Visitors at last discovering Israels Independence Hall

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The location and drama surrounding the ceremony are replayed for visitors to what is now called Independence Hall. Built in 1911, just after Tel Aviv was founded and as home of its first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, the building was enlarged into Tel Aviv's Bauhaus-style art museum in 1936.

With the opening of a new Tel Aviv Art Museum in 1959, however, the old building briefly became Tel Aviv's Bible Museum before falling into disuse until a government decision in 1979 directed that it be restored to exactly how it had appeared on that one memorable day 30 years earlier.

"This is where Golda sat," proclaims Itzik Dror, thumping one of the dozen chairs which front the dais, "and Ben-Gurion stood there." Dror, tall and gawky, is one of a team of young actors who guide visitors through the building. His spiel, and that of his colleagues, is low-key and informal, yet touching.

"If you think the chairs look like they were borrowed for the ceremony from a coffeehouse, well, that's because they were," he says. "The carpets were borrowed from a carpet store and the microphone from a radio shop around the corner."

Perhaps the building's lack of formality may explain why so few Israelis come here — preferring to remember their country's rebirth at more imposing sites in Jerusalem such as the Knesset, Mount Herzl, the Western Wall, even Yad Vashem. But in light of the country's 50th anniversary, more and more Israelis — and tourists too — are finding their way to this simple and elegant structure on Tel Aviv's patrician, tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard.

"Why this building?" Dror asks. Then he answers his own question by pointing out the hall's bunker-like design, and explaining that with Jewish Jerusalem cut off and under siege, the ceremony had to be held in Tel Aviv. Dror leads the visitors into an adjacent hall for a short video on the city, which underscores this particular house's centrality in Tel Aviv's brief history.

Next, visitors wander through galleries housing an exhibit on Israel's War of Independence. When they return to the main hall, Dror tells them of the unique circumstances leading up to the declaration.

"President Truman sent messages to David Ben-Gurion, leader of Palestine's Jews, urging him to delay for six months. The British told him to wait, too. Even Ben-Gurion's own military advisers told him the new state would have only a 50-50 chance of survival. But, after 2,000 years, after 50 years of organized Zionism and after the greatest Holocaust the world had ever known, Ben-Gurion insisted the opportunity must not be missed."

Like a theater director setting a stage, Dror describes the trappings of the day itself: the borrowed furnishings, the draping of what was to become the Israeli flag, offset by the museum's prized paintings framed on its walls. He paints a picture of the members of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, sitting on the upper level of the room, ready, at the right signal, to play "Hatikvah." As late as a half-hour before the ceremony was to begin, he says, speakers argued over the actual content of the declaration. What would the new country be called? (Would it be Zion? Judea? Israel?)

Dror further details the scene for that dramatic ceremony, telling how the empty piece of parchment the participants would sign eventually was appended to be the declaration, elegant and etched by a calligrapher. He shows the typewritten invitation urging dignitaries to wear formal dress, and to keep the location of the declaration secret.

"Of course," Dror continues, smiling, "tell 350 excited people, 350 Jewish people who've been waiting 2000 years for this day to keep a secret, and what do you have? Right, a crowd of thousands outside straining to hear the ceremony on the loudspeakers!"

Then he flicks a switch, and Ben-Gurion's emotionless, staccato voice proclaims Israel's independence — its goals, its dreams, its desire for peace with the Arabs. He ends with the phrase zeh medinat Yisrael! (This is the state of Israel!)

Next, Tel Aviv's chief rabbi, his voice tearful and cracking, recites the age-old prayer, the Shehechiyanu, thanking the almighty for "bringing us to this time." Then comes the singing of "Hatikvah." The tape is thin and crackly.

Even today, visitors can sense the tension and emotions that inevitably seared through the room in 1948.