JERUSALEM — Meir Wilner, the last surviving signer of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and longtime leader of the Israel Communist Party, died last week at 85.
A member of the Knesset from 1949 until he retired in 1990, Wilner was an unrepentant communist to the end. He said in a 1998 interview, on the 50th anniversary of Israel’s independence, that what he was most proud of in his career was that he not only held onto his ideology throughout the years, but lived to see the fulfillment of his longstanding insistence that Israel recognize Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“Personally I feel good, even happy, over what I proposed, that we were obliged to shake hands with Arafat,” he said. “I met with him already in the 1970s, him and other Palestinian leaders, in the socialist capitals of Europe.”
As a supporter of Israel’s enemy, the Soviet Union, and the Jewish leader of what became a mostly Arab party, Wilner was a figure of enormous controversy. He was regularly heckled and occasionally pummeled in the Knesset, and in 1967 he was stabbed and seriously wounded on a Tel Aviv street by an activist in Herut, the forerunner of today’s Likud.
For the most part, however, the genial Wilner was on good terms with other lawmakers. “Not all, but many of those in the Knesset who disagreed with me still said: ‘He’s an honest man,’” he said in 1998.
Born Ber Kovner in 1918 in Vilna, in what was then Poland, he was active in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, in which his cousin Abba Kovner was a leader. An avid Hebrew scholar, he moved to Jerusalem in 1938 over his parents’ objections and enrolled in Hebrew University.
Shortly after arrival Wilner joined the underground Palestine Communist Party, shocked, he said, by the treatment of workers and Arabs that he encountered in Palestine. In Poland, he said, “the hatred was directed against the Jews — here it was against the Arabs.”
Elected in 1944 to the party’s central committee, he represented the communists on the provisional council of state that declared Israel an independent nation in 1948. He was the youngest of the 25 council members who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv on the afternoon of Friday, May 14, 1948.
After the Israel Communist Party split in 1965 into a mostly-Jewish faction that opposed Soviet anti-Zionism and a larger, mostly-Arab faction that was loyal to Moscow, Wilner became secretary-general of the larger faction, which was known as the New Communist List, or Rakah. In 1977 he led the party into an alignment with several tiny left-wing groups, including the Black Panther Party, to form the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, or Hadash.
Wilner’s signature on the Declaration of Independence became a matter of legend, partly because of its placement. Members were asked to sign in alphabetical order, but to leave space for the 12 council members who were unable to reach Tel Aviv that day. When Wilner signed, he left a line blank for Zerach Warhaftig of the National Religious Party, who should have preceded him alphabetically.
When Warhaftig came to Tel Aviv three weeks later, however, he put his signature not in the reserved spot, but next to David Ben-Gurion’s name, leaving a blank space above Wilner’s name that has been the subject of rumor and fable ever since. “There were all kinds of explanations,” said Wilner. “That they wanted to isolate me, to stress that even a communist agreed — I heard all kinds of opposing commentaries.
“But the truth is simple,” he said laughing. “They asked me to leave room for Warhaftig. His ‘vav’ came before mine. I signed where they asked me to sign.”
Wilner is survived by two sons and two grandchildren.