An Interview with Arieh Handler

You were amongst the pre-war founders of Bnei Akiva-Bachad in London, but when did you leave for Israel?


After my father discovered that her father had perished in Auschwitz, the family went from London to Palestine in May 1947. I was still engaged in Zionist work in London at that time as Director of Bnei-Akiva-Bachad and Youth Aliyah. I stayed behind because I was heavily engaged in getting people out of DP camps and taking them – legally and illegally – to Palestine. We needed young people from this country, trained in agriculture and in the army, to help them. We took some of the DP boys and girls to Marseilles and then on to Palestine. Some were intercepted and turned back to Cyprus.


What was the reaction to the UN resolution which advocated partition – a Jewish state and an Arab state?


In late 1947 the World Zionist Organisation/Jewish Agency called a meeting of the va’ad ha’poale ha’zioni (Zionist General Council) to discuss the UN decision to partition Palestine. We couldn’t meet in Jerusalem which was already a danger zone so the meeting took place in Tel Aviv. Berl Locker, Dr. Levenberg, Professor Brodetsky and myself from Britain were present. There was a fascinating discussion with the Left pitted against the Right. My own movement Mizrahi-Hapoel Hamizrahi, the religious Zionists, was also divided over the issue. I, Moshe Shapira and the leaders of Hapoel Hamizrahi were in favour of partition because we felt that this was the only way to obtain statehood immediately. Rav Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan) of Mizrahi and the General Zionist ‘B’ followers of Menahem Ussishkin were completely opposed to partition. The Americans were also split. Abba Hillel Silver (General Zionists ‘B’) was very much against, but Stephen Wise and Nahum Goldmann (General Zionist ‘A’) supported partition.

We felt a great responsibility to the people in the DP camps. We could not let them sit any longer in such difficult conditions after everything that they had been through. Even if Bevin and Atlee had given 100,000 certificates, it would have been insufficient. How could some be granted certificates and not others? It would have created more problems than solutions. The survivors had to be given a chance to control their own lives. We all felt that we should get on with the job. A majority supported partition after a hard discussion.

There were probably 575,000 inhabitants of the Yishuv at that time and probably a majority was very much in favour of establishing the state. Ideological issues like a state on both sides of the Jordan were secondary considerations. Indeed it was tragic that the Arabs did not agree to partition which would have given them a state. At that time they did not want to hear about it. The machinery for the state was in place – if we had not gone ahead, I do not know what would have happened.


What was the mood of the people on the eve of independence?


In May 1948 the mood of the country was hopeful, but people just did not know what was going to happen. Jerusalem was encircled and several members of the provisional government council were isolated. The only way out was by plane. Therefore many prominent figures were unable to come to the Declaration of the State. Ben-Gurion insisted that Rabbi Fishman should be present and he sent a plane to bring him to Tel Aviv. Ben-Gurion was completely secular and Rabbi Fishman was a leader of Mizrahi, the religious Zionists. Yet there was a special relationship between them. They had both been in prison together in Turkey during World War I.


Who was supporting the creation of a Jewish state?


Ironically the Communists – the Russians, the Czechs – were encouraging Ben-Gurion in this direction. It wasn’t simply that they wanted to expel the British from the Middle East, but that they believed that many of halutzim were good socialists of Russian origin and that the new state would come within the Soviet orbit of influence.


And the West?


The British did not believe in the establishment of a Jewish state. They thought in their hearts that their departure would only be temporary and that the divisions between Arab and Jew would force their return.


And the Diaspora, especially American Jewry?


There were different messages from the Jewish world about the timing of establishing the state. There was pressure from the United States and by Nahum Goldmann to delay the declaration by a few days. He believed that Truman would be able to convince Britain to support the establishment of the state. Goldmann believed that if all the nations of the world gave their support, it would avert the threat of immediate war. He believed that faced with a wall of international support for a Jewish state, some Arab countries would accept partition. There was a deep animosity between Goldmann and Ben-Gurion on the issue. Ben-Gurion held the view that if the state would not be declared then and there, it would never come into existence.


So how was the decision made?


