Simon Rawidowicz vs. Ben-Gurion on the question of ‘Israel’

While Ben-Gurion’s belief that the Diaspora would disappear is undermined by existence of millions of Jews in countries outside Israel, Rawidowicz’s argument has suffered over the past six decades.

PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion meets with US envoy to Israel James McDonald in 1948. The IDF had hardly been in Sinai a week when Ben-Gurion ordered a full retreat (photo credit: US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion meets with US envoy to Israel James McDonald in 1948. The IDF had hardly been in Sinai a week when Ben-Gurion ordered a full retreat
(photo credit: US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
It was a friendly dispute but the stakes were high. At first glance, the issue was one of semantics. Yet, the real debate dealt with the future of world Jewry, specifically the State of Israel’s relationship to the Diaspora. Simon Rawidowicz – master Hebraist, Jewish thinker and a leading light at Brandeis University in its early years – conducted a debate with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in a series of letters composed by both men in 1954-55.
The heart of the argument was the founders of the Jewish state naming the nation “Israel.” Did this undermine the traditional and historic understanding of all Jews as the “people of Israel,” or did it simply promote the reality that the State of Israel was going to evolve into the political, cultural, social, demographic and religious center of word Jewry?
Rawidowicz fired the first round in the duel of words in an article published in the Hebrew journal Metzudah in 1954. He concluded the essay “Israel: The People, the State” with these words of admonition: “In sum, let this much be clear: whether there are precedents for the distortion of history or not; whether the name of the new state be long or short, translatable or not – one fundamental fact remains. Israel was not born on 14 May 1948 but on that day a Jewish state came into being. Its name should be ‘Eretz [the Land of] Yisrael,’ or ‘Medinat [State of] Yisrael,’ or some other name. ‘Israel’ has always been the name of the Jewish people in toto. It is so today. So it must remain tomorrow, and the day after. It can be no other.”
Ben-Gurion responded on October 26, 1954, not long after the essay appeared. The first prime minister argued that modern Israel embodied the Israel of the Torah, the patriarch Jacob who received his new name by overcoming an angel of God. The Jews in Israel were the true heirs of the biblical Israel, engaged in struggles simply to survive.
“We are all Jews; we are all the sons of the Jewish people. But only the citizens of the Jewish state are Israel.” The following month, Rawidowicz took on Ben-Gurion. “The communities of Israel (or the Jews, according to you) all over the world must acknowledge that revolution in name (which is also a revolution in fact, heart and soul) and take upon themselves to eliminate the name Israel from their midst and also to acknowledge that from 1948 on, they have no share or inheritance in Israel, and that every mention of Israel in our literature, in our prayers and so forth in Hebrew and in all other languages up to 1948 is not identical with Israel after 1948.”
Ben-Gurion, in the next letter, rebuts this argument. On November 24, 1954, he argued that while he “believes in the shared destiny of the Jewish people,” he believes “There will be no future for Judaism without the state, and no future for the state without Judaism.” Still, “Only in the State of Israel is a full Jewish life possible.” Only in Israel “will a Jewish culture worthy of that name flourish.” He continues, “There is a Jewish existence in America, Russia, Morocco and elsewhere. It is a sad, wounded, limping and impoverished existence.” Ben-Gurion concludes, “But only in a state of the Jews is a full and complete Jewish life possible.”
IN DECEMBER 1954 and February 1955, Rawidowicz responded with two letters. He countered the Israeli by focusing on the confusion that a modern Jewish state called “Israel” caused in the totality of the Jewish people. He states in the December letter, “The name Israel was, and still is an appellation uniting and joining individual to individual, community to community. Therefore, I am worried and regret that the appropriation of Israel for the state divides that which is one.”
Also, he asks about Arab Israelis and Christian citizens of Israel being Israeli and how that dilutes the traditional meaning of the term “Israel.” In the February letter Rawidowicz complains legitimately that the identity of Israelis was negating that of Jews. He cites an example of this phenomenon: “Unfortunately, I must draw your attention to the fact that there are Jews who say – even when they are not asked – that they are Israelis, and add explicitly: “We are not Jews.” The name “Israel” frees them from having to identify with Jews, or with the people of Israel in the Diaspora; Israel serves for them as a sign of their differentness and shows, in their opinion, everyone that they are different from the Jews outside the state.”
Rawidowicz regrets that Israeli Jews no longer unify with the Jews of the Diaspora and are ashamed that they are Jews. Ironically, they use the traditional term of “Israel” to deny their Jewish origins. He is alarmed that Jewish unity is threatened.
In the final letter on May 14, 1955, Ben-Gurion questions the Israeli embarrassment of Jewish origins. He writes “It is possible that some youth from Israel, upon coming to the golah [Diaspora, “exile”], will estrange themselves from their brethren. These youth do not reflect or represent the Jewish youth in Israel. But it is a bitter fact that thousands, tens of thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands of the Jewish youth in America do not know and do not want to know anything about their people, their culture and their past, and it is not the name Israel of its Jewish state that alienates them.” And so, the debate ended without any conclusion.
I present this 65-year-old debate to you to highlight how much has changed since Rawidowicz challenged Ben-Gurion. While Ben-Gurion’s belief that the Diaspora would disappear is undermined by the existence of millions of Jews in countries outside Israel, Rawidowicz’s argument has suffered over the past six decades. The master Hebraist’s prophecy of an American Jewry akin in intellectual and cultural power to the Jews of ancient Babylonia has faded along with the end of the Golden Age of American Jewry in the 20th century.
Most American Jews know little Hebrew. Ben-Gurion was prophetic in his vision of an American-Jewish youth illiterate in Jewish texts and detached from any Jewish identity. A new generation of American Jews considers Israel to be alien if not malignant.
Rawidowicz was concerned that Israelis would deny their Jewish identity. In fact, Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish identity are more central to Israel today than under Labor Zionist rule. The Jewish world has undergone a rapid transformation in which the name “Israel” for the Jewish state is proper because the State of Israel is the political, religious, cultural and demographic center of world Jewry.
All of the correspondence cited in this essay can be found in State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity by Simon Rawidowicz (1986). The translation from Hebrew is by Benjamin Ravid).
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.