Ben-Gurion’s Opposition to a Written Constitution

Nir Kedar. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 12, Issue 1. March 2013.

The foundation of Israel gave new significance to the heated dispute over modern Jewish identity. Accordingly, the Israeli constitutional debate, waged during the first two years of independence, threatened to become a focus of that cultural discussion. The article discusses David Ben-Gurion’s fear that the ideological and cultural argument regarding the content of the constitution would turn into a futile cultural polemic that would divert Israeli society from the realization of Zionism. The first part of the article describes the struggle to enact a constitution in Israel, and reviews Ben-Gurion’s efforts to thwart this move. The second part demonstrates that his aversion to debate was not merely a manifestation of impatience but a sincere expression of his civic ideas. The third part analyses in detail his concern for the realization of Zionism and for the processes of society and state building as a central reason for his opposition to the constitution. The fourth and concluding part highlights Ben-Gurion’s opposition to turning the Israeli constitutional dispute into a vehicle for ideological and cultural arguments about the nature and character of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

David Ben-Gurion’s opposition to the enactment of the Israeli constitution is well known. In the present article, I focus on one central argument of the Prime Minister against the constitution: his fear that the ideological and cultural argument regarding the content of the constitution would turn into a futile cultural polemic, similar to the one that had plagued the Zionist movement at the turn of the century: a Kulturkampf that would divert Israeli society from the realization of Zionism and from the momentous enterprise of society and state building, and hurl it into a whirlpool of political and cultural identity disputes and struggles.

The foundation of Israel bestowed new significance on the heated dispute over modern Jewish identity. Accordingly, the Israeli constitutional debate, waged during the first two years of independence, threatened to become a focus of that cultural discussion. In the course of various debates, Ben-Gurion repeatedly warned that Israelis should concentrate on the processes of society and state building and not deal with futile identity quibbles. “It is an empty argument that will take up our time in the Knesset and the press for nothing, and will divert us from the path of [the Zionist] enterprise,” said Ben-Gurion.

To many of his contemporaries, as well as to many researchers, this position appeared to be an excuse for distancing the Prime Minister from the “danger” inherent in a constitution. For example, in a challenge in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Yohanan Bader a member of Ḥerut, commented that with Ben-Gurion “there is no need for a constitution when we are planting trees; we must wait until the trees are grown.” Academic research in general also maintains that Ben-Gurion opposed enacting a constitution primarily because of short-term, practical party interests: the unwillingness of the government to limit itself by constitutional norms and Ben-Gurion’s unwillingness to confront the religious parties or to damage his coalition in some other way. Moreover, Ben-Gurion’s fear of a cultural debate does not appear convincing because during his tenure he was at the centre of several bitter polemics concerning the identity of society in the nascent Jewish state. Furthermore, late in his life, Ben-Gurion was so central to the Jewish-Israeli cultural debate that a few researchers even regarded him as an advocate of Aḥad Ha’am’s approach. According to this opinion, Aḥad Ha’am’s spiritual/cultural Zionist ideas were manifested in Ben-Gurion’s messianic rhetoric and in his obsession with the shaping of Israeli Jewish culture and consciousness.

Notwithstanding, my argument here is that Ben-Gurion opposed a written constitution mainly because of his fear of a Kulturkampf that would damage the realization of Zionism. This was not a pretext designed to help him avoid a constitution but a sincere position rooted in his conception of Zionism and his civic ideas. First, Ben-Gurion’s position expressed the longstanding opposition of the Zionist movement to the spiritual Zionism of Aḥad Ha’am; and the Zionist movement’s preference for the creation of a Jewish political-legal framework over the cultural discussion of the Jewish people’s nature and identity.

Second, Ben-Gurion’s opposition expressed his thought, encapsulated in his idea of Mamlakhtiyut (which I translate here as ‘civicism’). His main concern was that the Jews and the young Israeli society lacked civic consciousness and responsibility. He believed that Jews do not know how to live as “real” citizens, committed to the public good (the res-publica), engaged in civic life and valuing law and order. Given the lack of a Jewish civic tradition and the heated Israeli political debate, Ben-Gurion feared that the argument over the enactment of a constitution would deteriorate into a cultural dispute that would emphasize––and even expand––the gaps and distinctions between social groups and endanger Israel’s fledging democracy. He therefore stressed the legal characteristic of the constitution as a document that set the structure of the regime and enshrined human rights, while downplaying its symbolic aspect and blocking the many attempts to use the constitutional debate as a platform to discuss the identity and character of the young Jewish state and even of the post-Holocaust Jewish world.

