Arieh, the last witness

By Colin Shindler, May 26, 2011
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Arieh Handler was known to generations of British Jews for his intensive contribution to communal life, from founding Bnei Akiva in the 1930s to campaigning for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s.

Yet his proudest moment was listening to Ben-Gurion reading out the Declaration of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv on May 14 1948.

Arieh was an active figure in Hapoel Hamizrachi, the Labour religious Zionist movement which had voted for partition and a two-state solution in 1947. He was close to Ben-Gurion's Mapai party and to his good friend Yosef Burg, the towering figure in religious Zionism. But he felt distant from the more conservative Mizrachi - "a party of businessmen", he termed it. He strongly opposed the merger of the two parties in 1956 to form the National Religious Party - and this was a factor in his return to Britain.

Along with others in his party, Arieh opposed any postponement of the declaration of the state. He received an instruction by motorcyclist to be present before 4pm at the Tel Aviv museum. He was even unsure what the new state would be called - Judea, Ivria?

Rabbi Maimon, seen sitting to the left of Ben-Gurion in photographs of the event, recited the traditional shehechayanu blessing in gratitude for having lived to see that day. Maimon had wanted a mention of God in the declaration, which aroused the ire of socialist kibbutzniks who wanted nothing to do with the deity. They compromised on Tsur Yisrael - the Rock of Israel - both sides could live with its ambiguity.

Maimon was Arieh's mentor and accompanied him back to his hotel, following the 32-minute ceremony. May 14 was a Friday and as they went to synagogue for the Shabbat service, Egyptian bombers began to disgorge their payloads over Tel Aviv and its rejoicing inhabitants.

Arieh Handler was probably the last survivor of that gathering in the Tel Aviv museum. In his last years, he overcame his reticence to criticise publicly, and was often scathing about the current batch of Israeli politicians. He compared them with Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Eban, Meir - and despaired.

He waited until Israel's independence day had come and gone this year before making his final bow. May his memory be not only for a blessing, but for an example as well.

Colin Shindler is professor of Israel studies at SOAS, University of London

Last updated: 1:59pm, May 26 2011