There’s a childhood photograph of me in an old family album wearing a T-shirt in yellow and blue, with a pattern that formed an elaborate ‘25’. It was made to celebrate Israel’s 25th anniversary, which identifies the year as 1973. I was six years old.
I can remember later anniversaries too. I was living on kibbutz for the 38th anniversary in 1986. In 1998, I shuttled between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, profiling for the Guardian four people who, like the country, were turning 50 that year. Just ahead of the 60th, I was in Israel again, this time with my wife and two sons: our eldest was six years old.
For all that, I’ve never contemplated what happened on May 14 1948 quite as intensely as I have for this, the 70th anniversary. I’ve been making a documentary for BBC Radio 4 about the events of that extraordinary day, including tracking down the only two people left alive who watched the ceremony unfold in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. They are the last surviving witnesses to the official birth of the state of Israel.
It turns out to be a better story than I’d ever realised. The whole thing was done in a near-chaotic rush, David Ben-Gurion urging his fellow Jewish leaders to seize the moment in a meeting just 48 hours before the British were due to pull out of Palestine. They debated the idea for eleven hours, before deciding — by just two votes — to go ahead and declare statehood.
I met Yair Sharef, whose father Ze’ev would be Israel’s first cabinet secretary. He remembers his dad frantically booking the room, hiring a set designer to dress it, rushing out the invitations — all on a budget of one hundred Palestine pounds. Yael Sharett, whose father Moshe would be Israel’s second prime minister, remembers her dad pacing the room, dictating drafts of the declaration for her to take down. She was just 17.
The founders were still debating the exact wording of the text at 3pm on the Friday, with just an hour to go. Sharef got it typed up, then stepped out to hail a taxi to the venue — only to see that the streets were deserted. Text in hand, he eventually flagged down a driver who told him he had no time to stop: he wanted to get home in time to hear the declaration. “If you don’t take me to the museum right now,” Sharef said calmly, “there won’t be a declaration.”
Stopped by a policeman en route for speeding, he somehow arrived at 3.59pm, handing the document to Ben-Gurion who promptly rose to his feet and started reading.
In other words, this was not a polished ceremony in a grand, gilded hall of state, as you might imagine for a moment of such import. It was a makeshift, improvised rush job, thrown together by people in a terrible hurry. If declarations are moments of national birth, Israel was a baby delivered in a hospital lift.
And yet the consequences were enormous and felt to this day. For Jews there and around the world, it was a modern miracle, a day of liberation ending an exile that had endured for two millennia. For Palestinians, it was a day of dispossession, the catastrophic moment when the land they regarded as home was lost.
As for the document itself, rushed as it was, it proved to be an enduring marvel. The former Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Sha’ath, told me that when the Palestinians came to issue their own symbolic declaration of independence in 1988, the text they took as their template, even their inspiration, was the Israeli document of 40 years earlier.
The novelist and veteran peace campaigner Amos Oz said he still regards the declaration as the greatest text ever produced by the Zionist movement. Its promise of “complete equality” for all the inhabitants of the land “irrespective of religion, race or gender” remains a noble ideal.
Of course, it is an ideal that has not been fulfilled. This week alone saw the Knesset approve the first of three votes on a bill that would formally allow Jewish-only towns and which spells out that Arabic, the language of one in five Israeli citizens, has a status below that of Hebrew — moves at odds with the spirit, if not the letter, of the declaration. And, of course, Israel continues to rule over another people, one of almost equal size, thanks to a 51-year occupation that none of those who signed the declaration ever imagined or wanted.
In other words, the Israeli reality is a long way from that rushed day of dreams in May 1948. But that makes marking the anniversary more, not less, worthwhile. It’s valuable to be reminded of the path the founders set out on – and to which, one day, Israel will surely have to return.
Present at the Creation, written and presented by Jonathan Freedland, will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 8pm on Tuesday May 15 and at 5pm on Sunday May 20