Seventy Years Ago

Interview with the late Arieh Handler, the only British citizen in the room when Ben-Gurion read out Israel’s declaration of independence on 14 May 1948

You were a pre-war Bnei Akiva founder in London. When did you go to Israel?

After my wife 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 (displaced persons) camps and taking them — legally and illegally — to Palestine.

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. The survivors had to be given a chance to control their own lives.

There was such 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.


So how was the decision made?

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. No one knew if it would actually take place.


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” . 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.


Was there 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 [US President Harry] Truman.

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.

First, 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?

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 was a few minutes of music. At four o’clock on the dot, without any kochmas, Ben-Gurion then stood up. 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. 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?

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.

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.


And the Opponents?

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 Charedim were not supportive even after what had happened during the Shoah. Before the war they discouraged Jews from going on aliyah, [saying] better to remain in Lublin.

After the war, a majority of the Charedim did not respond to Ben-Gurion’s call for a state — although a few were positive towards us. Even Lubavitch began to change a little from their former position of “anti-Zionism”.

Many Charedim said that the time for the state would come with the arrival of the meshiah. Even so, Yitzhak Meir Levin, a Gerer hasid, signed the Declaration of Independence for the Agudah and became a member of the government.

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.

Jewish Chronicle 10 May 2018

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