The polemic surrounding the constitution indicates that Ben-Gurion remained loyal to the core ideas of “political Zionism” (the main Zionist standpoint since the time of Herzl), preferring the political and legal realization over the cultural debate. It is true that throughout his tenure he actively participated in the ongoing discussions about Jewish national culture in Israel, but at the same time he insisted on attending first and foremost to the state’s political and legal framework, and vigorously opposed the attempts to enshrine a definition of Jewish or Israeli identity in formal legal documents or turn the legislative processes into dangerous culture wars.

The Debate Over the Enactment of a Constitution in the Early Years of Israel

It was clear to the Zionist leadership (and to the elite of the Jewish community in the yishuv) that a constitution would be enacted with the establishment of the state. The unfolding of the idea of a constitution in Israel, from the state’s foundation up to the Knesset’s decision in 1950 to enact the constitution one section at a time (called “Basic Laws”), has been described repeatedly. Below I review the main points in order to illuminate the context of Ben-Gurion’s opposition to it.

The UN resolution 181 of 29 November 1947, which ended the British Mandate in Palestine and decreed the partition of the land into two states, stated in its Section 10 that “the Constituent Assembly of each state [Jewish and Arab] shall draft a democratic constitution for its state.” Indeed, the State of Israel, which intended to observe the UN resolution as closely as possible, announced in its Declaration of Independence that “the elected and regular authorities of the state [shall be established] according to the constitution that shall be drafted by the elected Constituent Assembly no later than 1 October, 1948.” But it is not necessary to seek a positive legal source for the commitment to enact a constitution in order to learn about the Israeli obligation to make such a move. Even before the UN resolution and the Declaration of Independence, the accepted assumption of the Zionist and yishuv elite was that a constitution would be enacted with the establishment of the state.

Immediately following the UN resolution, the Jewish community began to organize the establishment of the state, examining inter alia the question of the future constitution. Eventually, the task of drafting a constitution was assigned to Dr Leo Kohn, an expert in constitutional law, who had written a great deal about the 1922 constitution of the Irish Free State. Kohn’s draft was also the basis of the work of the Constitutional Committee of the Provisional State Council (the 37-member legislative body that was instituted officially with the establishment of the state).

The first controversy regarding the constitution arose in 1949 during the debate in the Provisional State Council about the upcoming elections, the first ones in the history of the young country. According to the UN decision, these elections were supposed to be for the Constituent Assembly, that is, for the body whose function it was to draft the constitution. But the State Council decided that the body to be elected would be a parliament to all intents and purposes, that inter alia would also have the authority to enact a constitution. And this is what happened. On 16 February 1949, two days after its convocation, the elected Constituent Assembly accepted the Transition Act, 1949, which decreed in its Section 1 that “the Parliament of the State of Israel shall be called the ‘Knesset.’ The Constituent Assembly shall be called ‘The First Knesset.'” By this, the idea of a Constituent Assembly whose one and only function was to draft a constitution became defunct. Everyone understood already then that the double function of the Knesset represented a delay in the legislation of the constitution, because a preponderance of the Knesset’s effort would be diverted to routine legislation required by the new state, and the Knesset would not become available anytime soon for enacting a constitution.

From that point onward, both the debate in the Knesset and the public debate focused on whether it was necessary to legislate a formal written constitution, or whether it was better to postpone the enactment of the constitution and in the meantime settle for enacting a series of basic laws that would regulate the operation of government authorities and the other substantive issues that were important to Israeli society, such as immigration and citizenship. This intensive discussion took place in the Knesset’s plenary sessions and in its Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, at meetings within and between parties, and among the public at large. Over time, the debate became more heated. Supporters of the immediate drafting of a written constitution argued that beyond the state’s legal international and internal obligations, and beyond the declarative and educational importance of the constitution, it was essential also for the creation of a stable democratic regime and for guaranteeing the rights of minorities in Israel, especially given the extensive power of the ruling party, Mapai. By contrast, opponents of the enactment of a written constitution argued that the Declaration of Independence was the declarative document required with the establishment of the state, that human rights and the structure of the regime could be guaranteed by means of regular laws as well, and that the enactment of an entrenched constitution was at odds with the idea of democracy, and was liable to endanger the ability of the Knesset and of Israeli society to cope with the great challenges lying ahead.

