Wallish and the Declaration of Independence


One of the two most hotly debated documents in modern Israeli history is the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by prime minister David Ben-Gurion on erev Shabbat, May 14, 1948, at Tel Aviv's old art museum on Rothschild Boulevard. The other controversial document is the Balfour Declaration, which was issued by the British Foreign Office on November 2, 1917.

Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Wallish was in charge only of the scroll's design and calligraphy; he had no say in the language used. Authors of the final text were Ben-Gurion and three of his closest political confidants - foreign minister and later prime minister Moshe Sharett; Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman (later Maimon), of the religious Zionist Mizrahi movement; and Aharon Zisling, a founder of the elite Palmah fighting unit.

Thirty-seven men and women signed the declaration. At the time of the signing, however, only the bottom portion had been completed by Wallish. Among the signatories were three people who later became prime minister (Ben-Gurion, Sharett, and Golda Meir) and a future president (Yitzhak Ben-Zvi). Eight signers represented religious parties. Under-represented on the parchment were women (two), Sephardi Jews (two), and Yemenite Jews (one). Everyone who signed was Jewish, and almost all Jewish political factions were represented, from the farthest left to the farthest right.

There were several points of contention between the various factions on the precise wording of the declaration. Should God's name be mentioned, and, if so, what name would be acceptable? Were the Torah, the Holocaust, the United Nations, the League of Nations, and the Balfour Declaration to be used as legal precedents for legitimizing a sovereign Jewish state? Would the State of Israel be based on Jewish law (halacha), secular law, or a combination of the two? Would the borders of Israel be based on the UN Partition Plan of Palestine adopted on November 29, 1947, whatever land would be captured in the anticipated War of Independence, or those given in the Torah?

Social philosopher Horace Kallen, who was commissioned to write a study for the Theodor Herzl Foundation on Israel's first 10 years, said of the declaration: "...the Israeli communication regards only people called Jews, is made by Jews for Jews, and speaks to Jews first, and only thereafter to all mankind."

On the other side of the spectrum was religious MK Meir David Loewenstein, who actually signed the declaration: "It ignored our sole right to Eretz Israel, which is based on the covenant of the Lord with Abraham, our father, and repeated promises in the Tanach. It ignored the aliya of the Ramban and the students of the Vilna Gaon and the Ba'al Shem Tov, and the [rights of] Jews who lived in the 'Old Yishuv' [the Jewish community that existed in Israel before the advent of the modern Zionist movement]."

With heated exchanges like those, it is no wonder that it took Otte Wallish until June 1948 to complete the scroll. Ben-Gurion read the declaration from hand-written notes on May 14, 1948.

© The Jerusalem Post

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