Looking for Lasting Meaning in Israel’s Declaration of Independence
The 1948 document was the hastily written product of a hectic moment. Does its political philosophy stand the test of time?
Israel’s Declaration of Independence
The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment
by Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler
Cambridge, 320 pp., $39.99
IN AN INTERVIEW on December 6, 2022, Neil Rogachevsky considered the place of the 1948 Declaration of Independence in Israeli life: Although “it appears in civics textbooks,” it “hasn’t quite captured the public imagination the way the American Declaration” has, he said.
It’s getting there, however. On December 12, with a new right-wing governing coalition in the works, liberal Tel Aviv hung an oversized copy of the Declaration on a side of city hall. Protesters against the coalition and its plans to weaken the Israel judiciary sometimes carry a giant replica. The Declaration is now so identified with the ongoing protests that some students objected when Bar Ilan University’s administration hung a large copy on a campus building. Too partisan.
Yet, as Rogachevsky, a political theorist and historian at Yeshiva University’s Straus Center, and Dov Zigler, an independent scholar, explain in their new book, the Declaration doesn’t belong to any faction. Indeed, critics of the protesters cite it, too. The fight between boosters and critics of the governing coalition is about what kind of country Israel should be—about, among other things, what it means to be a Jewish state, what rights and what kinds of equality should be guaranteed, and what Israel’s disposition toward Arab citizens and non-citizens should be. Israel’s Supreme Court has said that the Declaration articulates the state’s “basic credo.” In the absence of a constitution, the Declaration is an exceptionally important guide to understanding what Israel is about. Rogachevsky and Zigler say that it is the “only document from the founding period” that attempts to define the state’s “overall priorities and principles.” It’s a good time for their absorbing study of the Declaration and the competing ideas that occupied its drafters.
Those drafters worked under pressure. United Nations Resolution 181, which envisioned separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, was dying on arrival. Violence began hours after the General Assembly approved it on November 29, 1947, and grew into civil war between the Jewish and Arab communities. The British, who had administered Palestine for the prior three decades, were withdrawing. When in April, 1948, the Zionist Actions Committee, “the highest body of international Zionism,” met in Tel Aviv, some of its members had to brave an Arab blockade.
The drafters also worked amid uncertainty and in haste. The April meeting, as Resolution 181 required, resolved on a “provisional council of government,” but it left the future role of the U.N. undetermined. Up until May 12, 1948, just three days before British control formally ended, the provisional government was still deciding whether to declare partial or full independence and didn’t know if the United States would support the latter. David Ben-Gurion, head of the ruling Mapai party and the future first prime minister of Israel, made substantive changes to the Declaration the day before it was debated and approved at a final meeting. The rush was such that the “Declaration” signed at the famous May 14 ceremony was, Rogachevsky and Zigler report, “a blank piece of parchment.” When they fled from Egypt, Exodus says, the Jews had no time for their bread to rise. When they declared an independent state, they had no time to prepare a formal scroll.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN said that Thomas Jefferson, the primary drafter of the American Declaration of Independence, “had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Did the drafters of Israel’s Declaration transcend the pressures of the moment and introduce ideas that still command our attention? Rogachevsky and Zigler suggest they did, through their careful study of five drafts of the Declaration and the debates surrounding them.
The Declaration, Rogachevsky and Zigler argue, represents the triumph of a political mindset over the lawyerly or diplomatic one that led some of the drafters, such as Tzvi Berenson, to worry too much about adherence to Resolution 181. That resolution had set out the borders of the future Jewish and Arab states and demanded that the two communities meet certain conditions to achieve independence. Berenson, an adviser to the provisional government’s legal department and a future justice on the Supreme Court of Israel, fixed the borders of the new state in the draft he was asked to write because, “to the lawyer . . . it was vital that the legal text establishing the state accord with the legal framework bringing the state into being.” Hersch Lauterpacht, a renowned international law expert, asked to author a statement of “the legal basis for Israeli independence, write a declaration of independence, or both,” wrote into his draft an almost utopian belief in international law. He one-upped Berenson by declaring that the obligations of the U.N. Charter would become part of the new state’s “organic law.” Moshe Sharett, who led the provisional government’s diplomatic corps and would become Israel’s second prime minister, probably wasn’t moved by legalism. But his concerns about international opinion, particularly U.S. State Department resistance to Israeli independence, made him “scrupulous in adhering to the Resolution 181 framework” when he wrote the penultimate draft of the Declaration.
