On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel declared independence and established itself as a national homeland for the Jewish people. However, outside of this Declaration, there is no place in which Israel defines its national character, as Israel failed to ever create a constitution. Rather, the state passed a series of Basic Laws over a span of 66 years that act as a de facto constitution. These laws, however, do little to define the status of the state. It was not until 1985, in an amendment to a Basic Law, that Israel defined itself as a democratic state.
Recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began pushing for a new Basic Law that would legally recognize Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” a term used in the Declaration of Independence but never clearly defined1. Thus, with Netanyahu’s new push to enshrine the Jewish character of Israel in law, a question was raised for many: can Israel be both a Jewish nation-state and a democracy?
Below is an annotated version of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founding document and only legitimate, cohesive source for the basic principles and values of the State of Israel, and the ways in which those basic principles and values are not being adhered to today.
May 14, 1948
ERETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) - the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. Although the existence of a “Jewish people” and the “Land of Israel” are debated, it is generally accepted that the Jewish people feel some sort of affinity to this land and feel a need, be it justified or not, to reside in and preside over it2.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. It is important to note that not all Jews were expelled from the land after the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba Revolt. A small number of Jews remained for centuries, mostly concentrated in the cities of Tsfat, Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. In 1880, before the Zionist aliyah (waves of immigration) began, approximately 24,000 Jews lived in the land of Palestine.
Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland Although there were a few small messianic immigrations to “Eretz-Israel” before the 19th century—especially in the wake of Jewish expulsion from European countries in the 13th-19thcenturies—there were not many active efforts to bring Jews en masse back to the land of Palestine until the 19th century. Many Jewish prayers do lament for the return to Jerusalem/Zion, but there are arguments as to whether it is the earthly or the heavenly Jerusalem toward which they are striving.
In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma'pilim [(Hebrew) - immigrants coming to Eretz-Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation] and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood. With the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the 19th century, Jews began to consider a mass return to Zion. The first mass migration, termed the First Aliyah, began in 1882, with the immigration of primarily Russian Jews who formed primarily agricultural settlements.
In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country. Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism, wrote a book in German entitled Der Judenstaat, commonly translated as “The Jewish State.” However, many contemporary politicians and academics have been challenging this translation of the title of Herzl’s book, saying that Herzl did not intend to call his book “The Jewish State” but rather “The State of the Jews”. According to my Hebrew instructor and linguistic master, the correct translation of Der Judenstaat is indeed “The State of the Jews.”
This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917 It is important to note that the Balfour Declaration says that it supports “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” not a Jewish state, and that it says that it supports the establishment of such a state under the condition that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious' rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home. This document refers to the state-to-be as a “Jewish national home,” but still guarantees the “safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.” It also is not granting full autonomy to the Jews, as the new state would still be under the jurisdiction of the Mandate.
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe - was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations. Prior to the Holocaust, there existed many possibilities as to how one could establish a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, including a variety of different cooperative and/or bi-national agreements between Jews and Arabs living in what is present-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria, such as the Faisal-Weizmann agreement, but following the outbreak of violence in the 1920s and, later on, the Holocaust, people began to speak more about separation of peoples and two separate states: one for Jews, and one for Palestinians.
Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland. Many of the Jews who immigrated to the region in the first few waves of immigration did so for ideological reasons, but most immigrants around the time of World War II immigrated out of necessity.
In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.
On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. This passage refers to UN General Assembly Resolution 181, also known as the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. This resolution was not simply a recognition of the right for a Jewish state to exist, as this passage makes it appear, but a recommendation (as are all General Assembly resolutions) to partition the land of Palestine in order to create two sovereign states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians. Under this plan, the Jewish state would cover 56.47% of the territory of Palestine, the Palestinian state would cover 43.53% of the territory, and Jerusalem would be an international city. At that time, about 1,269,000 Arabs and 608,000 Jews resided in the land, meaning that the minority population received the majority of the land.
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.
ACCORDINGLY WE, MEMBERS OF THE PEOPLE'S COUNCIL, REPRESENTATIVES OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF ERETZ-ISRAEL AND OF THE ZIONIST MOVEMENT, ARE HERE ASSEMBLED ON THE DAY OF THE TERMINATION OF THE BRITISH MANDATE OVER ERETZ-ISRAEL AND, BY VIRTUE OF OUR NATURAL AND HISTORIC RIGHT AND ON THE STRENGTH OF THE RESOLUTION OF THE UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY, HEREBY DECLARE THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JEWISH STATE IN ERETZ-ISRAEL, TO BE KNOWN AS THE STATE OF ISRAEL. The members of this People’s Council, on May 14, 1948 unilaterally declared Israeli independence slightly before the British Mandate was to terminate, as the time of its actual termination fell during Shabbat. However, the Palestinian people never accepted the Partition Plan, as they composed 79% of the population and were only given 43.53% of the land, and thus Israel established itself as a state without ever negotiating its exact borders. Additionally, many Jews also rejected the Partition Plan, believing that they had a right to access and control the entire land, thus leading right-wing militias such as the Irgun and the Lehi to carry out massacres in Palestinian villages such as Deir Yassin, land over which Jews were not given control in the Partition Plan.
