The question of context and identity

An American academic and his Israeli counterpart focus on the importance of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, its debt to America’s founding fathers and why anyone should care.

John Trumbell painting 521 (photo credit: Creative commons)
John Trumbell painting 521
(photo credit: Creative commons)
Did Israel, at the very moment of its rebirth as a modern nation-state, undertake an ideological debt to the United States of America? It did, if you listen to Dr. David Armitage.
Armitage, a British-born Harvard professor of history and a widely recognized expert on the American Declaration of Independence, was in Israel last week to give the keynote speech at the “Declaration of Independence” conference held by the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya in association with Tel Aviv University.
The symposium, dedicated to exploring ideological and historical issues raised by Israel’s founding document, was the brainchild of IDC professor Dr. Yoram Shachar, Armitage’s Israeli counterpart, who specializes in the issues of identity and law that have emerged from Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The question asked by both Armitage, a foreign academic who speaks no Hebrew, and Shachar, a feisty Sabra born in the same year as the State of Israel, is simple. What does this declaration, which both contend was based on that of the United States, tell Israelis about themselves as a nation?
SITTING WITH The Jerusalem Post in the lobby of his hotel, overlooking the beach in Tel Aviv, Armitage explained that he had come on his first trip to the region to discuss “the implications of the ideology, the ideas and the document itself for contemporary Israel” from the perspective of his position “as a historian with a wider interest in political ideas” who can “put the Israeli declaration into a broader, global context.”
According to Armitage, it was “very clear” at the time of the writing of the Israeli declaration that “the main model, perhaps the only model for a declaration of independence that was available to the writers of the Israeli declaration was the American declaration.” The very first draft of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, he explained, was written by Mordechai Beham, a English-trained lawyer who “copied out first extracts from the American declaration in English and then wrote his first draft of the Israeli declaration in English and then translated it into Hebrew subsequently.”
Though there were nine different sets of drafts of the document, its very basis came from the United States.
Beham, Yoram Shachar would later elaborate, was “was the first legal advisor in the Ministry of Justice before it was formed” and had been given the impossible task of drafting a declaration within two days.
Shachar said Beham “simply broke down” at a family gathering from the stress. When he explained that he “couldn’t handle” the task, he was referred to an “American Jewish Conservative rabbi by the name of Harry Davidowitz.”
“Davidowitz just gave him a book [which contained] the main political texts of the Anglo-American world and one of them, of course, was the American Declaration of Independence,” Shachar continued.
“So Beham sat down and started copying out, by hand, the American Declaration of Independence, and it all started from there.”
According to Shachar, the “American declaration gave the Israeli declaration shape and the basic idea that a story must be told, that you cannot just have a legal, technical proclamation for a declaration of independence, you need to tell a story and you need to fill it up with big aspirations.”
While the final draft is “a very different document in [terms of] content,” with regard to the need to answer the “big questions of who are we and what are we about,” Beham “got everything right.”
FURTHER ELABORATING on this theme, Armitage explained that the American declaration had an impact in that it “had history in it as well, and those elements of history, of rights and of the legal standing of the document are all there in the Israeli declaration, but in a very different combination.”
While the American declaration emphasized the grievances of the American colonists against their king, its Israeli counterpart would instead enumerate the various legal and moral reasons for the reestablishment of a Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel.
“What the Israeli declaration has instead is a much longer history of the attachment of the Jewish people to their land, a 2,000-year history of attachment to a particular piece of territory,” he explained. “It’s a more positive claim to a particular territory, rather than a negative attack on another power.”
The difference, he believes, is that the American state was created as a reaction to British policy while Israel was founded due to a preexisting nationalism not connected to British Mandatory rule.
In fact, he ventured, the 1988 declaration of Palestinian independence issued by former Palestinian president and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat was based on the Israeli declaration for precisely the reasons that the Israeli declaration was based on the American one.
The Palestinian declaration was “quite clearly modeled on the Israeli declaration for perhaps obvious reasons, laying out a similar claim to the land, of continuity of attachment to the land and a list of legal reasons for independence,” Armitage says.
Asked why this document maintains any relevance for contemporary Israelis, Armitage explains that in order to understand this one needs “to understand different arguments about the values upon which the new Jewish state was to be founded in 1948; the audiences and the constituencies, the political constituencies to which the founders of the state were appealing.
“Though interestingly, as we discussed at the conference this week, in one of the early drafts of the Israeli Declaration of Independence the word ‘democracy’ was used as one of those fundamental values [but] was taken out later, so there is only as it were a ghost of the value of democracy in the existing Declaration of Independence.”
TAKING UP this argument, Shachar said that the real significance of the study of the Declaration of Independence, which he recommends as reading material for every citizen, is creating an understanding of the “hundreds of questions [of Israeli identity] that emerge from just a simple reading.”
“The signatories [to the declaration affirm] that they represent the Hebrew community in the Land of Israel and the Zionist movement. Reading these words is a very good starter for the question of who owns the State of Israel. Whose state is it? I think for instance it is very interesting for any Jewish person to realize that the founding fathers did not say that the state of Israel belongs to the Jews.
“It is not the ‘Jewish People’ that...founded the State of Israel. They [the founders] represent two communities that are only part of the Jewish people.Any Jewish person who is neither a Zionist nor [a local resident] – the declaration says he has no hand in the formation of the state. Now me, I don’t say that this is the correct answer, but I think it’s an excellent question that we don’t ask anymore: does Israel belong to any Jew? And at the same time: does Israel create responsibility in any Jew? Well, the Declaration of Independence says no.” Armitage also discussed one issue that has divided the state since its foundation: religion. Regarding the decision to include the phrase “Rock of Israel,” a Hebrew name for God, in the document, Armitage explains that it represented a compromise between those who wished Israel to be completely secular and those who wished to explicitly mention the deity and bring religion into the life of the state in a more prominent way. The phrase, in context, could be taken to mean either God or the land itself, and thus served as a useful compromise.
According to Shachar, however, that explanation is apocryphal. Instead, he says, “Rock of Israel” was a “translation by Beham of the divine providence that can be found at the end of the American Declaration of Independence,” a direct borrowing of rhetoric. However, the story itself does serve to illustrate Shachar’s point; that the Declaration of Independence serves to raise issues of Israeli identity and national formation that bear further thought, and that without understanding the genesis of the modern State of Israel, it will be harder to plot its future course.