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.
The context of the declaration makes its content all the more remarkable. Though Ben Gurion's delivery may have been blunt, the text itself was finely crafted. No other document so succinctly yet profoundly encapsulates the ideals of the Zionist movement, whilst also reflecting its tensions.
The declaration articulated the Jewish national narrative of the Zionist movement. It set out the historic and legal case for Israel's establishment rooted in the "natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state."
At the same time it reflected the universal, humanistic values with which the early Zionist ideologues had infused the movement. It committed to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," and to "guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." In particular it called on "the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions."
The declaration drew on Jewish cultural tradition, stating that Israel would be "based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." But Ben Gurion and his largely secular leadership, staunchly resisted any mention of God in the text, compromising artfully, in the end, on an ambiguous reference to "Placing our trust in the 'rock of Israel'".
Sixty-four years on, Israel has strengthened immeasurably from the precarious circumstances of its establishment. Judged by the ideals of its founders, Israel can claim many successes. It is an open society with a diverse population, rich civil society, vibrant economy, robust democratic and legal institutions and a strong military. With a population of eight million, it punches far above its weight in its contributions in the fields of science and technology. Six Israelis have won Nobel prizes in the past ten years. Only four countries have won more in that time. Its Arab minority does indeed enjoy legal equality and representation in the state's institutions. When Israel's former President, Moshe Katzav, was convicted and imprisoned last year, the trial was presided over by an Arab-Israeli judge.
However, like any country, Israel faces a continuing challenge to fully reflect in reality the spirit of its highest ideals. Measured against the vision articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the State of Israel has work to do. Ongoing tensions and inequalities exist between Israel's Jewish majority and Arab minority. It is an enduring struggle to locate the proper place for Jewish cultural and religious life in the state. And Israel is a long way from gaining acceptance in a region which is hostile to its existence. The project remains overshadowed by the need to, at long last, make the two-state solution proposed in 1947 a reality, by finding a consensual and secure way to establish a Palestinian state in the territories Israel captured in 1967.
Israel is a work in progress. But in this endeavour, the declaration itself is an invaluable asset. Not every country is founded with such a far-sighted and progressive mission statement. Britain has no equivalent. It remains a powerful touchstone in Israeli law and political culture, and stands up to this day as a blueprint for a state which is both Jewish and democratic.
Follow Toby Greene on Twitter: www.twitter.com/toby_greene_