Conservatism Versus Revolution: Can We Return to the Declaration of Independence?

What is meant by the State of Israel’s Jewish identity? Some view the Jewish state as a vehicle for an independent sovereign Jewish existence, one that preserves its own Jewish identity and the Jews themselves. Others, however, see the Jewish state as a medium for the establishment of a different, just, egalitarian, revolutionary society, for which Jewish historical experience can provide useful lessons and a source of inspiration. Both of these approaches – the conservative approach that wants to stave off risk, and the revolutionary approach that wants to fulfill potential – are rooted in the State of Israel’s founding document: the Declaration of Independence

The human situation and its ever-changing challenges can be viewed from myriad standpoints. One standpoint is that of the impulse to preserve existing structures of power and influence, so that those structures can be used to address a given situation. This is the conservative approach. However, the situation can also be addressed in terms of a refusal to accept it as a given, unchangeable fact, but rather as a set of human circumstances that can and should be changed through the use of cultural, social, and political tools. This is the revolutionary approach.

Both of these approaches, recognized by sociologists as global phenomena, can be usefully applied to a consideration of the vision of the State of Israel from the perspective of the state’s founders, and from the perspective of today’s generation. The conservative approach emphasizes risk and the need to safeguard against it, while the revolutionary approach highlights potential whose fulfillment should be promoted.

What is meant by the State of Israel’s Jewish identity? Some view the Jewish state as a vehicle for an independent sovereign Jewish existence, one that preserves its own Jewish identity and the Jews themselves. Others, however, see the Jewish state as a medium for the establishment of a different, just, egalitarian, revolutionary society, for which Jewish historical experience can provide useful lessons and a source of inspiration. Both of these approaches – the conservative approach that wants to stave off risk, and the revolutionary approach that wants to fulfill potential – are rooted in the State of Israel’s founding document: the Declaration of Independence or, as it is known in Hebrew: the “Scroll of Independence.”

Although the Declaration of Independence has not become a binding legal document, it is nevertheless still regarded as a foundational text and reference point for the vision that the Provisional State Council wished to advance for the Jewish state at one of the critical junctures of the Zionist endeavor. The Declaration – its wording, its formulations, and the negotiations that preceded it – all point to the deep sense of historical moment that gripped its signatories. The “parchment” on which the Declaration was written, and the ktav Ashuri (“Assyrian script” or Hebrew alphabet) in which it was rewritten, seemed to endow it with the force of antiquity or even, perhaps, of sanctity, like a newly-discovered book of Scripture – the book of the establishment of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, the Declaration’s legal status has remained insufficiently clear to this day. I feel, however, that its meticulous, if sometimes contradictory, wording provides an important key to understanding the character of the Jewish state, in particular, the tension between the conservative and the revolutionary elements of practical Zionism.

From the outset, the Declaration of Independence reflected the dominant Zionist worldview according to which the Jewish national enterprise developing in Eretz Israel was meant to assure the Jewish people’s survivability, this time through the establishment of a sovereign state. The Declaration expresses one of the main political foundations on which the Zionist movement stands, by referencing the mythic Zion as the city of refuge needed by Jews fleeing waves of oppression – oppression from which the Jews suffered throughout history, but which peaked in modern times with the Holocaust and the destruction of the great Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe. The Declaration of Independence sees the Jewish state as inextricably intertwined with Zionism’s aspiration to renew Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Israel, the nation’s homeland, from which, according to this outlook, the Jews were exiled for centuries and to which they were now returning with the force of an active and determined national movement imbued with a sense of historical justice. The Jewish state, in the words of the Declaration, is the realization of “the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”

But the Declaration’s drafters also saw the moment of the Jewish state’s proclamation as an event intertwined with the then-brief revolutionary history of Zionism, i.e.: the desire to establish a just society that also encompasses non-Jewish minorities whose rights must be protected. This impressive vision, one must remember, was formulated at a very specific national moment. It was drafted, written, and read while fierce battles were raging between Arab and Jewish forces for control of the British Mandate territories which, per United Nations resolution, were supposed to be divided between a Jewish state with an Arab minority and an Arab state with a Jewish minority. When David Ben-Gurion read the Declaration before an audience in a downtown Tel Aviv venue, he knew that the defense-forces-in-the-making planned to extend the partition borders and establish Jewish hegemony in the areas captured. His support for these plans was rooted in the Zionist security doctrine that viewed the demographic ratio between Jews and Arabs in the Mandate territories as one of the keys to the Jewish state’s stability. Today we also know that the Declaration had a few earlier versions, and to a large degree reflected not only the will of the “Jewish people,” as attributed to them by the document’s authors, but also the political necessity of receiving legitimization from the great powers, first and foremost the United States. The Declaration of Independence was read not only before the Provisional State Council and an audience of hundreds that gathered in Tel Aviv, but also before the administration in Washington. A liberal and “open” formulation represented the Hebrew state as the Mideast representative of the “city upon a hill.”

