Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment, by Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler (Cambridge, 300 pp., $39.99)

It is one of the great stories. Exiled from their land but never ceasing during 2,000 years of persecution to pray for their return, the People of the Book became free and sovereign in the Land of Israel, 75 years ago today.

Now, either the theme song from “Exodus” begins to play, or I tell you that Leon Uris’s story isn’t the only one, and, like countless American Jews before me, I wring my hands over the sins of a remarkably liberal nationalism in a benighted part of the world.

We expect one story or the other and are tired of both. That’s why Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler’s Israel’s Declaration of Independence is a breath of fresh air. Alternating between close textual analysis, thoughtful reflection, and brisk narrative history, the book tells the one story about the creation of Israel that I never saw coming: a comedy.

Rogachevsky, an assistant professor at Yeshiva University’s Straus Center, and Zigler, an investor and economist of unusually humane learning, tell the story straight, as befits a serious work of scholarship. But expect to laugh while you learn; this is history as a comedy of errors.

Prelude: it’s May 1948, the British Mandate for Palestine is ending, Arab attacks are trending toward war, and Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion is determined to declare independence. But what to say? The task of drafting a declaration fell to Pinchas Rosen, who would become Israel’s first justice minister. Like any senior lawyer worth his salt, Rosen immediately dumped the assignment on the junior man in the office, the British-trained Mordechai Beham. Given only the vaguest of instructions, Beham set out to fulfill his duty to the nation.

Act one: Beham plagiarizes Thomas Jefferson. The first draft of the Israeli Declaration—written in English, embarrassingly—would include such masterstrokes as “inalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” with the Israeli government “deriving its just power from the consent of the governed.” It’s the kind of language that might have complicated those arms shipments from Czechoslovakia in the subsequent War of Independence.

Understandably, Beham’s draft was left out of the telling for decades. It must have appeared to his superiors as so much kitsch: vicarious experience and faked sensations. Yet combining the grand sweep of Jewish history with the greatest hits of the Anglo-American political tradition, “The text earnestly attempts to rise to the occasion: it betrays a sense that a declaration of independence is not merely a technical procedure,” write Rogachevsky and Zigler. Jefferson got that one right.

Act two: The German-educated lawyers of the Legal Department immediately cut the Americanisms, along with God and the Bible. They rewrite the first line of their state’s declaration with all the emotion that legal bureaucrats can summon: “Whereas the Jewish people has, from its very beginnings, been connected historically to the land of Israel.” That’s the text that landed on the desk of Tzvi Berenson, a legal adviser to the national labor union and a future supreme court justice. He stars as the official censor, throwing what remained of Beham’s effort into the Labor Zionist laundry.

Rather than speak of natural rights of the individual, Berenson waxed eloquent on the rights of the state. This sort of positive-rights doctrine was all the rage, but, as Rogachevsky and Zigler comment, Berenson’s draft foreshadows “the frequent complaints in subsequent Israeli history of a bureaucratic government typified by a lack of accountability . . . and neglect for liberty.”

Rogachevsky and Zigler use Berenson’s edits to give useful tours of Zionist history and thought. Berenson’s citation of the “right of labor and sacrifice of the pioneers” prompts an admirably frank discussion of socialism, which failed miserably on its own to save the Jews of Europe but proved essential when “organized toward the national goal of building a state in Palestine.” This was not a dogmatic Marxism, they write; the socialism of the pioneers was “anti-doctrinaire, ‘practical,’ and almost anti-intellectual.” It was also liberal: Berenson added outreach to Arab citizens and a catalogue of equal rights for all, pledging “freedom, justice and peace in the spirit of the visions of the prophets of Israel.”

Interlude: a new draft by Hersch Lauterpacht, the starry-eyed international lawyer, arrives from New York. He seeks to make Israel the model international state, with its sovereignty circumscribed to fit in the new U.N. framework for international peace and order that he had helped design. Lauterpacht’s vision would fail—the world wouldn’t work that way, and international law would be just another weapon in the war against the Jews. It’s fitting, then, that Lauterpacht would minimize his Zionism in later years, fearing that it would taint his global mission. Israel has never been short of friends like these.

