The day before the British Mandate was due to expire, was the announcement by David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, that the new Jewish state named the State of Israel had been formally established in parts of what was known as the British Mandate of Palestine and on land where, in antiquity, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah had once been.
The event is celebrated annually in Israel with a national holiday called Yom Ha'atzmaut (Hebrew: יום העצמאות, lit. Independence Day) on 5 Iyar of every year according to the Hebrew calendar.
While the possibility of a Jewish homeland in Palestine had been a goal of Zionist organizations since the late 19th century, it is not mentioned in the historical record of the region until the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British Foreign Secretary stated:
With the end of World War I, Britain was given a mandate over the area known as Palestine, which it had conquered from the Ottomans. In 1936 the Peel Commission suggested partitioning Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, though it was rejected as unworkable by the government and was at least partially to blame for the 1936–39 Arab revolt.
In the face of increasing violence after World War II, the British handed the issue over to the United Nations. The result was Resolution 181, a partition plan to divide Palestine between Jews and Arabs. The Jewish state was to receive around 56% of the land area of Mandate Palestine, encompassing 82% of the Jewish population, though it would be separated from Jerusalem, designated as an area to be administered by the UN. The plan was accepted by most of the Jewish population, but rejected by much of the Arab populace. On 29 November 1947, the plan was put to a vote in the United Nations General Assembly.
The result was 33 to 13 in favour of the plan, with 10 abstentions. The Arab countries (all of which had opposed the plan) proposed to query the International Court of Justice on the competence of the General Assembly to partition a country against the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants, but were again defeated. The division was to take effect as part of a British withdrawal from the territory (to be no later than 1 August 1948), though the UK refused to implement the plan, arguing it was unacceptable to both sides.
The UN resolution on «The Future Government of Palestine» contained both a plan of partition and a Minority Protection Plan. It placed minority, women's, and religious rights under the protection of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. The plan provided specific guarantees of fundamental human rights. The new states had to acknowledge the stipulated rights in a Declaration, which according to precedent was tantamount to a treaty. The resolution stated that «the stipulations contained in the declarations are recognized as fundamental laws of State, and no law, regulation or official action shall conflict or interfere with these stipulations, nor shall any law, regulation or official action prevail over them.» The resolution also proposed that the Constitution of each State embody the rights contained in the Declaration.
In the hearings before the Ad Hoc Political Committee that considered Israel's application for membership in the United Nations, Abba Eban said that the rights stipulated in section C. Declaration, chapters 1 and 2 of UN resolution 181 (II) had been alluded to in the fundamental law of the state of Israel as proposed by the resolution. The instruments that he cited were the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, and various cables and letters of confirmation addressed to the Secretary General. Mr. Eban's explanations and Israel's undertakings were noted in the text of General Assembly Resolution 273 (III) Admission of Israel to membership in the United Nations, 11 May 1949.
The first draft of the declaration was made by Zvi Berenson, the Histadrut trade union's legal advisor and later a justice of the Supreme Court, at the request of Pinchas Rosen. A revised second draft was made by three lawyers, A. Beham, A. Hintzheimer and Z.E. Baker, and was framed by a committee including David Remez, Pinchas Rosen, Haim-Moshe Shapira, Moshe Sharett and Aharon Zisling. A second committee meeting which included David Ben-Gurion, Yehuda Leib Maimon, Sharett and Zisling produced the final text.
On 12 May 1948, the Minhelet HaAm (Hebrew: מנהלת העם, lit. People's Administration) was convened to vote on declaring independence. Three of the members were missing; Yehuda Leib Maimon and Yitzhak Gruenbaum were detained in besieged Jerusalem, whilst Yitzhak-Meir Levin was in the United States.
The meeting started at 1:45 and ended after midnight. The decision was between accepting the American proposal for a truce, or declaring independence. The latter option was put to a vote, with six of the ten members present supporting it:
Chaim Weizmann, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and soon to be the first President of Israel, endorsed the decision, after reportedly asking «What are they waiting for, the idiots?»
The draft text was submitted for approval to a meeting of Moetzet HaAm (Hebrew: מועצת העם, lit. People's Council) at the JNF building in Tel Aviv on 14 May. The meeting started at 1:50 and ended at 15:00, an hour before the declaration was due to be made, and despite ongoing disagreements, with a unanimous vote in favour of the final text.
During the process, there were two major debates, centering around the issues of borders and religion. On the border issue, the original draft had declared that the borders would be that decided by the UN partition plan. While this was supported by Rosen and Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, it was opposed by Ben-Gurion and Zisling, with Ben-Gurion stating, «We accepted the UN Resolution, but the Arabs did not. They are preparing to make war on us. If we defeat them and capture western Galilee or territory on both sides of the road to Jerusalem, these areas will become part of the state. Why should we obligate ourselves to accept boundaries that in any case the Arabs don't accept?»
