In March 1985, I rented a car in Copenhagen, Denmark, and drove 40 miles north along the Øresund (one of four straits connecting the Baltic Sea with the Atlantic Ocean) to the town of Helsingor. There, I boarded the ferry for Sweden. As I disembarked at Helsingborg, I noticed a banner stretched over the docks. “Welcome to Helsingborg, Celebrating Our 900th Anniversary.”
“Wow!” I thought. “Here’s a city whose founding predates America by 700 years.” Even the oldest town in America—St. Augustine, Florida—dates to a comparatively recent 1565. Helsingborg was already half a millennia old when the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine.
America is still a young country but it’s more than three times older than one that’s about to commemorate its 75th birthday, Israel. Allow me to acquaint you with a fascinating event that almost derailed that nation’s announcement of its birth.
It was Spring 1948. The British Mandate that ruled Palestine since 1920 was scheduled to end on May 14. What would follow it? Speculation ranged from a new Arab state to a new Jewish state to Palestine simply being gobbled up and divided by the neighboring states. David Ben-Gurion, soon to be the new nation of Israel’s first Prime Minister, convinced a critical mass of prominent Jewish leaders that it was time to create the first sovereign Jewish nation in 2,000 years.
A United Nations resolution proposed the partition of Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab states. But with the clock ticking on the British Mandate, no flesh seemed to be materializing on those bones. Arab opposition to it suggested that any attempt to carve out a Jewish homeland would be met with war.
Sensing a “now-or-never” moment, Ben-Gurion and his allies quietly prepared a Declaration of Independence that would create the State of Israel when the British Mandate ended at midnight on May 14. The plan was to announce it a few hours before at a meeting of the People’s Assembly at the Tel Aviv Museum. Everything needed to be kept secret until the last moment to avoid a pre-emptive strike from a neighboring country, terrorists, or even the departing British.
The problem was that the Declaration was typed up at another location in the city and a man named Ze'ev Sherf was charged with getting it to the ceremony in time. Ben-Gurion was to read from it at 4:00 p.m. sharp.
Sherf had one job: Stay at the first site until the Declaration was finished, then transport it to the Museum before 4:00 p.m. But he forgot—yes, he forgot—the most important part of his mission, namely, to arrange his transportation. With the Declaration in hand, he ventured out into the street to flag down a car, any car. He happened to pick one whose driver declined to give him a ride at first but eventually relented.
Racing through town, Sherf and the driver were pulled over by a policeman who discovered the speeding driver possessed no license. Luckily, the policeman let them go. Sherf arrived at 3:59 pm, with a minute to spare.
What if he hadn’t shown up? Ben-Gurion would have looked weak, if not duplicitous, if he had to say, “We have a Declaration of Independence, trust me. I just don’t know where it is.”
Sherf, I can’t help but point out, was the founder of a Palestine organization called “Socialist Youth” and later served as an Israeli Cabinet member in socialist Labor Party governments. I would have loved to have asked him, “Hey, Ze’ev, what makes you think you (or anyone) can plan an economy when you couldn’t plan a short trip across town?” But then, I guess I’m just a troublemaker.
During the morning of May 15, 1948, just hours after Israeli statehood was declared, an Arab coalition of military forces swooped into Palestine. War raged for ten months until it ended in a miraculous Israeli victory.
In the early years of the modern nation of Israel, the country maintained a constant war footing. Government command of the economy seemed to many to be just as essential as command of a sizable armed force in the face of hostile neighbors. But in time, Israeli leadership and public opinion came to realize what a dead-end socialism is. Dozens of costly and inefficient state-owned enterprises were privatized, taxes were cut, and regulatory burdens were substantially eased.
Today, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, Israel’s economy is the 34th freest in the world. In the region, only the United Arab Emirates (at #24) rates as more economically free. In the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index, Israel comes in at #49.
As it always has been, the Middle East is beset with ethnic, religious and national tensions. No matter what your views might be on any of the related issues, you can’t help but recognize that May 14, 1948 was a momentous day in history. If that Tel-Aviv cop had thrown Ze’ev Sherf and his unlicensed driver behind bars, who knows how history might have been altered?!
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.
For Additional Information, See:
The Israeli Experiments in Voluntary Communism by Edan Iretz
Israel: The Road from Socialism by Macabee Dean
Israel’s Grassroots Libertarian Revolution by Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis
Israeli Declaration of Independence by Wikipedia
Three Nations That Tried Socialism and Rejected It by Lee Edwards