Jewish holidays are celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar. They occur on the same date each year but move around in the Gregorian calendar that most of the world uses. This discrepancy makes sense for most holidays. After all, the first Passover was celebrated millennia before Pope Gregory instituted his calendrical changes in the 16th century. In the case of Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), however, we know what date it occurred in the secular calendar: May 14, 1948. The Israeli Knesset chose, understandably, to celebrate the day according to the ancient Jewish reckoning of 5 Iyar 5708.
As we celebrate the (secular) 75th anniversary of the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, scholars have begun to shed light in the English-speaking world on the origins of the document. How did it come to be and who is Israel’s version of Thomas Jefferson? It turns out that a Conservative rabbi who once served a pulpit in New Jersey may have had a significant hand in the drafting of Israel’s founding document.
Unlike in the United States, the job of writing Israel’s Declaration of Independence was not given to a founding father, but instead to lawyers in the bureaucracy. One of these lawyers had been educated in England and therefore had some background in that nation’s founding documents. Still, he was at a loss on how to draw up such a momentous text, so legend has it on the first day of Passover, after lunch, he paid visit to his neighbor, Rabbi Harry Davidowitz, who had made aliyah in 1934 after a career in the Conservative rabbinate at several synagogues.
Davidowitz combined a deep knowledge of Jewish texts with a background in Western literature and philosophy. The two men spent hours in Davidowitz’s library preparing a draft of a declaration. It’s not clear from the historical record what exactly was Davidowitz’s exact contribution, but this draft was heavily influenced by the American Declaration of Independence and the Hebrew Bible.
This first draft tackled two important questions. First, it laid out the case of the Jewish people’s natural right to self-determination in the land of Israel. Second, it established a role for God in the text as the one who made a promise to the patriarchs.
The American Declaration ends with the words “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” The first draft of the Israeli Declaration translated “divine Providence” as Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel. This phrase was a solution to the same problem the deist American founders faced. Leery of including God in a secular, legal document, both founding groups looked for an ambiguous phrase that could refer to the Divine only in the most abstract manner.
Much of the first draft that Davidowitz worked on was changed in later revisions. The socialist Zionist leaders were not interested in the natural rights of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but Tzur Yisrael remained in the final version, a compromise that satisfied the religious Zionists whose support was needed for the Declaration.
Davidowitz was an obscure figure who died shortly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He went on to translate Shakespeare into Hebrew and his grandson is the singer Danny Maseng. Perhaps now that he has been rediscovered, the public will recognize his important contributions to Israel’s founding document. As the nation continues to struggle to reconcile the religious and the secular, his spirit of compromise remains an inspiration.