Who owns Israel's Declaration of Independence?

The question of who owns a version of Israel's founding document, its Declaration of Independence, is still an open one, a court said.

Moshe Cohen,

Israel's Declaration of Independence  - the final version
Israel's Declaration of Independence - the final version
State Archives

While most country's founding documents are kept under lock and key at a government facility – with no question as to their ownership – the question of who owns the first version of Israel's founding document, its Declaration of Independence, is still an open one.

On Thursday, a Jerusalem court ordered the document placed under lock and key for six months, while the question of who really owns it – the people of Israel, or the estate of attorney Mordechai Boehm, the author of an early draft of the Declaration that was rejected by the World Zionist Organization. The court order was issued to prevent the estate of Boehm from putting the document up for auction this week, in a sale that could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The first version of the Declaration, authored by Boehm and American rabbi Zvi Davidowicz, was turned down because it was considered too “religious,” mentioning God numerous times. That term was eventually whittled down to “Rock of Israel,” a poetic expression in the Psalms and other prayers for God. Upon rejection, Boehm, who was taken off the “case,” took the document home.

In 1987, Boehm, 72, passed away, and left his family a legacy of Zionism and service to the state, having served in the Justice Ministry in several capacities throughout his career. He also left them the document, which the family only discovered after he died, when they cleaned out the family attic.

This year, the family decided to auction off the document – but the state got wind of the sale and demanded that the family instead turn over the document, calling it “part of the history of the people of Israel, whose right it is to recover that document.” Family members contend that no demand was made by the state that the document be handed over, and point to that as proof that the state had interest in it – until the family decided to sell it.

The document is part of a series of letters, books, and compositions by early Zionist leaders. Among the items to be auctioned off will be the Israeli flag that had flown over the Exodus, the illegal immigration ship that brought refugees to Israel in 1947, and became a symbol of the nascent state's role in redeeming those who were spared in the Holocaust.

Commenting on the court's decision, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein said that “the version of the Declaration of Independence is an important historical and national resource. These documents have great educational value. It is fitting that they be under the authority of the state.”