The Declaration of Independence Revisited. 11 December 2011

December 11, 2011

The Israeli Declaration of Independence was pronounced at a very dramatic moment. The British Mandate was to expire the next day, the envisioned orderly transfer of power through an appointed United Nations commission did not materialize and the Jewish Yishuv (ישוב) was already under attack of Arab forces. The words of the declaration expressed the dreams and values of the Zionist movement. 52 years have passed since Herzl contended in his famous speech in front of the Maccabi Club in London: “The Jews want a state of their own in which they finally can live as a free people”.

Establishing a state was vital in order “to finally guarantee [the Jews] that they will never again be persecuted for religious or nationalistic reasons…. We have a right”, Herzl said in London, “at least as much as anyone else to demand a country for our national existence. We have earned this right through our travails, for which there is no comparison in the history of mankind. A river of blood has accompanied us along our path for hundreds of years”. That suffering reached its horrible peak with the Holocaust, the worst mass murder in human history. Herzl concluded his speech with the following words: “The land of our fathers still exists, it has not sunk to the bottom of the sea… the ancient land still bears flowers, it again bears fruit, and it is possible that one day, one beautiful day, it will bear the happiness and honor of the Jews”.

This great day, this beautiful day, has arrived.

Almost three generations did Zionist leaders think and argue about the nature of the Jewish State once established. With all their differences, almost all of them shared a humanistic approach, spoke about social solidarity, believed in peaceful cooperation with the local Arab inhabitants, argued for the establishment of the State according to the Laws of Nations, supported voting rights and equality for women and saw religion as an individual choice. Two years after the declaration, Ben-Gurion expressed the view of most Israelis about religion with the following words:

“העבר הוא קנייננו – אין אנו קניין העבר”

The past belongs to us, we do not belong to [or are owned by] the past.

The declaration therefore expresses the Zionistic values and aspirations, and indeed is the realization of the Zionist goals and dreams.

The other influential source of the Declaration was the 181 United Nations General Assembly Resolution. Many of the terms and stipulations of the Declaration are literally taken, as required, from the Resolution. The United Nations Resolution actually ordered the Jewish State to make a declaration to the United Nations, and the stipulations contained in the Declaration should be recognized as fundamental laws of the state. The resolution further required:

“The provisions of chapters 1 and 2 of the declaration shall be under the guarantee of the United Nations, and no modifications shall be made in them without the assent of the General Assembly”.

The provisions 1, 2 relate to two matters: The protection of the holy places and religious sites and human rights. The following paragraph in the Declaration indeed reflects the requirements of the Resolution:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.

This paragraph is not only a genuine expression of Zionistic thoughts and commitments but also a fundamental stipulation and obligation towards the family of Nations, the only one that the Jewish State was expected not to deviate therefrom.

It is not the time and place to discuss the legal implications of the Declaration within Israeli law. All court decisions termed the Declaration as the national credo,

“אני מאמין לאומי”

In 1994 our basic laws, and most importantly the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, were amended and it was provided that the “fundamental human rights will be honored according to the principles in the Declaration of the Establishment of the state of Israel”. There was an unprecedented support in the Knesset, of more than two thirds of the Knesset members, to the amendment.

For many of us the Declaration is the most important document of our nation. It reflects the values that we agreed that our country should be based thereon. It serves as the social pact that allows all of us to live together regardless of difference of opinions.

On the 60th birthday of Israel, just 3 years ago, MK Michael Eitan called for ceremonial legislative ratification of the Declaration. 30 members of the Knesset opposed that move. They were Knesset members of the Ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties. The spirit of unity of just 14 years before disappeared. It is not possible to imagine any American politician turning his or her back on United States’ Declaration of Independence. For me it was a bad omen. It was a stand against the Zionist message, against the very framework of our society.

Recent years just made more obvious that Israel is changing, it is becoming more and more Ultra-Orthodox, much as our Arab neighbors, and is adopting measures which contradict the Declaration. One can go over many legislative initiatives that are intended to reach a point that judges of our Supreme Court will be only those who are followers of a clear nationalistic ideology. The danger of having party supporters on the bench is clear. We clearly did not envision a kind of court that protects the government from the people rather than affords the people protection from the power of the rulers, nor would any of us be ready to see judges that merely execute the government’s wishes.

We should remember that in 1950, just two years after Independence, a law was passed that established the system of a committee of 9 members, of which three judges and two lawyers have the majority, that nominates judges in Israel. Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister at the time, and a rather control-oriented leader, was asked to keep the nomination of judges in the hands of the government. He strongly declined. He insisted that the independence of the judiciary should be strictly preserved.

We see proposed laws that are aimed at restricting freedom of expression, discriminating against the Arab population, restricting activities of left leaning civil rights organizations and the like.

In streets of Ultra-Orthodox communities we see women forced not to walk the same sidewalk as men, required to take the back seats in buses. Freedom of conscience is denied by subjecting the not religious to Rabbinical jurisdiction and the Ultra-Orthodox are deciding who should be recognized as a Jew to live among our midst, expropriating that right from the majority of the Nation.

In sum, it is no time to celebrate our Declaration of Independence. Time has come to go all out to defend it. We have to stand up for the values for which we devoted our life. Only freedom and equality for all will assure the future of Israel true to our Declaration of Independence.