Israel at 70: Independence Secure, Peace Elusive By Rabbi Judy Chessin


On April 19, we observe the 70th anniversary of the birth of the modern state of Israel. Yom Ha’atzmaut might be compared to the United States’ proclamation of independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776.

The timing for the Jewish state was based on the expiration of the British mandate over the region May 15 (Iyar 6), 1948. The UN had previously determined a partition of the land into two separate states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. But the Arabs rejected this compromise and prepared to attack as soon as the British mandate ended. With enemy armies at the ready, the leaders of the small Jewish population took matters into their own hands.

Only one month before, they began to draft a declaration of independence. Their founding document relied heavily upon America’s Declaration of Independence. One of the early drafters, Ukrainian born lawyer Mordechai Behman, visited the private library of an American neighbor and studied the words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Behan’s draft actually borrowed Thomas Jefferson’s words:  “When in the course of human events,” as well as phrases from Deuteronomy, the English Bill of Rights and the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine.

Only a few of Jefferson’s words actually made it into the final version which was read by David Ben Gurion three weeks and many drafts later. Yet similarities found their way into the defining documents. Both declarations assert independence and the right of their populations to control their own destinies. Both declarations sought self-determination, liberty and freedom based upon human and natural rights. Both documents proposed safeguards for the individual and proclaimed an interest in economic growth.

Despite the anxiety of impending war, Israel’s Declaration called for “peace and amity” and called upon its neighbors to “return to the ways of peace.”

The draft of the text was being modified up to one hour before it was ratified. There were many areas of contention. One was borders. Some representatives wanted the borders of the UN Partition Plan delineated in the document, while others questioned the need to obligate themselves to borders that the Arabs themselves wouldn’t accept. A second issue was over the inclusion of the name of God in the declaration. The draft read: “…and placing our trust in the Almighty,” but the secularists objected. In the end the compromise “Rock of Israel” (Tzur Yisrael) was struck since Ben Gurion pointed out that the words could refer either to God or to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) itself. Finally, what to call the new nation?

Suggestions varied from Judea, Zion, Ivriya and Herziliya. Ben Gurion suggested “Israel” which passed by a vote of 6-3. The officials also debated what to call the new country in Arabic:  Palestine (Filastin), Zion (Sayoun) or Isarel (Eesra’il)? They expected an Arab nation to be established alongside Israel, and also knew that many Arabs would remain citizens in the Jewish state. Thus they saved the name “Palestine” for the future second state that they hoped would become a peaceful neighbor.

Seventy years have passed and many of these issues remain as perplexing and vital as they did almost a century ago. At 4:00 pm on May 15, 1948, Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence before 250 dignitaries. Then the attendees rose in affirmation, reciting the Shehechiyanu Prayer and bursting out in Hatikvah Israel’s national anthem. You can listen to the actual inspirational broadcast here:

May the day the founders envisioned come before much longer, when all who call this ancient land home can “sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”


Rabbi Judy Chessin