Act three: Diplomat and future prime minister Moshe Sharett reports that strong forces in the U.S. oppose Jewish independence. He is given 24 hours to write a new draft of the declaration before the movement’s leaders debate it. Eyes fixed on an international audience, he stresses the Yishuv’s adherence to the U.N. resolutions and slaves to adhere to the U.N. framework of provisional Jewish and Arab governments working slowly toward statehood.

Here, Rogachevsky and Zigler offer a bracing history of the internal U.S. debate, in which it fell to Harry Truman adviser Clark Clifford to inform the “the cold-blooded realists at the US State Department and Department of Defense” that their position was out of touch with reality. The Palestinian Arabs had already launched a war, a Jewish-Arab economic union was a pipe dream, and the U.N. process was in shambles. On the day Ben-Gurion ultimately declared Israeli independence, his diary entry concluded with a question: “Will Tel Aviv be bombed tonight?”

Act four: the Zionist leadership overturns the premises of Sharett’s draft one by one. Historian Anita Shapira calls these deliberations “something of an anticlimax,” as Ben-Gurion simply gets his way on everything, but the account in this book is riveting. “Ben-Gurion saw through the UN,” write Rogachevsky and Zigler. The second the Arabs resorted to force, the U.N. backed off. It would never fulfill its promises or carry out its procedure, and waiting for it could jeopardize Jewish independence—and survival.

The argument would turn to borders; should they be delineated in the declaration? Ben-Gurion noted that America didn’t do that. “But it’s a matter of law,” insisted Pinchas Rosen, the future Justice Minister. “Law,” replied Ben-Gurion, “that’s something that is made by men.” The Arab invasion would necessarily shift borders; why commit in advance to the untenable U.N.-drawn lines that even the U.N. was unwilling to enforce?

Ben-Gurion would also insist that rights “belong” to people, and are not bestowed by the state, giving Mordechai Beham the last laugh. Beham’s elegant locution for God, Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, taken from Jewish liturgy, would also break the logjam on whether to mention God. Far-left leader Aharon Zisling had threatened not to sign the declaration, complaining, “It is not necessary to force me, and those like me, to declare ‘I believe.’” Yet, argued Bechor Sheetrit, the lone Sephardic Jew at the table, “It’s impossible not to mention our Book of Books.” Ben-Gurion maneuvered so that it never came to a vote, saying simply, “Every one of us believes in Tzur Yisrael in his own way and according to his own understanding.” It will require many more artful compromises—and hardball tactics—to keep Israel united when it counts.

Finale: after the blundering amateur, the single-minded lawyers, the fretting diplomat, and the bruising debates were through, Ben-Gurion simply took over. He revised the declaration himself on the understanding that, as he had told his colleagues, “There’s no room in it for judicial justification—it has to determine political reality.” He took General Assembly approval of a Jewish state as “irrevocable” while ignoring the defunct U.N. process and denying the U.N. the final word: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.”

Years later, Sharett would complain that Ben-Gurion’s edits destroyed the “logical basis” and “inner drama” of the declaration. Well, editors have never been popular. Ben-Gurion had said that the declaration “did not have to be recited by schoolchildren in 100 years,” but the text he produced suggests that he must have believed the opposite.

Ben-Gurion, in the authors’ analysis, put forward two main arguments in the final draft: “Here they wrote the Book of Books,” and “the natural right to be masters of their own fate.” In the first case, he escaped an “intellectual dead end”—the merely historical claim that Jews lived here in antiquity—“by grasping toward the universal,” explaining that the Jews had done something of world-historical significance in the Land of Israel. The political and social development of the Jews, it might follow, is of interest not only to the Jews.

In Sharett’s draft, “the UN was the master of the fate of Israel. Not in Ben-Gurion’s,” the authors conclude. This change made Israel’s declaration true to Zionism, the movement to restore Jewish spirit and honor, in addition to sovereignty. Its success in an always-hostile world would hinge on the application of Jewish genius, the preservation of Jewish faith, and the rediscovery of Jewish statesmanship. More than the history of a document, Israel’s Declaration of Independence captures the spirit of a founding for the ages.

Photo by Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images


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