Yet if we ignore for a moment the immediate and political contexts in which the Declaration of Independence was written and read, and if we focus, rather, on the document’s pathos and regard it as an expression of the revolutionary will, then the complex social and civic circumstances into which the Jewish state was then entering appear also to be expressed in the Declaration. These circumstances pertain to the somewhat “Canaanite” possibility of a reemerging new Israeli living space, in the local and indigenous sense. Such a stance is important for the formulation of a revolutionary perspective. In order to understand its relevance to our day, a quick glance at contemporary Israeli sociology is in order.

The past two decades have witnessed a rehabilitation of the national and ethnic communities that make up Israeli society. Basically, over its seven decades of existence, Israel has transformed from a Jewish immigrant state into a state with a Jewish majority but, no less importantly – into a state with an Israeli-born majority. Many of its citizens, even if they differ in their ethnic and national backgrounds, view Israel as the land of their birth, and its two languages, modern Hebrew and the local Arabic vernacular, are mother tongues in which children laugh and play. Indigenous life is erupting and seeking expression in many different areas: literature, language, the visual arts, discourse, the intellectual sphere, and politics. The middle class, perhaps one of the main engines of Israeli society’s modernization and democratization, is diversifying. Five decades ago, it was a homogeneous entity but the past two decades have seen great mobility fueled by the appearance of higher-education options in the country’s social periphery. Nor is the familial foundation any longer the sociological trait, as it were, of traditional ethnic groups. Israel has always been a society in which family occupies a prominent place. But the sociological profile of Israeli families – in their varying forms, traditional and modern – is becoming more and more multigenerational. Multigenerationalism does not mean merely the vertical addition of family units or members, but also the accumulation of local memories and traditions transmitted from generation to generation. Prominent among these are collective anger and painful nostalgia that are seeking expression in the third and fourth generations of Israeli statehood. No less important, however, are the intergenerationally-transmitted hopes that tomorrow will not differ from yesterday and an abiding desire to preserve what exists, perhaps even by anchoring it in a social contract, generally in the form of a “constitution.”

If we want to see the emergence of an Israeli perspective on revolutionary society that is oriented toward potential and therefore seeks to give expression to the local human mosaic that has emerged within it via a multidimensional, interpretation-rich text reflecting a potential vision, then the Declaration of Independence constitutes such a text. The Declaration reflects an early aspiration to establish the State of Israel not just as a Jewish state that addresses the logic of risk, but also as a new political framework. The Declaration embodies the visionary possibility that a local society will develop here in the distant future – a local, revolutionary community woven warp and woof of Jewish, and perhaps also non-Jewish, identities that are essentially reinventing themselves. It is not for nothing that Ben-Gurion, a decade after the founding of the state, sought a variety of answers to the question, “Who is a Jew?” In 1958, Israel’s first prime minster and the person who read the Declaration of Independence aloud at the proclamation ceremony sought the views of 70 distinguished rabbis, thinkers, and scholars on the “Who is a Jew” issue. The background was a public and legal controversy that erupted over the registration of the children of a “mixed” couple – a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman – in the Population Registry. Ben-Gurion’s query was issued during a period when the Zionist state seemed to be a sovereign tool for establishing social orders that contradict or challenge the traditional definition of Jewish identity. From the Orthodox perspective the answer to Ben-Gurion’s query is clear and absolute. It is based on the traditional Jewish code – Halacha. From Ben-Gurion’s revolutionary, perhaps post-halachic perspective, this was not the case at all; under the conditions of the Hebrew state, everything is up for debate.

