When the State of Israel Was Born: 6 Fascinating Eyewitness Accounts
On Israel’s first Independence Day, May 14, 1948, the country’s Jews were fighting for their lives.
Friday, May 14, 1948 dawned over an apprehensive Jewish community in the land of Israel. That day, the British Mandate over Palestine expired. The armies of the surrounding Arab countries warned that they would invade should the Jews declare a state. Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv and other Jewish settlements were already under siege from sniper attacks.
Yet in Tel Aviv, at 4 PM, leaders from the Jewish People’s Council assembled in an art museum. With Shabbat approaching, they wanted to make sure their momentous meeting concluded in time for people to return home before sundown. In a solemn voice, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel - the State of Israel.” Jews throughout the land listened to his momentous words on crackling radios. For the first time in 1,878 years, the Jewish people had a national homeland.
Immediately, the armies of five surrounding Arab nations attacked the new Jewish state. Journalist Daniel S. Chertoff noted that the “declaration was like a starter’s pistol for the ‘conventional’ war: Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq immediately declared war and invaded.” (Saudia Arabia sent soldiers to invade Israel, too, under Egyptian command.) The attacks on Jews by Arabs, which had been going on for months, “was instantly transformed into a full-fledged clash of armies.”
Here are six eyewitness accounts of that first Israeli Independence Day.
1. George Adler, Holocaust Survivor
Born in Hungary in 1932, George Adler survived the Holocaust and sailed to Israel in 1947 on the Exodus, a ship that carried Holocaust survivors which was intercepted and turned back by the British. Interred in Germany by the British, Adler managed to travel to Israel in 1948 and recalled the spontaneous celebrations that broke out following Ben-Gurion’s announcement.
“We were dancing in the street. It was like when (World War II) ended. Everyone was happy.”
Adler’s celebration was short-lived. The next day, he recalls, “the shooting started.” Adler volunteered to fight with Israel’s new army.
2. Golda Meir, future Prime Minister
In 1948, Golda Meir was a key member of the Jewish leadership administration. She’d been born in 1898 in Kiev, and her family fled pogroms. She was in the room where David Ben Gurion declared Israel an independent state.
Golda Meir signing Israel’s Declaration of Independence
The State of Israel! My eyes filled with tears, and my hands shook. We had done it. We had brought the Jewish state into existence - and I…had lived to see the day. Whatever happened now, whatever price any of us would have to pay for it, we had re-created the Jewish national home. The long exile was over. From this day on we would no longer live on sufferance in the land of our forefathers. Now we were a nation like other nations… As Ben-Gurion read, I thought again about my children and the children they would have, how different their lives would be from mine…. And I thought about my colleagues in besieged Jerusalem, gathered in the offices of the Jewish Agency, listening to the ceremony through static on the radio…
Just before dawn…I saw for myself through the windows of my room what might be called the formal start of the War of Independence: four Egyptian Spitfires zooming across the city on their way to bomb Tel Aviv’s power station and airport in what was the first air raid of the war. Then, a little later, I watched the first boatload of Jewish immigrants - no longer ‘illegals’ - enter the port of Tel Aviv, freely and proudly. No one hunted them down anymore or chased them or punished them for coming home…. (from My Life by Golda Meir, 1975.)
3. Yehuda Avner - Israeli Speechwriter and Diplomat
At the moment Ben-Gurion announced the Jewish state in Tel Aviv, Yehuda Avner (who would one day go on to serve as Israel’s Ambassador to Britain) was a 20-year-old volunteer in the underground Jewish fighting force the Haganah, assigned to defending the western edge of Jerusalem from Arab attacks.
One of his fellow fighters was Leopold Mahler, a Jewish violinist who’d fled Nazi Germany; he was the grand-nephew of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. Cut off from the rest of Jerusalem, Avner’s group of fighting men had no way of knowing whether Ben-Gurion had actually declared independence. They dispatched Mahler to make the treacherous journey into the center of the town to find out. He returned to his unit’s defensive position near midnight, bearing a bottle of Israeli wine he’d found in Britain’s now-abandoned central police station.
‘Has Ben-Gurion declared independence, yes or no?’ asked Elisha Linder, beside himself.
Mahler took a deep breath and solemnly said, ‘David Ben-Gurion declared independence this afternoon in Tel Aviv. The Jewish State comes into being at midnight.
There was a dead silence. Even the air seemed to be holding its breath. Midnight was minutes away… And then the air exploded in joyful tears and laughter. Every breast filled with exultation as we pumped hands and embraced, and roared the national anthem at the top of our voices.
‘Hey, Mahler!’ shouted Elisha cutting through the hullabaloo. ‘Our state - what’s its name?’
The violinist stared back blankly. ‘I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask.’
‘You don’t know?’
Mahler shook his head.
‘How about Yehuda?’ suggested someone. ‘After all, King David’s kingdom was called Yehuda - Judea.’