Detailed discussions took place in the few days before the declaration the council of the provisional government voted 6 – 4 in favour of declaring a state. Ben-Gurion and Sharett of Mapai, Aharon Tzisling and Mordechai Bentov of Mapam, Moshe Shapira of Hapoel Hamizrahi and Peretz Bernstein of the General Zionists were in favour. Eliezer Kaplan and David Remez of Mapai, Pinhas Rozenblueth-Rozen of the Progressives and Behor Shitrit of the Sephardi party were against.

Ze’ev Sharef, the secretary of the political department of the Jewish Agency, was told to organise invitations for the declaration at the Tel Aviv museum, literally the day before. The invitations were all typed, but he was told not to send them out. Firstly no one knew if it would actually take place and secondly if it did take place, it had been arranged quietly for security reasons.


Then what happened on the day of the declaration?

I received an invitation on that Friday morning, 14 May, by motorbike. It requested us not to divulge the contents and the locations. We were told to be in our seats by 3.30 that afternoon in ‘dark festive attire’. It was signed ‘the Secretariat’ – there was no name. Even the name of the state had not been decided. It could have been Judea, Ivriya – we just didn’t know.


What about the text of the declaration?


The wording of the declaration had been fought over for some time before. Sharett redrafted the original document in a beautiful but highly detailed Hebrew. Ben-Gurion shortened and simplified Sharett’s declaration.

The religious – and many others – wanted a reference to ‘Almighty God’. Ideological secularists like Aharon Tzisling from Ein Harod, a kibbutznik, did not want any mention of God. Then came this beautiful compromise which only Jews can put together. They decided to include the phrase tsur Yisrael – ‘the Rock of Israel’. The religious understood tsur as ‘God’ while the secularists believed that it was simply that – a rock. Different interpretations, but in the end they were all there – they wanted to get on with the establishment of the state.


Was there still uncertainty at this late stage?


Even a few hours before the actual signing, we still did not know whether it would take place. There was tremendous pressure from London on Truman. The British had an ally in Marshall who wanted to wait.

Even some in the council were unsure whether to proceed with the declaration – everyone wanted a state, but it was a question of timing. Even Moshe Shapira who was moderate in all things asked if it really mattered if we waited another 24 or 48 hours.

Ben-Gurion gave three reasons for an immediate signing.

Firstly, the British formally withdrew from Palestine at lunchtime on that Friday. This would leave a power vacuum. Who would have the final authority amongst the Jews?

Secondly, he argued that the British could easily change their mind and call another meeting of the United nations which would delay things perhaps for months. There could be all sorts of changes. How and where and who? He said that we could not wait for this.

Thirdly, he said that at present the Soviets, the Latin Americans and others were in agreement, but tomorrow there might be a totally different political constellation. Where would we be then?


Was the Irgun a factor in Ben-Gurion’s considerations?


The Haganah was ready and prepared for war with the Arabs, but within the Yishuv there was division. There were rival armed forces, the Haganah, the Irgun and the Lehi. My cousin, Yehiel Handler, was a member of the Irgun which was led by Menahem Begin from the underground. Yehiel and his entire group of six boys were all killed when the Irgun attacked Jaffa shortly before the establishment of the state. Ben-Gurion feared that there would be a military struggle between the Haganah and the Irgun if the state was not declared. There would be complete chaos in the country. The last argument convinced everyone and the invitations were sent out by motorbike.


What happened at the actual ceremony?


I arrived at 3.30. By 3.45 we were all sitting down. In addition to the intended signatories, there were visitors, journalists and the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Orchestra. Then there were a few minutes of music. Then without any kochmas, Ben-Gurion stood up at four o’clock on the dot. We were all shaking. Without any introduction, no nice words, he read the declaration of independence. He asked the members of the council of the provisional government to come forth and sign it. No discussion, no dissent. One by one, they stood up. It was beautiful to see. Then Hatikvah. People got up and we were out of the museum at ten to five. For me, it was the greatest moment of my life.

Although we were all moved, no one lived in a fool’s paradise. No one knew what was going to happen. We had a little neshek (arms), but we knew that the situation was extremely dangerous.


What took place then?


