FIRST KNESSET 1949-1951
Speech by President Chaim Weizmann
Opening Sitting -- 14 February 1949
On 8 November 1948--in the midst of war--the first census was carried out in the new state; the resultant number of eligible voters was 506,507. On 25 January 1949, after the cease-fire on the Egyptian front had come into effect, but well before the first Armistice Agreement--that with Egypt--was signed, nationwide elections took place for the Constituent Assembly, which subsequently converted itself into the First Knesset. "Provisionally" it was decided that the elections would be held under a strictly proportional system--inter alia, because that appeared simplest, and could be applied in minimum time, an important consideration in view of Israel's ongoing struggle for recognition and for membership in the United Nations. About 87 percent of all eligible voters participated in the elections. Twelve out of the twenty-one lists which had been presented obtained the minimum of 1 percent of the valid votes, and thus were represented by at least one member in the Assembly. There were 120 members in the Assembly--a number adopted, after lengthy discussions--as a symbol of continuity in Jewish sovereign history in the Land of Israel: the Great Knesset, the representative assembly, established by Jews in their country after their return from exile in Babylonia at the end of the fifth century B.C.E., had also been composed of 120 members.
By far the largest number of mandates, 46, went to the Labor party headed by Ben-Gurion, followed by the United Workers party with 19, the United Religious Front with 16, the Herut movement headed by Menahem Begin, former Commander of the Irgun (IZL) with 14, the General Zionists with 7, and the Progressives with 5. Ben-Gurion could have commanded a comfortable majority of 65 by establishing a coalition with the United Workers party; however, this did not come about and the coalition which was ultimately presented for confirmation included the religious parties and the political center.
While negotiations for the formation of a coalition were still under way, the Constituent Assembly held its inaugural sitting on 14 February 1949, the 15th of Shevat--according to the Hebrew calendar the New Year for trees--which henceforward came to be celebrated also as the birthday of the Knesset. As a symbolic act, not lacking an element of defiance, the first sittings took place in Jerusalem--until very recently besieged--whose political future was still a matter of international controversy.
Sitting 1 of the Constituent Assembly
14 February 1949 (15 Shevat 5709)
Jewish Agency Building, Jerusalem, 4 p.m.
- The President of the Provisional Council of State, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, enters the chamber and takes his seat.
- The National Anthem (Hatikva).
- Address by Dr. Chaim Weizmann.
- The delegates swear allegiance.
- Election of the Speaker.
- The National Anthem.
The Opening Address
President of the Provisional Council of State, Dr. Chaim Weizmann: It is with a sense of honor and awe that I rise to open the Constituent Assembly of the State of Israel, the first Jewish assembly of our day, in Jerusalem, the eternal city.
At this great moment in the history of our people, we give thanks and praise to the God of Israel, by whose grace we have been privileged to see redemption, after generations of suffering and misery.
This occasion is the outcome of the tremendous reawakening of our national consciousness during the last few decades. It began approximately seventy years ago, when the best among us, the unknown and nameless leaders of that generation, arose to fulfill the age-old dream of the return to Zion and the revival of national existence.
Their endeavours took two directions.
The first was spiritual arousal, the return to the ancient sources of our Jewish heritage, and the revival of the Hebrew language and its literature, focusing the widely-dispersed abilities of our nation on one aim. There were also activities in the spheres of education and the dissemination of information, the open proclamation of our historic right, and efforts to obtain the help and support of the leaders of the world. Two major assemblies constituted milestones along this road: the Kattowitz Conference and the First Zionist Congress.
This path led to the creation of the World Zionist Organization, the workshop in which fulfillment was forged, and the establishment of the Jewish Agency, the supreme political institution and great settlement instrument of the Zionist movement, under whose roof we are gathered here this evening. In the words of the illustrious visionary of the Jewish state in our time, this was the Jewish state in the making. As we proceeded along this path we achieved the Balfour Declaration, the first external recognition of our right to a national revival in the land of our fathers.
The second direction was that of concrete action, and was taken by those who had grown weary of waiting for the strength of the Jews in the diaspora to increase and for others to grant them recognition. They sought to hasten matters, and they came to Palestine, attempting to bring redemption to their people by the labor of their hands, the sweat of their brow, and their very lifeblood. They were the first pioneers, the Bilu'im, and all those whose ideals led them to immigrate and lay the foundations of the country. They were followed by later generations of settlers, until this great entity was formed by those whose blood and sweat, heroism and sacrifice, established the State of Israel.
Those who took the second path also created organizational frameworks and institutions of self-rule: the settlements' and towns' committees, the assemblies of the new Jewish population, the Delegates' Assembly and the National Council (Va'ad Leumi), which also met in this building.
The two directions have united long since and, like the two arms of one person, have also strengthened one another. Then the great day came, nine months ago, 14 May 1948, 5 Iyar 5708, when we proclaimed our independence and the establishment of our state, and the unity of the two elements was complete.
