In May of this year the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the first draft of Israel’s declaration of independence belonged to the nation and not to the family of the man who wrote it. (The family was trying to sell the draft, having fallen on hard times.) That would perhaps seem obvious, but less obvious—indeed, mostly forgotten—is the story of that man, Mordechai Beham, and his work.
In April 1948, Beham, a lawyer then just thirty-one years old, was given the task of drafting a declaration of independence for the state not yet born. (Under the massive weight of the job, he at one point burst into tears at the dining table.) Yaacov Lozowick, formerly Israel’s state archivist, has the tale:
At some point, the young attorney started jotting down notes. First, a page of quotations from famous documents, such as, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. . . . ” And also, “Behold, I have set the land before you, go in and possess the land the Lord swore unto your fathers” (Deuteronomy 1:8). Having written down four or five quotations, all in English, he then took another sheet of paper and wrote a first outline of a “Declaration of a Jewish State,” still in English. On a third sheet of paper, he then translated what he had written into Hebrew.
On Sunday, April 25, Beham showed his draft to [his boss]. They made numerous editorial corrections. Two days later there was a typed version, thanks to Mrs. Levy, the office secretary. Beham then wrote out a one-page description of what they were trying to do. By the time the draft moved on to other potential authors, he had authored a total of five sheets of paper.
Over the next three weeks, Beham’s draft was reworked over and over by dozens of people; the task was brought to an end about an hour before the final version was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion on May 14.
Beham’s involvement went unremembered until the late 1990s, when a law professor named Yoram Schachar went looking for the roots of the declaration. He “uncovered Beham’s role and went to visit his widow; it turned out that she still had the papers in a box.” Schachar then compared the final draft with the first:
Although next to none of Beham’s original words made their way all the way through the process into the final text, its structure did. Beham had decided the declaration should have two segments, one presenting the history of the Jews, the second building upon it to proclaim future intents. Everyone who came after him worked within that structure.