Ben-Gurion, Zionism, and democracy

During the acrimonious debate over the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, opponents claimed it was defective because it didn’t mention “democracy” or “equality,” concepts that are found implicitly or explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948. Here is the relevant passage from that Declaration:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

“What the hell,” stormed Tzipi Livni, “has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got against the Declaration of Independence?” Members of what was then her party waved copies of the Declaration for emphasis.

Supporters of the law argued that it was not necessary to add such a reference to the new Basic Law, because the concepts were enshrined in other Basic Laws, and this law was intended to explicate the idea of a Jewish state – something that also appears explicitly in the Declaration.

The tension between the Jewishness of the state and the commitment to democratic governance and equal rights for all its citizens, some 21% of whom today are not Jewish, is a tightrope that Israel has been walking since 1948. It isn’t made easier by those who oppose the very idea of a Jewish state, like the Arab intellectuals who want to convert it into a binational state, the secular Left that would like it to become a democratic “state of all its citizens” like the US, or former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who thinks that the meaning of “Jewish state” is just “democratic state.” The Nation-State Law can be seen as an attempt to maintain the balance that these forces would destroy.

In my opinion, there has to be a priority assigned to the concept of “Jewish state” to prevent it from disappearing under the waves of equality and democracy. And to my surprise, apparently the man who proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel in 1948 agreed with me (h/t: Lise Rosenthal).

In 1929, David Ben-Gurion made an agreement between his Zionist and socialist Histadrut Hatzionit (Zionist Union) and various non-Zionist and non-socialist Jewish organizations, particularly in the US, to form the Sochnut Hayehudit, the Jewish Agency that would represent the Jewish people of the world in the creation of the Jewish state. He was not at all happy about the compromises that were required, but he needed the money, particularly from the American capitalists – his bitter ideological enemies. Left-leaning but careful historian Tom Segev, in his book David Ben-Gurion: A State At All Costs (Keter, 2018 – Hebrew, pp. 219-220), wrote:

Ben-Gurion declared: “My heart isn’t at peace with the [Jewish] Agency […] but regardless, we accept the Agency because we believe that Eretz Yisrael will be built by a partnership of all the Jewish forces. Democracy for us isn’t an empty phrase, but we have a principle more holy than democracy, and that is the building of Eretz Yisrael by Jews.” Thus, democracy joined socialism and peace: in the ideological world of Ben-Gurion, like them it was graded below the objectives of Zionism [my translation and emphasis. The quotation is from Ben-Gurion’s diary, 26 December 1930].

Some people might find this surprising, just like they find Rabin’s real opinion about a sovereign Palestinian state surprising (he was opposed to it). But that’s the way political winners write history: they put their words in the mouths of a people’s heroes.

There is only one Jewish state. There are numerous versions of the democratic “state of all its citizens” in the world, but as time goes by and it becomes harder and harder for Jews to live in them, we are finding that Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and other Zionists were correct: a Jewish state is essential for the survival of the Jewish people. It was essential to create it then, and it is essential to preserve it now.

Ben-Gurion was single-minded and ruthless toward all of his opponents. I’ve criticized him harshly for his actions toward his right-wing rivals before and after the founding of the state; it was unfortunate that dedicated Jewish patriots like Begin were cut out of political life in this country for so long. I would have preferred that the state had been built according to the principles of Jabotinsky, rather than Marx.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t agree with Ben-Gurion more about the importance of “the principle more holy than democracy.” Today that’s the preservation of the state – as a Jewish state.

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