At that time, when all about us was blood, fire and pillars of smoke, war with the Arabs around us and the legacy of chaos left us by the Mandatory authorities, we were unable to hold elections and establish the state on a permanent basis. A provisional ruling body was set up, comprising a legislature and an executive, deriving its authority from previous elections. The two former supreme institutions the Executive of the Jewish Agency and the National Council combined to form this provisional ruling body.
In ancient times this little country of ours bore the banner of spiritual revolt against the tyranny and violence which raged around us. The Jewish Law (Torah) and the vision of the Jewish prophets determined a new moral code in interpersonal relations and a new regime in society. The authority of the kings of Israel was limited by the Law and the religious traditions; and the prophets of Israel were not afraid to speak out and rebuke kings and princes, defending the poor and the underprivileged, the stranger and the slave, the orphan and the widow.
The monarchy itself was not approved of by the nation's spiritual leaders. "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you," Gideon says to the people. The great prophet's warning of the dangers of tyranny ring in the nation's ears until the end of time.
This rebellion against the rule of one person in Israel derives from the noble belief that a free nation which accepts the rule of law and justice has no need of any constraint from above to enable it to conduct its life as a society. If the laws of modern nations are concerned mainly with limiting the powers of the monarch, this devolves from the ancient regime of the Jewish nation.
It has been the lot of our generation to renew the tradition of liberty which was severed by tyrants nineteen hundred years ago. I do not know why this generation in particular has the privilege of fulfilling the desires of all the previous ones which rotted in the gloom of the diaspora. It may be because of all the suffering and pain which have beset us the last seventy years, as one limb after another was severed from the body of our nation, until of late a third of our number was destroyed. No nation in the world has suffered as we have, but at last the vision of redemption has been fulfilled. It is our lot to bear the heavy burden of responsibility for filling the gap which has been created within the ranks of our people with the murder of the best of its sons, the bearers of its standard and the carriers of its culture.
Our nation once gave the entire world the spiritual message which became the foundation of human society. The world is watching and waiting now to see what path we choose for ourselves in arranging our lives, and what the character of our state will be. It is listening intently to hear whether a new message will go forth from Zion, and what this message will contain.
The birth pangs of a new message are by no means easy. The product of the creative spirit emerges only after considerable sweat and pain, hard work and suffering. Our nation's creative ability faces a new and rigorous test. The constitution which the Knesset has been asked to prepare for Israel is a major touchstone.
After having participated in the great spiritual struggles of mankind, after having dedicated ourselves and shed our blood for the liberation of other nations, we have won the right to strive for our own national self-expression, and to make our contribution to the spiritual treasury of the whole world as a free and equal nation.
Let us focus our efforts first of all on increasing our creative ability by encouraging science and research in the State of Israel. Science and research are the basis of progress throughout the world. We must utilize all our achievements in science and research in the diaspora for building our country. But despite the crucial importance of science, it alone will not save us. We must build a new bridge connecting science with the human spirit. "Where there is no vision, the people perish," and we have seen where scientific progress which is not accompanied by moral vision can lead: to the atom bomb which threatens to destroy the whole world.
All my life I have endeavoured to make science and research the basis of our national undertaking. But I also know that beyond science there are lofty values which hold the solution to the ills of mankind, the values of justice and honesty, peace and fraternity.
"Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness."
Today is a great day for us. Let it not be considered arrogance if I say that this is also a great day for the world. A message of hope and encouragement goes forth today from this House, and from this holy city, to all the oppressed and persecuted peoples of the world who are struggling for freedom and equality. There is a reward for a just war. If we, the pitifully diminished and woefully oppressed nation, have reached this point, there is hope for all those who wait for justice.
From this house and this holy city, at this great moment, we send fraternal greetings to all the scattered members of our nation wherever they might be. We extend our hand in peace to our neighbors, and in friendship to all the peace-loving nations. Our greetings and gratitude go out to all the great and small nations which have recognized Israel, and we give a warm welcome to the representatives of the foreign nations and the religious leaders who have honored this occasion with their presence.
Knesset Members, I congratulate you on your first meeting. Remember that the eyes of the whole Jewish world are upon you, and that the yearning and prayers of past generations accompany you. May we all be worthy of this great moment and this immense responsibility.
Before we start our labors, let us remember the leaders and teachers of the nation, the founders of the (Zionist) movement and the commanders of our enterprise, whose vision and deeds have brought us to this moment. We reverence in particular the leader of the movement, the creator of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl; his colleague, the defender of his people, Max Nordau; Nahum Sokolow; our teacher and preacher, Ahad Ha'am; the genius of our poetry and our national culture, Chaim Nachman Bialik; the reviver of our Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda; the pillar of devotion to Zion, Menahem Ussishkin; the flower of American Jewry, Louis Brandeis; and the great benefactor, the father of Jewish settlement, Edmond de Rothschild.
We remember all our brethren in this country and in the Zionist movement who have passed on without witnessing this day with us. We stand to attention and honor the memories of our precious and beloved children, those young heroes, who died so that the State of Israel might be established.
The First Knesset of the State of Israel is convened.