Israel’s Declaration of Independence, formally the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, is a rich document that enables exploration of core values and aspirations of the founders of the Jewish state in 1948. Note: This module can be taught in English, Hebrew, or a combination of both.
- The Israeli Declaration of Independence is an aspirational document that both justifies the existence of, and articulates a vision for, the Jewish state.
- The Israeli Declaration of Independence is a carefully written document that addresses internal, regional, and universal issues related to the creation of the new state.
- Official documents enable countries to express their core values to their citizens and to the world.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations approved Resolution 181 calling for the division of Mandate Palestine into two entities—one for Jews and one for Arabs. The leadership of the Yishuv (term used to describe the Jewish community of Palestine) decided to declare the establishment of the Jewish state on May 14, 1948. This was the day before the British were to complete their withdrawal from Mandate Palestine. They focused on creating the executive, legislative, and judicial foundations of the state, preparing its defense forces for war, and numerous other tasks related to the establishment of a state. As May 14 approached, a committee was appointed to write a proclamation of independence. Ultimately, the final work was done by the sub-committee of David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Aharon Zeisling, and Rabbi Leib Maimon.
The writers of the document set out to:
- Stress the connection of the new Jewish state to its historical and biblical roots in the Land
- Link to the 1947 UN Partition Plan
- Reflect the diverse Zionist ideologies that existed in the Yishuv
- Indicate that the new state shared core values with Western democracies
- Define the boundaries of the state
- Choose a name for the state
The time and place of the signing was not publicly announced as it was feared that the British authorities might attempt to prevent the event and/or that Arab armies might attack earlier than planned. While invitations were sent out discreetly, secrets like this were not easily kept among the close-knit population of the Yishuv. As the appointed hour—4:00 pm on Friday, May 14th—approached, thousands of people gathered in the street outside the Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Blvd., where the ceremony was to take place. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence was delivered to Ben-Gurion minutes before the ceremony was due to start in the building known today as Independence Hall.
Inside the large hall of the museum, Ben-Gurion read the entire document aloud in front of the 400 invited guests. This was followed by unanimous affirmation, the traditional shehechiyanu prayer, and the playing of the (then-unofficial) national anthem Ha'tikvah by the Philharmonic Orchestra (there was no room in the hall for the musicians, so they were seated on the second floor of the building.) Twenty-four National Council members who were present signed the document that day; space was left for the remaining 13 members—who either were abroad or were unable to reach Tel Aviv because of the siege of Jerusalem—to sign at a later time.
Goals and Overview
Learners will read the text of the Declaration, and through a personal analysis will be able to articulate questions that are raised from the text.
Throughout this Lesson, learners will engage in depth with the Declaration. They will identify key ideas in the text by dividing the Declaration into sections and writing titles for each section, articulate questions raised by the text, and share responses to some of the questions.
The following exercises provide opportunities to read, analyze, and question the Declaration of Independence, and to explore how the founders selected, defined, and incorporated founding values into this extraordinarily significant document.
Each learner should have a copy of official translation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, with each paragraph numbered.
This resource is divided in to 4 sections:
Part 1 guides learners through the structure of the historical document, to understand the important role the declaration played in establishing a state for the people.
Part 2 enables learners to identify the core values that shaped a nation, and to experience the process through which the founders worked.
Part 3 identifies the challenges or complexities surrounding the creation of the Declaration.
Part 4 encourages a deeper exploration into the meaning and implications of the Declaration.
- The first section traces the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel from Biblical times through thousands of years of exile; it references the aspirations, writings, and deeds of the modern Zionist movement and the unthinkable tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust.
- The second section officially declares the establishment of the State of Israel.
- The third section outlines the core values and principles of the new state, noting that they are rooted in precepts of liberty, justice, and peace.
- The final section includes appeals to multiple audiences—the Arabs living in the new state, the neighboring countries, the nations of the world, and Jews outside the new state—and ends with a call for fulfilling the age-old dream of the redemption of Israel.
This set induction will help learners get in the right frame of mind, sparking consideration of how guidelines, values, and prior experience contribute to our actions and views in big and small ways. (These same things contributed to the decisions and final framing of the Declaration of Independence.)
Give the group basic instructions for a game:
- Throw the ball
- Hit the ball
- Catch the ball
- Try to get points
Give them two balls and let them figure out how to play the game. If the group is large, divide them into two groups. Expect some chaos, and let the game go on for 5-10 minutes.
Bring the group back together for a quick debrief and to connect the activity to learning about the Declaration of Independence.
Describe the Experience:
- What was fun?
- What was frustrating?
- What did you notice?
- How were you feeling (did you back out, did you continue to play, etc.)?
- Why did you decide to play the way you did (i.e. what guided your decisions)?
- How helpful were the parameters you were given?
- What might have been more helpful?
- What happens without guidelines?
Connect between what the group has just experienced—playing a game with only minimal parameters—and creating a new state in the absence of clear guidelines. The founders of Israel had to figure out how to tell others (the people living in the State, the Jewish people as a whole, and the world) what the new state was all about. In order to do so, they drew from the past, present, and dreams of a future as they framed the Declaration of Independence. They had to decide which values, cultures, and basic rules would guide the new state. These decisions and the document that they crafted would influence the state from its founding and until this very day.
The founders of the State of Israel had to figure out how to tell the people living in the Yishuv, the Jewish people as a whole, and the world at large what the new state was all about. They drew from the past, present, and dreams of a future in framing the Declaration of Independence. They had to decide which values, cultures and basic rules would guide the new state. These decisions and the document that they crafted would influence the state from its founding until this very day.
