JERUSALEM — Growing up in the United States, every student is taught about the founding fathers — the 56 men who attached their names, and thereby their destinies, to the Declaration of Independence.
Those heroes, among them Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin, come to seem larger than life to many American schoolchildren, as they learn about how the 13 colonies threw off the yoke of the British Empire.
It is not surprising then, that when Golda Meyerson (later Meir) — waited to step up to the podium to add her name to Israel's Declaration of Independence, her thoughts went back to the legends she learned as a child in Milwaukee:
"From my childhood in America, I learned about the Declaration of Independence and the geniuses who signed it. I couldn't imagine these were real people doing something real. And here I am signing it, actually signing a Declaration of Independence. I didn't think it was due me, that I, Goldie Mabovich Meyerson, deserved it, that I had lived to see the day. My hands shook. We had done it. We had brought the Jewish people into existence.
"Whatever price any of us would have to pay for it, we had recreated the Jewish national home. The long exile was over. Now we were a nation like other nations, masters for the first time in 20 centuries — of our own destiny," she continued.
Meir cried openly at the signing. When asked why, she replied, "One, because of the honor, and two, because there are people missing here…who had more of a right to be here and sign…"
Others may not have wept, yet also felt their date with destiny.
Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), soon to be the first foreign minister, later recalled that he signed with "a sense of excitement together with a clear premonition of danger such as a man might feel while standing on a cliff, ready to leap into a yawning chasm. We felt as though we stood on a very high crest, where roaring winds were brewing about us, and that we had to stand fast."
Others were biblically inspired. Haim Shapira, a leader of Hapoel Hamizrahi, a forerunner of the National Religious Party, said later that he felt he was reliving the words of the psalmists: "When the Lord caused us to return to Zion, we were as dreamers" (Psalms 126:1).
It was, said Shapira, "a dream, a dream which we had never believed would come true in our lifetime. A miracle had happened."
Like the milestone of July 4, this, too, was a hard-fought miracle. Three historical dates led up to it: Aug. 30, 1897, when the First Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, adopted the Basel Program resolutions, which proclaimed Zionism's aim "to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael to be guaranteed by international law"; Nov. 2, 1917, when the Balfour Declaration gave voice to British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; and Nov. 29, 1947, — when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
While the U.N. vote granted the right, it was Britain's decision to leave on May 15, 1948 that gave the founding fathers their impetus to proclaim independence.
Not that the decision was taken automatically. There was strong opposition from Zionist leaders in the United States who lobbied for postponement, partially due to pressure from the State Department.
But David Ben-Gurion sensed that it was now or never, and pushed to have statehood declared as the British were about to leave.
On May 12, the National Administration (Minhelet Ha'am), the quasi-cabinet known also as "the 13," met in Tel Aviv to discuss a draft of the declaration, which had been crafted mostly by Sharett, with help from other appointed members of the drafting committee: David Remez, Felix Rosenbleuth, Aharon Zisling and Shapira.
With such disparate backgrounds among "the 13," there was much wrangling over specifics. The first argument was over what exactly should be declared.
Shertok, following discussions in the United States with high-ranking officials of the Truman administration, proposed the formation of a government, rather than a state. Rosenbleuth proposed the declaration of a state, within the framework of the U.N. partition resolution. Ben-Gurion decided on declaring a state "on the basis" of the U.N. vote.
Rosenbleuth and Behor Shitrit wanted the borders to be defined, but Zisling and Ben-Gurion were opposed. Ben-Gurion pointed out how the United States had not defined any borders when it declared independence, and besides, who knew where the borders would be at the end of the then upcoming war?
"We accepted the U.N. resolution, but the Arabs did not," Ben-Gurion said. He argued that the Arabs were 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?"
Ben-Gurion's motion for non-designated borders passed by one vote.
Then an even bigger question came up: What was the state to be called?
Proposals included "Zion," the "Jewish State," "Judea," the "Land of Israel," "Yehuda," and "Ever," from the Hebrew "Ivri." Ben-Gurion put forth "Israel," which won the vote.
It was also agreed that independence would be declared at 4 p.m. on Friday, — so as not to conflict with Shabbat — at the Tel Aviv Museum.