Eventually, on 13 July 1950, the Knesset adopted the proposal of MK Izhar Harari of the Progressive Party, whereby

The First Knesset charges the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to draft a proposal for a constitution for the state. The constitution shall be compiled one section at a time in such a manner that each section shall constitute a basic portion on its own. The sections shall be brought before the Knesset … and all the sections together shall combine to form the Constitution of the State of Israel.

Ben-Gurion’s opposition to the enactment of a written constitution in the early years of statehood followed from reasons rooted in his Zionist and civic conceptions. At the outset, it is important to note that the historical sources indicate that he was not opposed to a constitution in principle, but to one that would be too entrenched and rigid. Despite his support for anchoring the structure of the regime and human rights in a written law, he opposed the entrenchment of the constitution because as a democrat he believed that it was inappropriate and illogical to tie down future generations by an entrenched law.

But his two main arguments against enacting a written constitution were circumstantial, derived from his fear that the legislation of a constitution under the given conditions in Israel would damage Israeli society. First, in light of reality in the country, he was afraid that rather than strengthening and uniting Israeli society, the constitution would become a point of contention. Contrary to most participants in the debate, Ben-Gurion insisted on regarding the constitution not as a programmatic credo, but as a legal document that regulated the structure of the regime and human rights. He was concerned that the cultural dispute would give a voice to sectarian and anti-republican tendencies that could damage the creation of civic affinity, and divert the discussion from its universal civic and legal aspect to a culture and identity war that was liable to deteriorate into civil war.

Second, Ben-Gurion deeply feared that the constitutional polemic would harm the realization of Zionism. His concern derived from a civic approach that considered the creation of a politico-legal framework (a state) a necessary condition for the establishment of an advanced model society and for the development of an advanced Jewish culture. Ultimately, Ben-Gurion preferred the creation of an independent state over a cultural debate about the questions of “who is a Jew?”, “what is Judaism?” and “what is a Jewish state?”. This concern is at the heart of my article.

Ben-Gurion’s Aversion to Futile Debates

Ben-Gurion closely followed the lively polemics in the Israeli press and in the street in the matter of the constitution, and certainly the debates that took place within the various political parties and in the Knesset. It was sufficient for him to hear the arguments in his own party and in parliament to be appraised of the exaggerated emotionalism that accompanied these debates and of the fact that members of the various parties regarded the constitution less as a legal document than a credo expressing their world view. It was Ben-Gurion himself who, in those years, criticized the debate surrounding the constitution, which in his opinion assumed an inappropriately pretentious and even religious character.

Already at the end of 1948, in a debate in the Provisional State Council about the importation of meat, Ben-Gurion voiced his fear of exaggerated argumentativeness that was liable to deteriorate into a culture war. He did not directly address the question of the constitution, but he clarified the difficulty of setting formal legal and constitutional norms in a period of demographic and other upheavals.

Unfortunately, in this matter [the importation of meat] Mr. Shapira [Minister of Absorption and Health on behalf of the Religious Front] involved a second issue, which is perhaps more important in itself than that of kosher meat. But many, and perhaps all of us, think that this is not the time to decide this issue, which is that of the relationship between state and religion … And we, in any case many of us … believe that although this is a very important question, there are at present much more urgent matters before us, and they must be solved before this Kulturkampf takes place in our midst … I doubt whether we are allowed, now when we are in the midst of a bitter existential struggle (and I am not sure that our existential struggle will cease even if this [1948] war soon formally ends) to rule in the matter of religion and state. We are facing the difficult tasks of a large immigration, of settling the conquered territories, of housing, and the like. Is this the right time to argue among ourselves matters of religion and state? There is no doubt that this is an important issue, and the Jewish people will resolve it when the appropriate time comes. The Jewish people are not yet in the Land of Israel, and the assignment of our generation is to bring them to Israel. When the Jewish people arrive, they will determine the final form of the regimen of our lives in Israel, if there is a final form to it at all. For the time being, let us deal with what joins us all together.