Despite the wide range of answers testifying to the existence of multiple Jewish identities, Ben-Gurion did not turn his query into a vehicle for legal action. A man of the Zionist left, he was unquestionably a revolutionary in thought and deed, but he was also a mamlachti or “statist” politician committed to ensuring the power of his party and the stability of the young society he headed. His decisions on the management of religion and state issues attested to such an outlook. So it was with his prior decision, in Israel’s first elected government, to build a coalition with the religious parties, and to give them precedence over his revolutionary partners on the left; and thus, he set the Orthodox Jewish boundaries of the Zionist revolution, at the expense of the possible advancement of a different approach, more revolutionary and radical, but no less assertive. Ben-Gurion’s choices had a clear and ongoing historical outcome. Despite their somewhat activist image, Zionism’s revolutionary forces went on the defensive, where they remain to this day. At the same time, nationalist forces, religious and non-religious, amassed great power over the years in support of their reactionary stance. At a certain stage these forces came to understand the meaning of the possibility offered by revolutionary Zionism regarding a new social reality and sought to restrict it; they correctly perceived that social boundaries would become blurred in everyday civic life and challenge the boundaries of Jewish identity. The possibility of losing Jewish hegemony served them in the development of a risk society, one of whose outcomes was the Nation State Law (Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, 2018).

A return to the Declaration of Independence may facilitate a resurgence of the revolutionary Zionist desire for a society oriented toward fulfilling potential, rather than merely addressing risk. An approach of this kind would be aware of risk and would therefore preserve the “Jewish people” and its right to maintain its traditions, its way of life, and its different shades, from a standpoint of liberty and from a position of safety. However, it would not flinch from the possible development of an indigenous, diverse society, one of multiple identities and possibilities, Hebrew and post-Hebrew, Arabic and post-Arabic, and others. For this it will be necessary to return to the revolutionary component of Zionism: the weakening of religion and clerics in political life, the development of concrete social and economic mobility options based on a lessening of economic inequality, and the aspiration to create a constitution for which the Declaration of Independence will be a binding foundation and whose ethical outcomes will be reflected in the state institutions, from the state education system to the national army. At the heart of the new Israel will be a large Jewish community and a no less large non-Jewish community, separated not by national identity but by ways of life protected in the constitution and anchored in the education system. A possibility of this kind will apparently emerge only via a new revolutionary leadership who will stand up before the people and, like King Josiah, read the “rediscovered” parchment scroll – the Declaration of Independence. The re-proclamation will emphasize not only the religious-historical account of Jewish redemption, but also the future revolutionary Zionist desire that the new state, that which seeks to be part of the family of nations, will be a model state founded on the vision of the “prophets of Israel.” It will not be founded on the punctiliousness of clerics, and certainly not on the wheeling and dealing or the zealotry that corrupted them as a leadership, but rather on the revolutionary commitment to “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” This is the new city that will arise on the old hill.

Is a revolutionary possibility of this kind possible in today’s Israel? Highly doubtful, even most unlikely. Firstly, even Ben-Gurion did nothing with the diverse and fascinating responses he received to his query. The political situation he faced eroded the revolutionary energy that pulsed within him; that energy remained solely on the intellectual plane. Secondly, one must take into account that Israel occupies a central place in the Jewish world, but that over the 70 years of its existence other centers have emerged as well. The most prominent of these is of course the large and longstanding American center, whose communities and major Jewish organizations represent a great and diverse Jewish world replete with opinions and identities and with its own independent approach to the questions of “Who is a Jew” and “What is Judaism.” The role that the “Jewish state” took upon itself as the entity responsible for Jewish identity may actually be long outdated, not to mention arrogant. Thirdly, the rehabilitation of Israel’s national communities as indigenous communities is reviving their particularist foundations, especially those targeted by religious versions, several of which are fundamentalist. Whether or not we reach a consensus on the definition of a “Jewish state,” the current situation clearly indicates that we are headed for a binational political space seeking the means to establish the national-religious supremacy of one group, rather than a civil-class partnership. And fourthly, the present essay ultimately represents a privileged view proposed by a member of the ethnic majority, which still holds a hegemonic position, is less inclined toward partnership with those who are unlike it, and which apparently does not correctly understand the worldview of the minority group.

Professor Nissim Leon is a sociologist and anthropologist. He is a faculty member of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and president of the Israeli Anthropological Association.