What actually happened to form the State of Israel? Balfour, Partition and more.
As Israel’s Independence Day arrives – its 69th edition is celebrated on Tuesday, May 2 – let’s face it: Not everyone knows exactly what happened when. Ask a given millennial how Israel arose, and as likely as not, the answer will be, “Uh, we were in exile for 2,000 years and then the British left and we had a State.”
Somehow something seems to be missing from that explanation…
Let us therefore now review three critical, distinct stages leading up to the declaration of the State of Israel on the 5th of Iyar, 5708 (May 14, 1948): The Balfour Declaration, the UN partition vote, and Independence Day itself.
On the macro level, let us say this:
* The Balfour Declaration in 1917 was the first indication that the international community might recognize a Jewish State in the Land of Israel;
* the UN vote in 1947 confirmed that such a state would actually be established at a specific point in time;
* and May 14, 1948 marked the actual transition from the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael [known then as Palestine] to a full-fledged independent State.
The Balfour Declaration
The Balfour Declaration was a letter written by the Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, Lord Arthur Balfour, expressing “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations.” Why was this so important? Why would Great Britain’s sympathy or lack thereof be of such great interest?
The answer is two-fold: After 400 years of nearly-uninterrupted Turkish rule over the Holy Land, the British were on the verge of capturing it. This was towards the end of the first World War, and the British were about to become the new rulers of the Land of Israel! And here they were, in practically their first public statement on the topic, saying that they “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The letter even stated that the Britain would use its “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
In addition, the Balfour Declaration received much of its validity two years later when it was approved by the allied conference in San Remo – and the San Remo resolutions were themselves confirmed by the entire international community in a League of Nations vote in 1924.
But what about the Arabs living in Palestine? Surely the British and the League of Nations would not ignore their rights?! Surely indeed: The Balfour letter stated clearly that the “civil and religious rights” of all non-Jewish communities in Palestine must be preserved. In other words, individual rights such as freedom of religion must not be withheld from anyone, but national rights belonged exclusively to the Jews..
The full text of the Balfour Declaration can be read below.
The UN Vote
The next diplomatic milestone in the process leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel was the Partition Vote in the United Nations on Nov. 29, 1947. Many streets in Israel are named Kaf-Tet B’November in honor of this date. The vote was taken because over the years, the British were unsuccessful in governing Palestine. They announced that they were simply quitting, and handed the land over to the United Nations to decide what to do with it
The Jews said, “Let’s split it” – that is, let’s do Partition – while the Arabs said, “No, we want the whole thing.” Actually, the “whole thing” was no longer the issue; nearly three-quarters of what Britain originally considered Palestine had already been taken over by Arab entities. Thus, the Jews were saying, “Let’s split between us whatever is left,” while the Arabs said, “No, you can’t even have part of what’s left.”
The United Nations took up this question in a General Assembly vote. A majority of at least two-thirds was required in order to approve Partition, giving the Zionist cause a strong disadvantage from the outset.
However, following hard diplomatic work by the Zionists, and as heard in the famous recording of a tinny voice calling out, “Afghanistan – no. Argentina – abstention. Australia – yes. etc…”, the Partition Plan ultimately passed: 31-13, with 10 abstentions. [Had two states voted “no” instead of “yes,” it would not have passed.]
Though the Jewish State still did not exist, the Jews of Palestine danced in the streets with joy – even though the Partition Plan deleted from Jewish control cities such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Ashkelon, and Beit Shemesh, as well as much of the Galilee, and much more.
The Declaration of Independence
Six months later, the dream began to actually come true: The British had announced they were leaving on Saturday, May 15, 1948, but the People’s Council, headed by David Ben-Gurion, did not wish to declare a State on the Sabbath – and so they announced the establishment of the State of Israel on Friday, May 14, the 5th day of the month of Iyar.
Five Arab armies immediately invaded the new country, the new State of Israel defeated them in a long and drawn-out campaign, and by July 1949, Israel’s borders included 22% more territory than the UN Partition Vote had granted it, but only about 78% of the original Mandatory Palestine.
The Declaration of Independence began with these words: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books…”
The entire document can be read below.
- The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917:
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
- Israel’s Declaration of Independence
The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
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.
Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. 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.
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.
This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, 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.
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.
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.
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 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 BASIS 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.
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”.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; 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; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; 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.
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.
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.
PLACING OUR TRUST IN THE “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)