The Nation That Was Erased and Forgotten

Is Israel a Jewish nation or a Hebrew nation? And what is the difference between the Jewish community and the Jewish people? A look at the Declaration of Independence offers clear and telling distinctions.

Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil
Moshe Sharett signing the Declaration of Independence.
Moshe Sharett signing the Declaration of Independence.Credit: Frank Scherschel / GPO
Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil

In all the discussions of the “Jewish nation-state law,” including the references to the Declaration of Independence – whose spirit and language is ostensibly contradicted by the nation-state law – one “nation” that is mentioned in the Declaration and plays a central role in it has been forgotten. The historical part of the Declaration of Independence tells the story of the “Jewish people,” but when the historical survey reached World War II, the role of the 1.5 million Jews who wore the uniforms of the Allied armies is forgotten, and the paragraph dedicated to that war says the following:

“In the Second World War, the Hebrew community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.” (Note: The official English translation of the Declaration of Independence did away with the terms “Hebrew nation” and “Hebrew state”; see final paragraphs below.)

In other words, it was not the “Jewish people” who earned the right to be a partner in the family of nations, but the “Hebrew community of Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel].” And who were those who convened to declare the founding of the state, according to the Declaration? “We, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Hebrew community of Eretz Israel and the Zionist movement.” Not “representatives of the Jewish people.”

Only toward the end of the Declaration does it become clear that, in the opinion of its authors, there are two nations that are not necessarily one entity. The “Jewish nation,” which includes Jews from all over the world, and the “Hebrew nation,” to which the Jews living in the country belong. It is worthwhile to cite these two paragraphs in full:

“We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the independent Hebrew people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

“We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding, and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”

The distinction between the Jews (Diaspora Jews) and the (Hebrew-speaking) Jews who lived in Eretz Israel was common in Palestine during the British Mandate period, far beyond the circles of the “Young Hebrews” (the official name of the movement better known by its derogatory name, “Canaanites”). In 1933, David Ben-Gurion wrote from abroad to his friends in Mapai (the forerunner of Labor) in Palestine, “There is a Hebrew nation and there are national desires; there is an abundance of dedicated and passionate youth, and there are creative powers; but the flag has been folded and stained, and all we can do is roll out the flag once again, carry it aloft, and with faith and pride – and the Jewish people will gather under it.”

In the 1941 pamphlet “The Principles of Revival,” written by Lehi (the right-wing underground organization known as the Stern Gang), only the “Hebrew nation” is mentioned. In September 1944, Etzel (another right-wing underground group), under the leadership of Menachem Begin, distributed a poster protesting the British Mandatory government’s prohibition against blowing the shofar on Yom Kippur at the Western Wall. The poster was headlined, “A first call to the Hebrew nation in Zion.” Although the British were restricting a Jewish religious ritual, the word “Jewish” does not appear on the poster at all.

The state that same Hebrew nation wanted to establish was also a “Hebrew state.” In 1937, Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky published a book called: “A Hebrew State.” A popular slogan among the Zionist public in the country in the 1940s was, “A Hebrew state, free immigration” (it rhymes in Hebrew). After the vote in the United States on November 29, 1947, in favor of partition, the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth sported a short and festive headline, “A Hebrew State.”

Prof. Yoram Shachar, who researched the drafts of the Declaration of Independence, published his findings in an essay called “Israel as a two-parent state: The Hebrew community and the Zionist movement in the Declaration of Independence” (Zmanim, Tel Aviv 2007). In the first drafts, as Prof. Shachar noticed, only the “Jewish nation” or “the Jewish community in Eretz Israel” were mentioned. The one who introduced the wording “the Hebrew nation” was Moshe Sharett, and he did so almost at the last moment, in the wee hours of Thursday May 13, 1948.

The two major alterations by Sharett were changing the identity of the Yishuv (the community in Eretz Israel) from “Jewish” to “Hebrew,” and the addition of a role for the Jews in the Diaspora and the entire world. A perusal of the rest of the document demonstrates a precise definition of identities in Sharett’s language. The nation as a whole is called “Jewish,” while the part actually living in Eretz Israel is called “Hebrew.”

The “Hebrew nation,” the fetus that had just been born as a political entity, began to die even before the reading of the Declaration was completed. “Anyone who holds the text of the Declaration before him,” wrote Shachar, “and compares what is written in it to the voice of Ben-Gurion in the original recording, will discover that Ben-Gurion calls on ‘all the neighboring countries and their people’ to cooperate with ‘the independent Jewish nation in its land’ – while the text says ‘the independent Hebrew nation in its land.’”

Prof. Shachar doesn’t know whether this was a mistake on Ben-Gurion’s part or was done deliberately. Baruch Saltzman – whose father, Lucien Saltzman, did the original official recording of the ceremony – noticed the difference between the written and recorded versions many years ago. That was why he searched the archives for the three pages from which Ben-Gurion read the declaration, in the hope of discovering whether he had replaced “Hebrew” nation with “Jewish” nation in the written version, or did it as he was reading, inadvertently or deliberately. Saltzman has been unsuccessful thus far.

In any case, had Prof. Shachar examined the official translations of the Declaration of Independence, he would have discovered that the “Hebrew nation” was totally erased from them. Wherever the Hebrew version says “the Hebrew community,” the English translation has “the Jewish community,” and in the Arabic translation “Jewish society” – and where the Hebrew has “the Hebrew nation,” the English and Arabic have “the Jewish nation.” These are the official versions that appear today on the websites of the Knesset and the Foreign Ministry.

If that isn’t enough, “the independent Hebrew nation” that appears in the Hebrew version of the Declaration of Independence becomes, in English, the “sovereign Jewish nation.” This symbolic change, from “independent” to “sovereign,” was designed – apparently deliberately – to signal to Jews abroad that no attempt is being made here to become severed from them in order to establish a national independent existence of the Hebrew-speaking community living in Eretz Israel, and separate from them.

In Hebrew there was no need to “amend” the wording of the Declaration and eliminate “the Hebrew nation.” This nation, which today would certainly call itself “the Israeli nation,” rejects its independent existence and prefers to shelter under the wings of “the Jewish people” – with all the negative and dangerous implications of that for Israeli society, which, in its own eyes and outwardly, defines itself as the vanguard of a worldwide Jewish entity.

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