When David Ben Gurion rose to proclaim Israel’s Declaration of Independence, at 4pm on May 14, 1948 (64 years ago today in the Hebrew calendar), his commanding voice hid deep internal trepidation. He wrote in his diary that day, “In the country there is celebration and profound joy – and once again I am a mourner among the celebrants.” Ben Gurion knew better than anyone the scale of the risks they were taking in declaring the state at that moment.
The Arab rejection of the 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states had pitched the two peoples within the territory into a bloody armed conflict. With Britain completing its exit from the country, the surrounding Arab armies were about to invade. Jerusalem was under siege. The day before Ben Gurion’s proclamation, the four Jewish villages of the Gush Etzion bloc had been captured, and its defenders massacred after laying down their arms. Yigal Yadin, the commander of the Jewish forces, put the Jewish state’s chances of survival at fifty-fifty.
But barely three years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, with tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in Europe desperate to rebuild their lives in a new Jewish state, the imperative to seize the moment, despite the risk, was overwhelming.