The inclusion of the designation of borders in the text was dropped after the provisional government of Israel, the Minhelet HaAm, voted 5–4 against it. The Revisionists, committed to a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River (that is, including Transjordan), wanted the phrase «within its historic borders» included but were unsuccessful.
The second major issue was over the inclusion of God in the last section of the document, with the draft using the phrase «and placing our trust in the Almighty». The two rabbis, Shapira and Yehuda Leib Maimon, argued for its inclusion, saying that it could not be omitted, with Shapira supporting the wording «God of Israel» or «the Almighty and Redeemer of Israel.» It was strongly opposed by Zisling, a member of the secularist Mapam. In the end the phrase «Rock of Israel» was used, which could be interpreted as either referring to God, or the land of Eretz Israel, Ben-Gurion saying «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.» Although its use was still opposed by Zisling, the phrase was accepted without a vote.
At the meeting on 14 May, several other members of Moetzet HaAm suggested additions to the document. Meir Vilner wanted it to denounce the British Mandate and military but Sharett said it was out of place. Meir Argov pushed to mention the Displaced Persons camps in Europe and to guarantee freedom of language. Ben-Gurion agreed with the latter but noted that Hebrew should be the main language of the state.
The writers also had to decide on the name for the new state. Eretz Israel, Ever (from the name Eber), Judea, and Zion were all suggested, as were Ziona, Ivriya and Herzliya. Judea and Zion were rejected because, according to the partition plan, Jerusalem (Zion) and most of Judean mountains would be outside the new state. Ben-Gurion put forward «Israel» and it passed by a vote of 6–3.
The debate over wording did not end completely even after the Declaration had been made. Declaration signer Meir David Loewenstein later claimed that «It ignored our sole right to Eretz Israel, which is based on the covenant of the Lord with Abraham, our father, and repeated promises in the Tanach. It ignored the aliya of the Ramban and the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Ba'al Shem Tov, and the [rights of] Jews who lived in the 'Old Yishuv'.»
The ceremony to declare independence was held in the Tel Aviv Museum (today known as Independence Hall) but was not widely publicised as it was feared that the British Authorities might attempt to prevent it or that the Arab armies might invade earlier than expected. An invitation was sent out by messenger on the morning of 14 May telling recipients to arrive at 15:30 and to keep the event a secret. The event started at 16:00 (a time chosen so as not to breach the sabbath) and was broadcasted live as the first transmission of the new radio station Kol Israel.
The final draft of the declaration was typed at the Jewish National Fund building following its approval earlier in the day. Ze'ev Sherf, who stayed at the building in order to deliver the text, had forgotten to arrange transport for himself. Ultimately, he had to flag down a passing car and ask the driver (who was driving a borrowed car without a license) to take him to the ceremony. Sherf's request was initially refused but he managed to persuade the driver to take him. The car was stopped by a policeman for speeding while driving across the city though a ticket was not issued after it was explained that he was delaying the declaration of independence. Sherf arrived at the museum at 15:59.
At 16:00, Ben-Gurion opened the ceremony by banging his gavel on the table, prompting a spontaneous rendition of Hatikvah, soon to be Israel's national anthem, from the 250 guests. On the wall behind the podium hung a picture of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and two flags, later to become the official flag of Israel.
After telling the audience «I shall now read to you the scroll of the Establishment of the State, which has passed its first reading by the National Council», Ben-Gurion proceeded to read out the declaration, taking 16 minutes, ending with the words «Let us accept the Foundation Scroll of the Jewish State by rising» and calling on Rabbi Fishman to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing.
The entire declaration ceremony was recorded and broadcasted live on Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) radio station.
As leader of the Yishuv, David Ben-Gurion was the first person to sign. The declaration was due to be signed by all 37 members of Moetzet HaAm. However, twelve members could not attend, eleven of them trapped in besieged Jerusalem and one abroad. The remaining 25 signatories present were called up in alphabetical order to sign, leaving spaces for those absent. Although a space was left for him between the signatures of Eliyahu Dobkin and Meir Vilner, Zerach Warhaftig signed at the top of the next column, leading to speculation that Vilner's name had been left alone to isolate him, or to stress that even a communist agreed with the declaration.
When Herzl Rosenblum, a journalist, was called up to sign, Ben-Gurion instructed him to sign under the name Herzl Vardi, his pen name, as he wanted more Hebrew names on the document. Although Rosenblum acquiesced to Ben-Gurion's request and legally changed his name to Vardi, he later admitted to regretting not signing as Rosenblum.