Ben-Gurion recognized that religion and tradition played a central role in shaping Israeli identity, including that of secular Jews. The political and legal discussions surrounding the Women’s Equal Rights Bill and the Inheritance Bill, which were drafted during that period in the Ministry of Justice, the bitter dispute surrounding the drafting of yeshiva students and of religious girls into the IDF, and particularly the furious polemics about the education of immigrant children in the transit camps and the creation of the state educational system––all these made it clear to Ben-Gurion that the attitude of Israeli society toward matters of religion and tradition was complex, and that therefore the political and public debates about these matters were difficult. For example, in the course of these debates it was necessary to take into account not only the religious parties but also the public at large, religious and secular, as well as world Jewry with its various religious factions, whose complex attitudes in matters of religion, tradition, culture and identity were well known to Ben-Gurion. But precisely because of the sensitivity of cultural and identity problems, he emphasized the danger of attempting to solve them in a formal, legal, way. He preferred to reach flexible arrangements that enabled the fulfilment of the Zionist project, while continuing immigration and the building of society and state, and inculcating ideas of civic partnership and responsibility among Israelis.

About six months later, Ben-Gurion spoke in a similar way to members of his Knesset faction:

Do we need yet another metaphysical argument … with Mapam and Ḥerut [the opposition parties from left and right] and with Yitzḥak-Meir Levin [leader of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel Party]? Do we have so much time on our hands? Don’t we have more important things to do?

About a month later, he reiterated these ideas before the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee when summarizing his opposition to legislating a constitution:

The matter of the constitution will divert us onto an entirely different track. We like theoretical arguments very much: one will show that he is loyal to the dignity of the Jewish people, another that he is loyal to the socialist revolution, a third that he is loyal to popular democracy, and yet another that he is loyal to the pioneering spirit. This is an empty debate that will take up our time in the Knesset and in the press in vain and will divert us from practical enterprise. And yet, if the majority thinks otherwise, the majority shall act as it sees fit.

Ben-Gurion abhorred political debates of this sort. Naturally, he wrote and spoke extensively, and was never tired of tedious preaching and endless debates with politicians and intellectuals. He also believed in the importance of ideological arguments and devoted long hours to debates, to an extensive correspondence and to the formulation of programmatic documents even when he was already a busy Prime Minister. Furthermore, as a devout democrat, Ben-Gurion believed that “freedom and the fulfillment of our pioneering mission are not possible without freedom of criticism, without democratic elections, without open debate,” and therefore he supported the existence of an assertive opposition and free parliamentary debate. For example, he said in the Knesset in August 1949 during the debates about the armistice agreements:

I am not one of the pessimists who deny the value of debates in the Knesset because it is known in advance what the opposition will say with regard to each and every question, and what the coalition will answer, and how the two sides will vote, and because in this House there is no possibility of influencing or persuading one another. Even if this is true … there is an educational value to these debates. I am certain that the nation listens to them and examines them, and it is good that the nation should hear the criticism as well as the propaganda, how we came to this point, by what means, in what manner, and why. And all of us should confidently place the judgment in the hands of the people.

Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion remained a man of action, a modernist revolutionary who believed in people’s sovereignty to legislate for themselves and to shape their lives in practice. He therefore believed that ideas must be carried out and values expressed in action. His Zionist faith extended not only to the ability of Jews to shape their lives and their future, but to the practical realization of this faith: “There is nothing in Zionism except what is achieved in its concrete realization,” said Ben-Gurion repeatedly. His distaste for long-winded debates was not only a manifestation of impatience but mainly a sincere expression of his civic ideas: he feared that the passion of many Israelis for tiresome arguments was the result of a lack of understanding of the purpose of political and legal institutions, civic consciousness and responsibility. He was afraid that this lack of civic––mamlakhti––sense would endanger the functioning of the Israeli political institutions and ultimately threaten the realization of Zionism.

An example is a meeting of the management of the Jewish Agency, convened in August 1948 to discuss the first Zionist congress to be held after the establishment of the state, and the relationship between the state and the World Zionist Organization (hereinafter WZO). When Ben-Gurion realized that the debate was about the order of the speakers at the conference he exploded with a furious speech, using words reminiscent of his arguments in the constitutional debate:

We will disappoint the Zionist movement and miss our target if suddenly we begin to philosophize and elucidate “who am I and what am I.” We are facing a practical matter that we must solve … A Zionist movement is organized by action and not by arguments about its function.