Ben-Gurion went to his home with his friends. I went with Rav Fishman and his friends to the malon Talpiot, a small kosher hotel in Rehov Ahad Ha’am. We drank a little l’haim and then each one of us returned home. I went back to my family to get ready for shul, for kabbalat Shabbat. There was an atmosphere of both joy and fear at the same time. We knew that whatever neshek we had – it was not enough. I remember as if it was yesterday. When I returned from shul, the Egyptian planes were already over Tel Aviv and dropping their bombs. This strange experience continued throughout the entire evening, up to midnight. On the one hand, people were singing and dancing and the other, north Tel Aviv was being bombed.


Did Ben-Gurion use the declaration to galvanise the Diaspora?


Ben-Gurion knew that it would be a psychological boost to all Jews. A flag was all-important. Ben-Gurion felt that a galut Jew was still a galut Jew. Unlike Goldmann or even Weizman, Ben-Gurion understood that if the galut Jew began to believe that he was a citizen of a state, a Jewish state, he would be able to do anything. Ben-Gurion saw the state as a unifying factor for the Jews. – the displaced and the well-placed.

A majority of the Jews outside Israel were not formal ‘Zionists’. The Zionists were actually a very small group both in this country and in America. There were many fine Diaspora Jews – many eminent ones – who did not believe in the capability of the Jews to have a state. Ben-Gurion knew this. He understood that in the end, it would not be these Jews who would help us to actually build the state. Israel would arise on the basis of 600,00 Jews in Palestine and those Jews who needed the state. Ben-Gurion established the state to encourage the Jews to support it politically, financially and with manpower.

Ben-Gurion said ‘I must declare the state and let the other Jews follow me. If I don’t do this, then I will be like the millions of other Jews who are totally ineffective.’


What about the survivors?


I visited the DP camps often then, there was complete hopelessness amongst our people. There was such a despondency – they waited for visas for Palestine or England or South America, but all the time they lived in the shadow of what had happened to their parents, their relatives – and almost to themselves. They believed that nothing was going to happen.


And the Right?


The Revisionists called us traitors. They believed that if we didn’t get it all now, we would get nothing. Yitzhak Tabenkin of Ahdut Ha’avodah had a similar view – but from the Left. The Right didn’t understand the need to bring people over from Europe. The dissidents, the Irgun and the Lehi, did not sign the declaration – perhaps it was not so much because they didn’t want to, but because Ben-Gurion did not want them to sign. They were excluded altogether with the official Revisionists who did not agree with the policy of partition. The General Zionists, however, did sign.


How did the haredim greet the establishment of a Jewish state?


This was also a point of difference between religious Zionists like Fishman and Berlin – and the haredim. The latter were not supportive even after what had happened during the Shoah. Before the war they discouraged Jews from going on aliyah – better to remain in Lublin.

After the war, a majority of the haredim did not respond to Ben-Gurion’s call for a state – although a few such as Yitzhak Meir Levin, Binyamin Münz, Kalman Kahane, Yitzhak breur were positive towards us although you cannot call them ‘Zionists’. Even Lubavitch began to change a little from their former position of ‘anti-Zionism’. Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv, also fought the rabbonim on this.

Many haredim said that the time for the state would come with the arrival of the meshiah. They also opposed other suggestions such as Rav Fishman’s proposal for the establishment of the Sanhedrin. Even so, Yitzhak Meir Levin signed the Declaration of Independence for the Agudah and became a member of the government. He was a Gerer hassid – the Gerer Hassidim had a positive attitude towards Israel.

If it had not been for the inner strength of Ben-Gurion and supported by such people as Rav Fishman who were relatively moderate – he supported Ben-Gurion on the question of partition – there would have been no state. They said that if it was impossible to get everything then we should be satisfied with what we can get. If we have to find a way to cooperate with the Arabs, then let us do so. There were many others who took the opposite view.

Fifty years on, only two of the original 38 signatories are still alive. Meir Wilner, the communist and Dr Zerach Warhaftig, the leader of Hapoel Hamizrahi. Wilner consulted the Soviets before signing. They agreed and he signed early because he could not be present at the actual declaration. Although he received his instructions from Stalin, I believe that in his heart he was a Zionist, albeit a Communist Zionist, like the rest of us, he wanted a Jewish state.

Judaism Today Spring 1998.





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