choices be made about the role of divine promise in the rights of the Jewish people to the land. In general, the earliest drafts made the most references to God; with each successive draft, the number shrank, eventually reaching none. So is is the proclamation a secular document?
Who declared the state of Israel? By what authority, in whose name? The entity being declared was “a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel,” but what did “Jewish state” mean to those who wrote the proclamation? What does its name, Israel, reveal about the identity of the new state? If there were other alternatives—and there were—why was this name ultimately preferred?
Over the past two decades, the complicated history of the drafting of the proclamation has been established by comparison of the drafts. This article outlines the key stages in the drafting, each of which saw major changes in the text. It is also important to know who, up to and including David Ben-Gurion, made which changes.
Israel was born in the Art Museum on Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv on the afternoon of Friday, May 14, 1948. This article brings that day to life, culminating in the reading of the proclamation of independence by David Ben-Gurion, and the signing by members of the People’s Council. The full text is introduced, as is its traditional division into parts, via the official translation.