Ben-Gurion spoke similarly toward the end of 1958 during the Knesset debate about changing the electoral system: as long as Jews lived “outside the framework of national reality and decision making, their arguments and factions and antagonisms were detached from reality and abstract. In the diaspora we could split hairs and argue about a pie in the sky.” But the Israeli parliament was not asked to make pronouncements or rule on theoretical and abstract matters or on principles, but to deal with practical social and political questions and to decide about them one way or another. For this reason, Ben-Gurion preferred the Anglo-Saxon single-member district plurality voting system over the state-wide proportional system used in Israel. He believed that, contrary to the proportional method that encourages sterile political debate and arguments “in principle” between the splinter groups of various political parties, the plurality system arouses relevant discussion of important issues, and thus educates toward active civic responsibility.

Similarly, Ben-Gurion deemed the constitutional debate to be too abstract and academic. Although it was not unimportant, the associated hazards were greater than its benefits. The emotional statements of the constitution’s supporters from within his party and outside it only reinforced his impression that to a great extent these were lofty, albeit empty, words. In the best case, it was a debate that replaced action and threatened to divert Israeli society from the path of realization (hagshama) and building. To clarify this point to his colleagues in Mapai, he presented an analogy of the debate about the constitution with talmudic casuistry (pilpul), and particularly emphasized Ḥerut leader, Menachem Begin’s central place in the debate. The labour movement considered Begin at the time to be a person of empty boasting with no proof of action or even any consistent policy behind it:

Debate about a constitution will take years, keeping all of Israel and the diaspora busy. If a word appears about freedom of conscience, the argument will erupt about this freedom of conscience as opposed to freedom of religion or as part of freedom of religion. In the entire Jewish world, instead of concern for what needs to be done, Jews can argue about the constitution … This is liable to hurt us a great deal. There will be beautiful words and phrases by Pinhas Lavon [a supporter of the constitution within Mapai] and by Moshe Sneh [one of the leaders of Mapam], but they could also come from Begin, whose powers of discourse are not insignificant.

Thus, while understanding the political and civic importance of parliamentary and legal debate Ben-Gurion was averse to legal (as to talmudic) casuistry. He believed that this was sterile argumentation, unsuited for a sovereign state, and that it distanced the citizens from the principles that underlie modern law and politics.

The existence of the State of Israel depends first and foremost on security, immigration, and settlement. Only if we succeed in these three and we fortify with all our might the security, immigration, and settlement, will the State of Israel be established,

stressed Ben-Gurion in the Knesset. He added that it was fit to regulate these three topics by positive legal means, but the debates about the legal regulation should not overshadow the enterprise.

A year ago we were struggling to secure our destiny. Last year it was clear. Cohorts of Arabs were poised to slaughter us … This year we are fighting for our survival no less than last year. And exactly as it would have been insane during the time of the Ten-Day battle [in the 1948 War] if the State Council had debated the constitution, the same is true now.

Ben-Gurion did not spare examples in order to illustrate to his audiences his claim that although the constitutional-political “framework” of the state already existed, Israel was still in the process of its birth. This is why at the cabinet meeting discussing the constitution and at a meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Ben-Gurion devoted most of his time to a description of a tour he had made in the Negev, to illustrate for his audiences the impressive achievements and also the many things still remaining to be done, as well as the great efforts that needed to be invested in the matter. His sense of urgency, said Ben-Gurion, derived from his belief

that we are still in the period of the establishment of the state … It is not only from an international political point of view that the state has not yet been established. A state of 700,000 people, or one million, is not a viable state. From the point of view of the basic assumption of a unit that can form a more or less viable state, we represent here 7% of the nation. This is not a state if only 7% of the nation is present in it, and if half of its territory is completely deserted. These things, which are the foundations of the state (and not formal declarations or even the law on the establishment of the state, and not UN acceptance), these basic things will require great efforts of us, and in my opinion they are central.

Recall that Ben-Gurion’s position appeared to many of his contemporaries, and to later scholars as well, to be an excuse intended to eliminate the danger inherent in the constitution, or simply as an expression of pragmatism. But Ben-Gurion’s reasons for his opposition to the constitution were not a pretext in any way. Indeed, his position expressed in practice Zionist policy since the days of Ḥovevei Zion and Herzl. It was also consistent with the position of the Ministry of Justice and of the legal elite in Israel (and was, in practice, the expression of this position), which refrained from explicit mention of the Jewish identity and culture of the State of Israel in its statutes until the beginning of the 1980s.

The Zionist Roots of Ben-Gurion’s Fear of a Kulturkampf

Ben-Gurion’s position in the early constitutional debate is based on the fundamental Zionist decision in favour of obtaining a politico-legal framework for the Jewish people, and against the factions demanding that the Jewish national movement focus on spiritual and cultural changes required in the modern Jewish world. The majority of the Zionist movement bitterly opposed Aḥad Ha’am’s spiritual cultural approach to Zionism, as well as the cultural demands voiced from within the WZO: the demand for “cultural work” (also known as the “culture polemic”) and the better formulated demands by the “democratic faction” to confront the educational and cultural challenges that bewilder modern Jews at present. Although the main objective of Zionism was the preservation of Judaism (to use Aḥad Ha’am’s formulation), at a very early stage the Zionist movement rejected the cultural, “spiritual” debate and primarily declined the formal attempts, including the legal ones, to define Judaism, the Jewish people, or Jewish culture (and subsequently Israeli culture). Ben-Gurion’s struggle to prevent the constitutional debate from turning into a latter-day cultural polemic followed that tradition.

Zionism was born out of the belief that without statehood, which would provide Jews with some degree of self-determination, no Jewish culture could flourish over time. Reality in Europe showed that even in places where Jews had achieved emancipation and equality, it would be impossible to ensure the long-term existence of Jewish culture and its resistance to depletion and assimilation. It was even less possible to ensure the future of Jewish existence, both physical and cultural, in places in which Jews had been persecuted. The Zionist solution was based on the effort to establish an independent state, or at least sovereignty of a lesser degree, in which modern Jewish culture would be able to exist freely over many generations. To this end, from its inception, Zionism focused all its energies and resources on the creation of statehood for Jews and the building of a society upon that statehood. At the end of the nineteenth century, there was still some tension between the Herzl-inspired Zionism that emphasized the creation of a politico-legal framework, and Ḥovevei Zion and the Zionist labour movement, proponents of practical Zionism who emphasized the building of society. Over the years, however, the two factions united to form a single synthetic political Zionist ideology. But even in the years of “tension,” all the factions were united against Aḥad Ha’am’s spiritual-cultural Zionism.

Aḥad Ha’am pessimistically concluded that the political project that Zionism sought to achieve was not feasible because of the conditions in the land and the situation of the Jews in the diaspora, and that at best a narrow Jewish presence with limited sovereignty could be created in Palestine. Such a body could not form a centre of attraction or a haven for masses of Jews, but might become a cultural lighthouse that would ease the tension between the desire to preserve Jewish culture, on the one hand, and the aspiration to assimilate in the modern world, on the other. Therefore, Aḥad Ha’am sought to begin the Zionist revolution from the inside, that is, from the shaping of a modern Jewish culture that would preserve the spiritual characteristics of Judaism but adapt them to the modern world, for example, primarily by their secularization. This position, which attracted many intellectuals, and continues to do so to this day, was rejected in its entirety by the Zionist majority already at the end of the nineteenth century. Herzl and his supporters rejected it, as did the leaders of Ḥovevei Zion, members of the labour movement, and even the leaders of the religious Mizraḥi movement. Aḥad Ha’am’s cultural ideal was also rejected by Herzl’s heir––synthetic Zionism led by Chaim Weizmann and the labour movement––as well as by revisionist Zionism, and it remained marginal after the establishment of Israel. As many have noted previously, Israel’s founding fathers were much more influenced by Micha Yosef Berdyczewski’s vitalism than by Aḥad Ha’am’s intellectualism. But the main reason for the Zionist rejection of Aḥad Ha’am was not his controversial philosophical roots, but the belief shared by most Zionists that his solution endangered the Zionist project.

Spiritual Zionism was also considered to be hopeless because, contrary to Aḥad Ha’am’s opinion, a cultural renaissance alone could not rescue Judaism from its predicament, and certainly not the Jews from theirs. The majority of Zionists believed that there was no future for Jewish culture without the framework of a sovereign state that would allow it to flourish, and without an aware and educated civil society that would support the national framework and strengthen it. What was the point of endlessly debating the questions of Jewish culture when there was no institutional, social, and political guarantee that would ensure its existence? A discussion of this sort, as Ben-Gurion said during the Knesset debate about changing the voting system, was analogous to sterile talmudic casuistry.

According to most Zionists, the cultural lure of the belief that it was possible to preserve everything that is good and beautiful in Judaism and also shape a new, modern, and enlightened Judaism to bestow upon the Jewish masses, concealed the fact that this was an obstacle course with an unclear route and destination. It was not clear what Jewish culture was, what should be preserved and what should be discarded, or what the objective was of this cultural contemplation. Zionist leaders knew that cultural Zionism would draw away the precious resources of the Jewish people, lead to a culture war, and even threaten the unity of the Zionist movement and its ability to carry out the monumental tasks before it. The dominant Zionist position was that the culture of the Jewish state would be Jewish by definition, as most of its citizens would be Jewish and because the national framework would express and support the culture of the Jewish majority. This was also the reason for the failure of “cultural” attempts to forge a modern Hebrew-Jewish law. The Zionist, and later Israeli, elite preferred to adopt English law rather than taking the treacherous path of carving an original “Hebrew” type of law that would express––perhaps––Jewish culture and identity. It is thus clear that Ben-Gurion’s opposition to the constitution and to the polemic attending the legislative process expressed and followed the policy of “classic” Zionism.

True, Ben-Gurion evinced some Aḥad Ha’am-like cultural tendencies. For example, he regarded Zionism as a comprehensive revolution in Jewish existence, a social, economic, cultural, and civic revolution, and believed that although the Jewish state was an important Zionist objective, it was primarily a means for the advancement of the overall Jewish revolution. Moreover, he understood that a developed civic-republican consciousness cannot be separated from national and cultural sentiments. Ben-Gurion was indeed a republican who called for the inculcation of a civic (mamlakhti) affinity, that is, a connection that binds together all citizens of the state by virtue of their citizenship and of their mutual understanding that they must nurture the public space in which they live. But like the proponents of cultural Zionism, he understood well that no civic affinity could develop in Israel separated from national-cultural ties in which Jewish religion and tradition (including secular Judaism) played an important role. It is doubtful whether there was another leader in Israel who was similarly involved in the argument about Jewish identity and consciousness and who endeavoured to shape a modern Jewish Israeli identity as did Ben-Gurion. He organized conferences on this subject, argued about it in the daily press and in periodicals, corresponded and met with intellectuals and with youth interested in the topic, and pressed the Ministry of Education to design a programme for the study of Jewish tradition. Ben-Gurion also massively used messianic rhetoric, echoing Aḥad Ha’am’s Volkgeist and national vocational tone.

Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion’s conduct, his messianic rhetoric, and his deep faith in the need to shape a modern Jewish culture for the nation being formed in Israel caused some researchers to identify him as a follower of Aḥad Ha’am. Thus, for example, Moshe Berent claimed that “what Ben-Gurion offered as ‘Zionism’ was different from the principles of republicanism and deviated from the main tenets of classical Zionism from before independence … Especially surprising is the dominance of Aḥad Ha’am’s ideas in Ben-Gurion’s statements.” Indeed, at times Ben-Gurion appeared to be someone who had switched sides in the old Zionist cultural polemic: abandoning political Zionism to adopt the spiritual-cultural approach instead.

Yet Ben-Gurion consistently opposed Aḥad Ha’am’s cultural conclusions, being more inclined to Berdyczewski’s ideas. At the 20th Zionist Congress in 1937, during the first debate on the partition of the country and the possibility of establishing a sovereign Jewish state in the near future, Ben-Gurion said:

[W]e did not accept Aḥad Ha’am’s opinion of a spiritual centre, because the people of Israel never believed in the dualism of matter and spirit. Without the material residence of the people in the Land of Israel, its spiritual residence shall not rise and be established. The spiritual centre of the Jewish people is possible only in its earthly centre. And let us not distort our important political discussion by an empty controversy whose time has passed.

As did Herzl, Nordau, Lilienblum, Sirkin and Borokhov before him, Ben-Gurion preferred the realization of Zionism and the building of Jewish society and state over the debate about the nature of Judaism, believing that Jewish culture and identity in Israel and worldwide would be shaped not by academic debate, and certainly not by legal rules (although he did not discount their educational role) but primarily by life in common. This is what would bring about mutual acquaintance between Jewish groups, shape common values and interests, and most important, develop reciprocal relations of friendship, responsibility, and solidarity. For example, in 1949 Ben-Gurion responded to the philosopher Hugo Bergmann who was wondering (with echoes of Aḥad Ha’am) what the humanistic objective of the state would be and what it would contribute to world Jewry:

The building of the state is both material (economic) and spiritual (ethical-social). I do not believe that our burning question is what we will contribute to Scandinavian Jewry. Let them come here and create the new content of our lives together with us. This is the “humanistic” content required of us. If we make the lives of Jews here full, fruitful, safe, and independent, then there is a great deal of human content in what we do.

After the establishment of the state, the Israeli elite, and especially Mapai and its leader (Ben-Gurion), discovered that within the framework of the state it was even more difficult to settle ideological and cultural controversies than previously, because basic arrangements had to be anchored in legal documents, or at least in formal decisions carried out through legally binding due processes. For example, both Ben-Gurion and members of the Religious Front understood that the need for legal formalization was liable to endanger the partnership of the secular majority with the religious minority. Both sides knew that unavoidable points of friction would force one of the parties to yield. For example, the religious avoided triggering a crisis in the matter of the inheritance law (although they were successful in delaying it considerably). At the same time, the secular majority obligated itself to preserve the status quo ante in matters of religion and state (having to do with the Sabbath, the kashrut of public kitchens, and matrimonial law), and was forced to recognize the religious stream in state education, and also the ultra-Orthodox educational systems in practice. However, already the early friction between religious and secular groups made clear to both sides the difficulty of reaching a compromise and how dangerous the demand to translate political understandings into formal legal documents and procedures could be. The joint opposition of Mapai and of the Religious Front to the constitution is an example of this reciprocal understanding. The constitution was very important from the symbolic point of view, but precisely because of that it was also dangerous, as neither side wanted to see principles that were unacceptable to it enshrined in the basic law of the State of Israel.

When it became clear to Ben-Gurion that the constitution would not only fail to advance the building of society and the state but that it would become a vehicle for ideological and cultural arguments, he understood the concrete danger that the constitutional polemic held for the Zionist enterprise. This danger was no less significant than that posed by Aḥad Ha’am. In Ben-Gurion’s opinion, the danger was that the debate would divert Israeli society from the path of implementation, and waste the tremendous forces latent, in his opinion, in Israeli society and in the Jews. He believed that life in common would produce “a feeling of nationhood” and foster responsibility and partnership at the social-cultural and civic levels more than would any written constitution. Ben-Gurion worried not only about the realization of Zionism but feared also that the constitutional polemic would severely damage the institutional and civic frameworks, which he believed to be a sine qua non condition for the existence of the Jewish people and its culture.

Concluding Comments: Law, Culture, and State Building

The argument about the constitution clearly demonstrates that despite the cultural aspects of Ben-Gurion’s thinking, he remained a political Zionist, who believed that the “Jewish problem” was mainly a political problem: being in a constant situation of minority without sovereignty on a defined territory. It was a political problem that could be solved in a political manner by the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state. Political thought was indeed at the heart of his ideas. He formulated his views, using categories and terms borrowed from the political and civic fields, and shaped his policy according to these. His conception of the state, citizenship and law, and his complex attitude toward the individual’s rights and obligations to the public sphere, are fundamental ideas embedded in his thinking over the entire period of his political activity, and they appear in the entire sweep of his beliefs: from his Zionist ideology to his socialist thinking. In spite of his massive involvement in the Israeli cultural debate, Ben-Gurion’s main concern was not cultural, but rather political or civic.

Contrary to the common point of view, according to which the Israeli constitution would bind the population of the young nation and even foster national identity, Ben-Gurion believed that the enactment of a constitution might become a point of contention that would preserve and even intensify the old ideological quarrels. It would drag the country into an unnecessary Kulturkampf, and eventually deliver a significant blow to the Zionist effort of building a civil society and a state and instilling an inclusive civic consciousness. His rejection of the enactment of a constitution was the clear republican operation of a political Zionist.