WE DECLARE that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th Iyar, 5708 (15th May, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People's Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People's Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called "Israel". In 1949, this provisional Constituent Assembly became the Knesset, Israel’s executive and legislative branch, but a Constitution never came out of it. Instead, in 1950, the Knesset passed a law saying that the Constitution would be legislated chapter by chapter and, in the end, would be compiled into a constitution. Israel continues, to this day, to not have a formal constitution, but instead has a series of Basic Laws passed between the years of 1958 and 2014. Only two address human rights, which were added in 1992 and 1994.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; In 1950, Israel established the Law of Return, which allows any Jew to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for non-Jews to immigrate to Israel, especially if they are Arab. In 2003, Israel passed the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which states that citizens of Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are ineligible to automatically be granted Israeli citizenship or residency when they marry an Israeli, although citizens of different countries are entitled. It will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants During the 1948 War and due to the subsequent armistice agreements with Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, Israel gained control of around 78% of British Mandate Palestine. Around 750,000 Palestinians, if not more, were expelled from their homes during the war, but 156,000 remained within the new borders of the state of Israel. Israel extended citizenship to these residents, but kept them under martial law until 1966. The 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled were not allowed to return back to their villages and, instead, in 1950, Israel passed the Absentee Property Law, which allowed and allows for Israel to take control of land and property if its owners are absent, which then gives the state the liberty to sell that land and property. 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 In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights and claims that it annexed “East Jerusalem” (although international law defines East Jerusalem also as occupied territory.) However, it has never rewarded any residents of these occupied territories social or political rights, disallowing them from having any control over their own fate. Additionally, beginning in 2003, a massive influx of asylum seekers began arriving from Eritrea, Sudan and other African countries who have not been awarded rights and many of whom are being held indefinitely in detention centers. it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture 20% of the citizens of Israel are presently “Israeli Arabs,” but these citizens are not allocated equal funding for their schools and, as is the case in many Bedouin villages in the Negev, are not hooked up to basic services such as running water and electricity. it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.
WE APPEAL to the United Nations to assist the Jewish people in the building-up of its State and to receive the State of Israel into the comity of nations.
WE APPEAL - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions. While it is true that Arab citizens of Israel are awarded equal voting rights, many Israeli Arab citizens choose not to take part in Israeli politics as a political statement, as they believe the Israeli government is illegitimate as it exists today, which means Arab Israeli citizens are not represented proportionally in the Knesset. Of the current 120 members of the Knesset, only 12 are Arab, much less than their proportion in the general population. Additionally, Israel controls the lives of all residents of the West Bank, even those residing in Area A, yet these Palestinians have no voting rights in Israel.
WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East. Currently, Israel has good relations with Jordan and somewhat good relations with Egypt, but has never had any relations with Syria or Lebanon. Under the Arab-Peace Initiative, which was first declared in 2002, all 22 members of the Arab League and 35 additional members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference agreed to recognize Israel and normalize relations with Israel if it agrees to a two-state solution along the 1967 borders with a just and agreed upon resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue.
WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel. Currently, Israel runs many campaigns, such as Birthright, which highly subsidize trips for young Jews to Israel in order to instill in them a love of the land and a desire to immigrate. However, these programs give a highly skewed view of the reality of this place.
PLACING OUR TRUST IN THE "ROCK OF ISRAEL" Both religious and secular leaders were a part of the Provisional Council of State, which created this Declaration of Independence, but the Zionist movement was largely secular. Thus, as you can see, there is no direct mention of God within this Declaration. However, the religious leaders present felt it was important to mention God and wanted to use the term “The Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.” As a compromise, the Council agreed to use the term “Rock of Israel.”, WE AFFIX OUR SIGNATURES TO THIS PROCLAMATION AT THIS SESSION OF THE PROVISIONAL COUNCIL OF STATE, ON THE SOIL OF THE HOMELAND, IN THE CITY OF TEL-AVIV, ON THIS SABBATH EVE, THE 5TH DAY OF IYAR, 5708 (14TH MAY,1948).
Daniel Auster, Mordekhai Bentov, Yitzchak Ben Zvi, Eliyahu Berligne, Fritz Bernstein, Rabbi Wolf Gold, Meir Grabovsky, Yitzchak Gruenbaum, Dr. Abraham Granovsky, Eliyahu Dobkin, Meir Wilner-Kovner, Zerach Wahrhaftig, Herzl Vardi, Rachel Cohen, Rabbi Kalman Kahana, Saadia Kobashi, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin, Meir David Loewenstein, Zvi Luria, Golda Myerson, Nachum Nir, Zvi Segal, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Fishman, David Zvi Pinkas, Aharon Zisling, Moshe Kolodny, Eliezer Kaplan, Abraham Katznelson, Felix Rosenblueth, David Remez, Berl Repetur, Mordekhai Shattner, Ben Zion Sternberg, Bekhor Shitreet, Moshe Shapira, Moshe Shertok3
Ben-Gurion deemed the use of the Hebrew language incredibly important in the establishment of a Jewish state, and thus he asked Herzl Rosenblum to sign his name instead as Herzl Vardi, his pen name and a Hebraized version of his name. Nine other signatories to the Declaration, including Golda Meir (Golda Myerson) went on to later Hebraize their names.
As one can clearly see in the construction of this Declaration, the State of Israel was founded under difficult circumstances after much hardship. However, it was not founded in a vacuum, and the decisions that these 37 signatories made had long-reaching repercussions that continue to have impact still today. This Declaration, as the only existing document that clearly articulates the values upon which the State of Israel was founded, provides a lot of insight into the psyche of the Jew in 1948 and the necessity that Jews felt to take ownership over their own lives. But one can also find in this document a lack of acknowledgement of the other and a lack of empathy for those who would inevitably be affected by this decision. It makes mention of “freedom, justice and peace” and “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” promising words in an incredibly difficult time. However, reading this Declaration in retrospect, these words appear as nothing but empty rhetoric, devoid of any intent to follow through. For one can only understand the past through one’s situation in the present, and the present condition of the State of Israel is marked by inequality, racism and occupation.
2 See Shlomo Sand’s books The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel.
3 One can find the original version of this text at: http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/declaration%20of%20establishment%20of%20state%20of%20israel.aspx