Politics is less high-minded than law and diplomacy. Rogachevsky and Zigler indicate as much by referring to Machiavelli’s advice to princes and founders. Such princes and founders must look to the “effectual truth” of things rather than to paper conventions and should recognize that new states entail “new modes and orders,” not conformity to existing law. Ben-Gurion grasped this, which is why his draft puts Resolution 181 in the background and stands on “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate.” Independence “under U.N. auspices” was a false promise: Whatever the importance of international support, “all states . . . rely on their own arms in the cruel political world.” Another future prime minister, Golda Meir, said, in support of Ben-Gurion, “We have to go all the way.”
POLITICS, RIGHTLY UNDERSTOOD, is also more high-minded than law and diplomacy. Here, Rogachevsky and Zigler channel not Machiavelli but Aristotle, for whom political associations aim at a “substantive goal.” Other drafters recognized that the new state would stand for something, but Ben-Gurion went furthest in attempting to justify a “nation defined and indeed created by its ideas.” His preamble says that “the Jewish people . . . created cultural values of . . . universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.” In Rogachevsky and Zigler’s words, Ben-Gurion’s draft argues that “the political and social development of the people who are the carriers of those ideas must continue—so that those ideas shall not perish from the Earth.”
The coauthors concede, despite their high estimate of Ben-Gurion’s wisdom, that the Declaration falls short in important respects. It “would be difficult to find a community in Israel which would be happy to give an account of itself” in the cultural, vague terms that Ben-Gurion uses to describe the state’s Jewishness. Moreover, Rogachevsky and Zigler see a road not taken in the first draft of Israel’s Declaration, assigned to Mordechai Beham, who, like Berenson, worked in the Legal Department. His draft lacks something in originality—it borrows extensively from the American Declaration. But Beham attempted, in a way that even Ben-Gurion did not—to fuse Anglo-American liberal democratic ideas with “the ideas of the Jewish people.” Subsequent drafts moved away from the “political theory of natural rights” present in Beham’s and toward Labor Zionism, a set of ideas that were vital to the founding of Israel but that emphasized “state authority, progress through material development, and positive egalitarianism.” Beham’s foundation was the “priority and sovereignty of the natural rights of the individual.” Berenson and others would maintain “the priority and sovereignty of the state.”
Ben-Gurion, though unaware of Beham’s work, moved some way back in his direction. Sharett’s draft said that the “state” would “bestow. . . social and political rights” on its citizens. Ben-Gurion’s says that the state would “ensure” those rights. But this is a mere “nod” to the liberal rights tradition. In Rogachevsky and Zigler’s telling, the idea of rights was barely debated as the Declaration developed. Much of the language of rights in the Declaration comes from Resolution 181. Rogachevsky and Zigler speculate that Ben-Gurion, who made more edits to the beginning of Sharett’s draft than to its end, ran out of time.
Perhaps Rogachevsky and Zigler, who make a convincing case for Ben-Gurion’s greatness, go easier than they should on his opposition to crafting a constitution. The government, he claimed, had more urgent matters that couldn’t wait. No doubt, Ben-Gurion was right to see that independence required “departing from the world of legal and formal rights.” But perhaps he was wrong to discount the idea that a constitution is less a product than a producer of quieter times. A constitution, in any case, might have helped clarify a Declaration that when it comes to “concrete guidance regarding doctrines of rights” and other important matters, “poses as many questions as it answers.”