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'I was at Israel's founding'

Mr Handler was told to keep his invitation a secret

When the State of Israel was declared on 14 May 1948, some 200 dignitaries were invited to the ceremony, held at the Museum of Art in Tel Aviv. Of those present, only one, Arieh Handler, now 93, is known to still be alive. Here he recounts his personal recollections of that historic day.


I lived in a place not far from Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and I got the invitation from someone who came on a motorbike.

He handed it to me and did not say another word. I asked him what it was, and he said he was not allowed to tell me.

At the same time I got a telephone call, from one of Ben Gurion's staff, and they asked me not to tell anybody that I had got this invitation.

But of course in a way that was rubbish because a few hours later everybody knew about it.

I still have the original invitation. It reads: 'From the Administration of the Nation, Tel Aviv, 13 May 1948. We are honoured to send to you this invitation to the session of the declaration of independence. It will take place on Friday, 14 May 1948, at four o'clock in the afternoon in Museum Hall, 16 Rothschild Boulevard.

'We request that you keep the content of this invitation and the date of the convention of the council a secret. Invited guests are requested to come to the hall at three-thirty. Sincerely, the secretariat. The invitation is personal. Dress: Dark, smart.'

I had this feeling in me that this was a historic moment, not just for the Jews but for the world
I got the invitation just 24 hours before the meeting took place. At that time, just one day before, it was still not clear whether Ben Gurion would declare the state.

I was a member of the Zionist General Council [the governing body of the Jewish people in Palestine], and at that time there were telegrams coming from New York, from US President Harry S Truman and from Jewish friends of Truman, who pleaded with us not to declare the state, because they feared it would become a Soviet satellite, because the Russians supported it.

Ben Gurion was in a difficult position but he told a small circle of us: "I'm not a communist and I would like to get the support of the Americans, but if I don't declare the state now, it will never happen." I agreed with him.

'Tremendous excitement'

I will never forget it. We were called to the meeting, it started at four o'clock, the state was declared, and it finished on the dot at five-thirty - such punctuality never normally happens at a Jewish function!

David Ben Gurion reads Israel's declaration of independence, 14 May 1948
Ben Gurion was under pressure from some quarters to delay the declaration

I had this feeling in me that this was a historic moment, not just for the Jews but for the world.

When I left the meeting to go back to my family, Egyptian planes were already bombing Tel Aviv, and Glubb Pasha [the British commander of the army of Transjordan] was leading an Arab army - they were stopped by the Haganah [Jewish defence force] not far from where I lived.

Despite all these troubles, there was tremendous excitement. People were dancing in the streets, day and night, even as the planes were bombing, because they felt that the country would be a kind of solution for the Jewish problem.

In some respects I would not have believed that the state would develop so strongly - our universities, schools, businesses - they are tremendous! Things turned out better than I would have believed.

At the same time I am worried about one thing: if Jews and Arabs - who are good people - in this country will not make an effort to work and to live together then it will be bad for all of them.

Better leadership

I believe that the leadership of the country in the early years of the state was stronger and better than it is today.

At that time the leaders were people like Ben Gurion, [prime ministers] Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol - these were party people but they were people who had tremendous strength and power - I wish we had now the kind of leadership we had then.

It was difficult back then - we did not have enough money, we did not have enough weapons, but the people who were running the country knew what they were doing.

They wanted to find a way to integrate the Arab people into this new country, and I would say if this line would have been followed we would have had less problems today in the Middle East.

I would say many things - not only in the Jewish world, but in the world on the whole - would have been different if Ben Gurion had not declared this state.

This is really why until today, my greatest day in life remains - and I am not a youngster any more - this simple meeting in the museum in Tel Aviv.

Interview by Raffi Berg



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