Shertok worked with the committee on revisions the next day, presenting a final version when the National Administration met that evening at 6 p.m. Criticized as too long, and with details still being debated, the document was handed to Rabbi Yehuda Fishman of Hamizrahi, Zisling, Shertok and Ben-Gurion to finalize. Ben-Gurion worked overnight preparing a final draft, cutting out a quarter of the prose and adding a new opening paragraph:
"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world."
The next morning, Ben-Gurion submitted his text to the subcommittee, which approved it.
At 1:50 p.m the next day, 25 members of the National Council (Moetzet Ha'am) — 11 members were stuck in besieged Jerusalem, and one was overseas — met at the Keren Kayemet building to approve it. There were only two hours left before the signing ceremony was to begin.
Meir Wilner, representing the Communist Party, proposed adding denunciations of the British Mandate and British military bases. Shertok argued that it would be out of place. Wilner also protested that the council's procedures weren't democratic. Ben-Gurion replied that "there isn't time for meetings in the emergency crisis."
Perhaps the biggest argument, which had been brought up at each preceding meeting, was over including "God" in the declaration. David Pinkas, a representative of Mizrahi, wanted the document to begin, "The Land of Israel was promised to the Jewish people in the Torah and by the prophets"; others wanted no mention — or even a hint — of a deity.
A compromise was reached to use the phrase "Tzur Yisrael," now translated as "Rock of Israel."
Ben-Gurion then asked the council for a vote by two ballots, and added that council members stuck in besieged Jerusalem had approved it that morning.
"Now I ask all those in favor of the present text as a whole to raise their hands," Ben-Gurion said.
The meeting adjourned at 3 p.m., leaving council members about an hour to change clothes, freshen up and get to 16 Rothschild Blvd.
The declaration of statehood was not a publicly declared event, as there were fears that the British, who still held nominal authority until midnight, might try and stop it and that Arab armies would move up plans to attack.
The one-page invitation to the ceremony, sent out by messenger that morning, urged invitees to "keep secret the contents of this invitation and time of the council meeting."
Despite the secrecy, hundreds of people began gathering outside the hall as soon as military guards started to cordon off the street in early afternoon. Thousands more tuned in to the Voice of Israel to hear the station's first direct broadcast.
Inside, the estimated 250 guests — including representatives of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, leaders of political parties, cultural personalities, the chief rabbis, the Haganah chief of staff, Yigael Yadin, and others — were tightly packed into the small hall. Newspaper editors and correspondents made up the largest group of those present.
At exactly 4 p.m., Ben-Gurion banged his walnut wood gavel to open the session. The crowd rose spontaneously to sing "Hatikvah."
"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 announced.
He proceeded to read the first 10 paragraphs, in essence the preamble, which explained the background for declaring independence: the history of the Jewish people, its struggle to renew a national life in its own land, and international recognition of its right to do so.
Ben-Gurion's voice then rose as he read the decisive 11th paragraph:
"Accordingly, we the members of the National Council, representing the Jewish People in Palestine and the World Zionist Movement, are met together in solemn assembly today, the day of termination of the British Mandate for Palestine; and by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish People and the Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Medinat Yisrael [the state of Israel]."
Members of the audience rose in unison, cheering and applauding. Some burst out in tears.
Ben-Gurion then read on, outlining the principles of freedom, justice, peace, and equal social and political rights, which were to guide the new state; and the last section, which called upon the Arabs to preserve peace, while extending an offer of peace and good neighborliness to all neighboring states and their peoples, and appealing to the Jewish people in the diaspora to rally round the Jews of the Land of Israel.
"With trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand to this declaration, at this session of the Provisional State Council, on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the fifth of Iyar, 5708, the 14 of May, 1948."
It had taken him 16 minutes to read the 979 words of the declaration.
When Shertok, the last of the 25 signers that day, penned his name, the crowd rose and began singing "Hatikvah" again, accompanied by the 70-member Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra.
When they had all finished, Ben-Gurion declared, "The state of Israel is established. This meeting is adjourned."
After 1,878 years in exile, it had taken 32 minutes for the Jewish nation to be declared reborn.