In the following activity, learners will have a chance to stand in the shoes of the founders of the State of Israel. They will explore some of the challenges of identifying and ultimately including specific values into the foundations of the State of Israel.
Ask the group to imagine that they are the founders of Israel, and they need to identify key values for the new state. Share the following values, and allow learners to consider which ones they think should be cornerstones of the State of Israel. Ask them to write a sentence defining what they believe the State’s approach should be towards each value that they select. Challenge them to bring real-life examples of how these values are relevant in Israel, or any other country:
- Liberty: Personal, Political, Economic Freedoms
- Separation of Church (Religion) and State
Each learner should feel free to express their views candidly.
After everyone has considered each of the values, facilitate a discussion about them. This is a great opportunity to spark a rich conversation.
- How did you react to views that others expressed that were different than your own?
- To what extent was their consensus among the group? Where were the biggest differences?
Through this exercise, learners get a taste of the challenges that the founders of the State of Israel encountered. It was clear that the Declaration of Independence would serve as the basis for the state’s being, but determining what would be included in the document was no easy task. (If issues related to the religious character of the State or to the status of women and minorities were not raised, it’s worth referencing this at this point.)
Step 1: First Impressions (Literal Comprehension)
Provide time for learners to read the entire Declaration independently or in hevruta pairs. Ask them to underline any words or phrases that stand out because they identify with, support, question, oppose, or would like to better understand them.
Once everyone has finished, invite the group to share the passages they underlined and why they highlighted the phrases that they did. Encourage everyone to engage in conversation and to air different perspectives.
Encourage learners to use the word because, to help them support their statements.
Step 2: Thinking About Sections (Chunking the text)
Ask learners to read the Declaration a second time, using a different lens. Share with them a “chunking” of the text into four sections, and challenge them to capture the essence of each section by writing a title and a one-sentence description of each. This is a great opportunity to get creative and write catchy titles! They can include any questions that may have surfaced in their second reading of the document.
Leave enough time for everyone to talk about how they divided the document, and the titles and descriptions they selected. As varied interpretations arise, encourage the group to engage respectfully in an effort to understand different perspectives.
Step 3: From Sections to a Comprehensive Document
After the group has shared their titles and descriptions, move into the next stage: Let the group sift through all of the sections, titles, and descriptions, and assemble a “new” or “revised” Declaration that synthesizes the ideas, interpretations, and emphases that resonate for them. Asking everyone to work collaboratively can be challenging, but the results can be rewarding.
By hearing multiple perspectives on the Declaration, and by reviewing each section, learners will grasp the essence of the entire document, and understand their own perspectives on it.
This is a great opportunity to pause and gather the group’s impressions from this exercise. For example, what seemed to be similar across the groups? What was surprising? What, if any, were the significant differences and what might have accounted for these?
Questions to Consider:
- What are some of the tensions referenced in the Declaration?
- How can I reconcile passages that seem in conflict with each other?
- How do these tensions continue to impact Israel’s reality today?
Step 4: Wrap Up Discussion
Use these questions—or your own—to help learners gather their thoughts about the challenges that faced Israel’s founders:
- What do you think were some of the challenges or complexities the authors had in creating the Declaration?
- Why do you think Israel wanted—or needed—such a document?
There are many ways to guide learning about the Declaration of Independence. Consider challenging your learners to identify key passages or questions that concern them about those passages, and to explore them further. This can take many forms, including:
- To gain understanding about the circumstances and motivations of the founders of the state as related to specific passages or ideas expressed in the Declaration.
- Identifying passages that seem inspirational, problematic, or otherwise noteworthy and asking group members to comment or add their own interpretations and questions. This can take the form of a modern Talmud page activity, using large post-it notes on which a passage or a question is written. Learners can then circulate and write their responses or interpretations on each sheet.
There are many ways to explore the meaning and implications of the Declaration of Independence. However you approach the document, strive to engage your learners in ongoing conversation. Their questions can spark meaningful discussions and help each individual forge personal connections to the ideas under discussion.
If you want to delve deeper into the Declaration of Independence, consider these questions, which may provide guidance for further analysis:
- Israel often is referred to as a Jewish democratic state, yet the Declaration of Independence does not explicitly use the word “democracy.” Read through the document and try to identify passages that support the term “Jewish democratic state."
- What does it mean for Israel to be Jewish and democratic? What are the characteristics that make Israel both?
- In what ways do you think these two ideas are compatible? In what ways can they potentially conflict?
- When they come into conflict, how might you reconcile them or prioritize them?
- Do you think it’s important for Israel to be a Jewish state and a democratic state? Explain.
- Why do you think there is much detail about: the Biblical period; the ongoing connection of Jews to Israel over the ages; the Zionist Movement; and the Holocaust? What might you add to this section of the Declaration?
- You may have noticed that the Declaration does not expressly mention “God,” although it does refer to the “Rock of Israel,” one of many names Jews traditionally use to refer to the deity. Think about this: Do you find any hints about the choice of language when you refer to the biographies of the signers of the Declaration?
- Do you see Jewish themes expressed in the Declaration? Identify passages that reflect these themes and consider how they impact the tenor of the document.
- Why do you think the document includes a section addressed to world Jewry? How might the writers of the declaration have envisioned the relationship between Israel and world Jewry? How might you characterize that relationship today?
- Read the passages that address Arabs living within the new state and in neighboring countries. Why do you think these groups are addressed in this way? The Declaration makes clear that the State of Israel is a Jewish state, yet it guarantees rights of minorities. What are the responsibilities of a democracy towards its minorities? Why do you think the founders felt this needed to be stated explicitly? In your opinion, is this still relevant today?
- What reasons are presented for the establishment of the State of Israel? Which do you you find more or less compelling? Are there others that you may have used today?