Several other signatories later Hebraised their names, including Meir Argov (Grabovsky), Peretz Bernstein (then Fritz Bernstein), Avraham Granot (Granovsky), Avraham Nissan (Katznelson), Moshe Kol (Kolodny), Yehuda Leib Maimon (Fishman), Golda Meir (Myerson), Pinchas Rosen (Felix Rosenblueth) and Moshe Sharett (Shertok). Other signatories added their own touches, including Saadia Kobashi who added the phrase «HaLevy», referring to the tribe of Levi.
After Moshe Shertok, the last of the signatories, had put his name to paper, the audience again stood and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra played the «Hatikvah». Ben-Gurion concluded the event with the words «The State of Israel is established! This meeting is adjourned!»
Following the declaration, Moetzet HaAm became the Provisional State Council, which acted as the legislative body for the new state until the first elections in January 1949.
Over the next few days the armies of Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, and Syria invaded Israel, and officially and militarily threatened to occupy the whole of the former Mandate territory, thereby starting the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, known in Israel as the War of Independence (Hebrew: מלחמת העצמאות, Milhamat HaAtzma'ut). A truce began on 11 June, but fighting resumed on 8 July and stopped again on 18 July, before restarting in mid-October and finally ending on 24 July 1949 with the signing of the armistice agreement with Syria. By then Israel had retained its independence and increased its land area by almost 50% compared to the 1947 UN Partition Plan.
Many of the signatories would play a prominent role in Israeli politics following independence; Moshe Sharett and Golda Meir both served as Prime Minister, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi became the country's second president in 1952, and several others served as ministers. David Remez was the first signatory to pass away, dying in May 1951, whilst Meir Vilner, the youngest signatory at just 29, was the longest living, serving in the Knesset until 1990 and dying in June 2003. Eliyahu Berligne, the oldest signatory at 82, died in 1959.
Eleven minutes after the declaration was signed, the United States de facto recognised the State of Israel, followed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's Iran (which had voted against the UN partition plan), Guatemala, Iceland, Nicaragua, Romania, and Uruguay. The Soviet Union was the first nation to fully recognize Israel de jure on 17 May 1948, followed by Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Ireland, and South Africa. The United States extended official recognition after the first Israeli election, as Truman had promised, on 31 January 1949. Israel became a member of the United Nations on 11 May 1949.
The declaration stated that the State of Israel would ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex, and guaranteed freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. However, the Knesset maintains that the declaration is neither a law nor an ordinary legal document. The Supreme Court has ruled that the guarantees were merely guiding principles, and that the declaration is not a constitutional law making a practical ruling on the upholding or nullification of various ordinances and statutes. Whenever an explicit statutory measure of the Knesset leaves no room for doubt, it is honored even if inconsistent with the principles in the Declaration of Independence.
In 1994 the Knesset amended two basic laws, Human Dignity and Liberty and Freedom of Occupation, introducing (among other changes) a statement saying that «the fundamental human rights in Israel will be honored (...) in the spirit of the principles included in the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel».
Although Ben-Gurion had told the audience that he was reading from the scroll of independence, he was actually reading from handwritten notes because only the bottom part of the scroll had been finished by artist and calligrapher Otte Wallish by the time of the declaration (he did not complete the entire document until June). The scroll, which is bound together in three parts, is generally kept in the country's National Archives, though it is currently on display at the Israel Museum.
The document commences by drawing a direct line from Biblical times to the present:
It acknowledges the Jewish exile over the millennia, mentioning both ancient «faith» and new «politics»:
It speaks of the urge of Jews to return to their ancient homeland:
It describes Jewish immigrants to Israel in the following terms:
The European Holocaust of 1939–45 is part of the imperative for the re-settlement of the homeland:
On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recommending outlines for the 'Future Constitution and Government of Palestine'. It recommended the establishment of a provisional government for the Jewish State, which would be subject to certain constitutional requirements and guarantees. It recommended for the inhabitants of Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that constitutional form of government. On the issues of sovereignty and self-determination:
The new state pledged that it will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz Israel and appealed:
A final appeal is made to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the «Free Hebrew people in its land» in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the struggle for the realization of their age-old dream, the redemption of Israel. The Declaration is making a distinction between the «Hebrew» people in «the Land of Israel», and «the Jewish people» in the rest of the world.
It concludes with the phrase «MiToh Bitahon BeTzur Yisrael», roughly translated as «With faith in the God of Israel,» or alternatively «From the strength of Israel.» This double meaning ended the document in a manner satisfactory to both the religious and secular factions of the Yishuv.