‘Zion,’ cried another. ‘It’s an obvious choice.’
‘Israel!’ called a third. ‘What’s wrong with Israel?’
‘Let’s drink to that,’ said Elisha with delight, breaking open the bottle of wine and filling a tin mug to the brim. ‘A l’chaim to our new State…’
‘Wait!’ shouted a Chassid whom everybody knew as Nussen der chazzan - a canter by calling, and a most diligent volunteer…from Meah Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem. ‘It’s Shabbos. Kiddush first.’
Our crowd gathered around him in a hush, as Nussen der chazzan clasped the mug and, in a sweet cantorial tune began to chant ‘Yom hashishi’ - the blessing for the sanctification of the Sabbath day.
As Nussen’s sacred verses floated off to a higher place of Sabbath bliss his voice swelled, ululated, and trilled into the night, octave upon octave, eyes closed, his cup stretched out and up. And as he concluded the final consecration ‘Blessed art thou O Lord who has hallowed the Sabbath’ - he rose on tiptoe, his arm stiffened, and rocking back and forth, voice trembling with emotion, he added the triumphantly exulted festival blessing to the commemorate this first day of independence - ‘shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu vehegiyanu lazman hazeh’ - Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.
(from The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership by Yehuda Avner, 2012.)
4. Zippy Porath - Jewish Fighter
Zippy Porath was an American student who arrived in the Land of Israel in 1947 to attend Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She joined the Jewish fighting group the Haganah (precursor to today’s Israeli army) and fought to defend Jerusalem. The following is a letter she wrote to her family in America on May 15, 1948, the day after Israel’s founding.
Dearest Family…Awareness of the full impact of the significance of this day has been somewhat lost to me in the immensity of rapidly developing events that have gripped Jerusalem. The British are actually leaving. We are fighting desperately to take over their strongholds…For the last three days we have been on full alert and this is the ZERO HOUR.
We are waiting impatiently for the return of the contingents of boys dispatched for today’s engagements. Many dear friends are among them… What am I doing here? I’m in charge of the first aid post… Everything we have is ready - blankets, bandages, a bit of cognac, ready for…we don’t know what. This afternoon, it was heavy mortar fire, 25 pounders or more. Tonight, it may be air bombardment… (From Letters from Jerusalem, 1947-1948 by Zipporah Porath, published in 1987.)
5. Chaim Herzog - Future President of Israel
In 1948, Chaim Herzog was a 20-year-old intelligence officer who’d served in the British Army, and now was one of the leaders in the Land of Israel’s Haganah fighting force. On May 14, 1948, Jerusalem was under brutal, sustained attack from Arab forces.
Herzog was ordered to go to the home of the highly excitable French Consul General, Rene Neuville, in Jerusalem, and try to negotiate a ceasefire. Consul General Neuville’s house was located in the middle of no man’s land between Jewish and Jordanian forces.
I knew that Ben-Gurion would announce the creation of a Jewish State that afternoon… At 4pm, with everybody sitting around morosely and nervously, listening to the shooting and shelling and waiting for yet another telephone call from the Old City telling us that the Arabs had agreed to yet another cease-fire, I announced to Neuville and (Belgian Consul General Jean) Nieuwenhuys, ‘I wish to make it clear to you now that as from this moment I represent a Jewish State which has just been proclaimed.’ This was all Neuville needed in order to throw yet another tantrum. He launched into a diatribe against the Jewish State…
Inside the French consulate, I didn’t feel very independent. Bullets came through the open windows, and by nightfall six of us were wounded. Madam Neuville, in direct contrast to her husband, remained calm throughout the proceedings and even brought a makeshift meal for those in our negotiating room. Despite the extreme danger, she did not forget to serve a good French wine. Avoiding the bullets, she crawled on the floor to pour it.
After nightfall - and countless cease-fires - I proposed that we attempt to get back to the Jewish (part of the) city. I would take anybody who wished to go, including the wounded…
(Quoted from Living History: The Memoirs of a Great Israeli Freedom-Fighter, Soldier, Diplomat and Statesman by Chaim Herzog, 1997.)
6. Report in Newsweek, May 14, 1948
Newsweek reported on David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the Jewish state, and on American President Harry Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel just 11 minutes later - and the subsequent celebrations in the streets of Tel Aviv:
…a small man with shaggy white hair stood in the main gallery of the modern, two-story Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Rothschild Boulevard. He spoke slowly: ‘We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State…to be called Israel. Thus, David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Palestine National Council and now Premier of Israel, brought to a climax the half-century struggle of the Jews to recreate their ancient homeland.
In Tel Aviv, Jewish flags flashed on all buildings, automobiles appeared with Jewish license plates, and Haganah officers exchanged toasts in the cafes. That night Tel Aviv was blacked out, but behind the cafe doors the celebrations went on. Just before midnight, when Israel became officially established, doors were flung open and rejoicing crowds again poured into the streets.
Live footage from Israel’s very first Independence: