Alexander Kaye. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 38, Issue 1. 2020.
In October 1971, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, David Ben-Gurion gave his last public address to a special meeting of the Knesset. Central to his speech was a metaphor from the book of Isaiah, which talks of Israel as “a light unto the nations.” For Ben-Gurion, the successes of the State of Israel were the realization of this vision. Israel’s army, agriculture and educational system, and the ties between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora would all “make possible the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the people in Israel will be a covenantal people and a light unto the nations—in other words, an exceptional people.” Ben-Gurion’s emphasis on Isaiah’s metaphor was far from unusual. He had been using the phrase “a light unto the nations” habitually for decades. In 1951, for example, in one of his earliest uses of the term, he referred to Zionism as the way for Jews to be “a light unto the nations and a salvation for our people.”
Ben-Gurion frequently infused his political rhetoric with messianic imagery, and his recurring use of the phrase “a light unto the nations” accords with that tendency. The place of this particular term, however, deserves independent investigation for two reasons. First, although Ben-Gurion used messianic language throughout his life, he did not refer to the specific term “a light unto the nations” in a positive sense until the 1950s. In fact, Ben-Gurion explicitly repudiated it in his early years and associated the phrase with his ideological enemies both within and without the Zionist movement. The turn from categorical rejection to unreserved promotion demands an explanation. The term also deserves careful attention because of the central role that it has played in modern Jewish thought. Jews of many kinds, from Zionists to communists, Reform to Orthodox, have talked about their desire to fulfill the goal of becoming a light unto the nations. The subtle divergences in the meaning of the expression among its various proponents shed light on the continuities and differences among modern Jewish ideologies. This is certainly true in the case of Ben-Gurion, whose fluctuating and innovative uses of the image of a light unto the nations allowed him to navigate delicately between modernity and traditional Judaism, between Zionism and its opponents, and between the various streams within the Zionist movement. For these reasons, this article explores the shifting meanings of the term in Zionist discourse, with a special focus on Ben-Gurion’s rhetoric, during the pivotal decade of the 1950s.
There has long been a tension in Zionist thought between the call for the Jewish nation to be morally and politically exceptional, burdened with the mission of enlightening other peoples, (“a light unto the nations”, or la-goyim,) and the desire for the Jewish nation to be unexceptional, a nation like any other, (“like all the nations”, ke-khol ha-goyim). Zionists associated the latter instinct with Biblical passages in which the Israelites demand a king to be appointed over them so that they can be “like all the nations about me.” This accorded well with the strand of Zionist ideology in which the goal of the movement was to restore the Jewish nation to sovereign political existence, and thereby to establish it as a run-of-the-mill nation, rooted in its own territory, rather than an anomalous nation with no land of its own.
In the early years of Ben-Gurion’s leadership, he firmly endorsed this stream of Zionist ideology, and unequivocally rejected the idea that the Jews should be “a light unto the nations.” The idea that Jews had a mission to enlighten others, he felt, implied that they had to justify their existence as a means to an end. In his view, Jewish national existence needed no justification. Like other nations, the Jewish nation was an end in itself. In 1932, for example, Ben-Gurion gave a speech to a group of socialist Zionist youth, arguing for the virtues of the “Hebrew Labor” movement. The crux of the debate between Labor Zionism and its opponents, he said, “is whether we are an end in ourselves, or a means to something outside us.” The opponents of Zionism all have in common the view that, “unlike other nations, Jews do not have a right to exist; they are only necessary, insofar as they spread ideas among other nations.” For “assimilated Jews,” the right to exist is the mission to spread monotheism. For socialist Jews, it is the mission to bring about a revolution. Ben-Gurion thought otherwise: “We say: we are like all other nations. We live because we live. We are an end in ourselves, like Russia and Germany are ends in themselves. Our right to exist is in our existence.” He concluded by explicitly stating that “we have not accepted any contract to be a light unto the nations.”
Similar ideas surface in Ben-Gurion’s diary. In a 1929 entry, he recorded his opinions about “spiritual Zionism,” the school of Ahad Ha’am. He wrote that he could endorse spiritual Zionism if it meant the Jewish people “connecting to the earth, to labor and to perfecting life,” allowing them “to once again become a creative power in all branches of human creativity.” There was, however, another version of spiritual Zionism, which he rejected: “That there are a few Jews living in the Land of Israel, speaking Hebrew, with a university that teaches the wisdom of Israel to their students from all the reaches of exile, and from Mount Zion shall go forth a light unto the nations etc. etc.” Ben-Gurion clearly mocked this understanding of Zionism, calling it a “caricature” of true spiritual Zionism. His sarcastic tone is especially apparent in his use of what sounds like a Biblical verse, (“From Mount Zion…”). In fact, there is no such verse; Ben-Gurion had created a jumble of Biblical phrases. His satirical overtone is emphasized by the dismissive “etc. etc.” that followed it. Ben-Gurion intended this description to be a parody of the pacifistic, intellectual Zionism centered on the then-new Hebrew University and the Brit Shalom circle. Ben-Gurion consciously used the term “a light unto the nations” to associate his ideological opponents with the image of a diffuse, toothless, exilic mindset.
By the 1950s, however, Ben-Gurion’s relationship with the term had drastically changed. This change accompanied a general intensification of his use of messianic language, although it had different motivations. In 1951, for example, in a speech to the 23rd Zionist Congress, he quoted Spinoza’s comment that if the Jews would regain sovereignty, they would once again become a chosen people. (For “chosen people”, Ben-Gurion used the terms am segulah and am ha-nivhar more or less interchangeably.) He also quoted Herzl’s desire for the Jewish homeland to be a “model state” (medinah le-mofet) and inferred the same from the Hebrew prophets. Ben-Gurion linked the ideas of the Jews as a “chosen people” and “a model nation” with the notion that the Jewish nation would become “a light unto the nations and a salvation for our people.” Ben-Gurion invoked these messianic terms so often that they quickly became a cliché. By 1960, a journalist could observe that a Ben-Gurion speech was, “as usual, a rhetorical emphasis on ‘ethical mission,’ ‘prophetic vision,’ ‘a light unto the nations’ and the like.” [Emphasis added]
In this striking reversal, “a light unto the nations” moved from being a satirical cudgel with which Ben-Gurion beat his ideological opponents to the cornerstone of his Zionist ideology. The reversal was so decisive that the term quickly became closely associated with Ben-Gurion personally, even outside of Israel. In 1958, an American Jewish newspaper referred to Ben-Gurion’s “oft expressed belief” that “if the country can live in peace and freedom, it will be ‘a light unto the nations.’” Some believed that Ben-Gurion had even invented the term. In 1970, Ben-Gurion received a private letter from Mordechai Levanon, a journalist and poet. Levanon pointed out that the original term in the Book of Isaiah is le-or goyim rather than or la-goyim, the term that had, by then, become universal. (Both Hebrew terms can reasonably be translated as “a light unto the nations.”) As a poet sensitive to the Hebrew language, Levanon urged Ben-Gurion to correct this widespread misuse, asserting that the responsibility to do so fell to the “one who coined it.” Levanon was probably wrong to think that Ben-Gurion was the first to misquote the verse but his belief underlines the close association held by many Jews in Israel between the idea of “a light unto the nations” and Ben-Gurion himself. Indeed, even those who criticized Ben-Gurion’s embrace of the term still associated it strongly with him. In a 1975 interview, for example, the scientist and Zionist intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz referred to the “Ben-Gurionish prattle about ‘a light unto the nations.’”
Two questions must therefore be considered: First, why is it that Ben-Gurion altered his attitude to the phrase “a light unto the nations” so drastically, mocking the term in the 1930s but placing it at the epicenter of his ideology and rhetoric from the 1950s until the end of his life? Second, what specific meanings did Ben-Gurion attach to the term and how did those meanings align with his vision of governance in Israel?
Ben-Gurion’s early rejection of the term “a light unto the nations” is easy to explain. Many Zionists of competing ideological streams also abhorred the term and used it in satirical attacks on their opponents. The reason for this lies in its use by Jewish religious and political thinkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although variations of the term occur in three places in the Bible, the idea that Jews should be a “light unto the nations” has little prominence in Rabbinical and medieval sources. That all changed in the 19th century, when proponents of religious reform developed the idea of the “mission” of the Jews. This idea held that Jews were required to perform a sacred task, which was to spread the teachings of ethics and monotheism to the peoples of the world.
The ideology of Jewish mission fulfilled several functions. It rebuffed Christian supersessionary thinking by asserting that Jews continued to have value. It reinforced the reformers’ transferral of the emphasis of modern Judaism from ritual to ethics. It also supported their reinterpretation of Jewish Diaspora. Understanding the Diaspora as a catastrophe made sense to those who yearned for a return to Palestine and looked forward to the restoration of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem. But Reform leaders had given up aspirations to Jewish sovereignty, preferring instead emancipation in the Diaspora. Their theology of “a light unto the nations” allowed for a positive understanding of the Diaspora. In this reading, the scattering of the Jews was not a catastrophe, but a blessing for them and for the people among whom they lived, because it made possible their mission of teaching ethics to others. Thus, the early reform leader David Einhorn asserted that “the collapse of Israel’s political independence was once regarded as a misfortune, but it really represented progress.” This idea of a Jewish mission, then, lay in clear opposition to the notion of Jewish nationalism that emerged in the ensuing decades.
The scriptural basis for the mission idea, and its symbol, was the notion that Jews would be a “light unto the nations.” From relative obscurity, the Biblical phrase became the vision of Reform Judaism. The association between the phrase and the mission idea was universal among Jewish thinkers in Europe, the United States, and Palestine. Its popularity might be explained by the resonance of images of “light” as a metaphor for progress and reason in modernity, not least in the term “Enlightenment” itself. As early as 1849, a leader of the Reform Movement in the United States, the German-born Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, wrote that “the mission of Israel was and still is to promulgate the sacred truths to all nations on earth; to diffuse the bright light that first shone on Sinai’s sanctified summit all over the world.” A generation later, Kaufmann Kohler, another German-born American Reform rabbi, stated categorically: “Can there be a more luminous and more definite enunciation of Israel’s mission than the one that is given in the words of the great anonymous prophet …” And he proceeded to quote the verses from Isaiah that refer to Israel as “a light for the nations.” Around the same time, the British Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams explicitly distinguished between Jewish nationalism, which he perceived as being in decline, and Jewish universalism, which he saw ascendant. “The national … aspect of Judaism is on the wane,” he wrote. “Modern reformed Judaism is a universalistic Judaism. It lays stress on the function of Israel, the Servant, as a ‘Light to the Nations.’”
Orthodox Jews, too, adopted a version of this ideology during the nineteenth century. The Neo-Orthodox German rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, for example, detached the nature of Jewish identity from questions of politics and land. For Hirsch, the real meaning of “Zion” was an idea, not “land and soil.” The Jews were in exile in order to disseminate “pure humanity,” the ethical lessons of the Torah. “My Zion,” he wrote, “is the place from which the Torah emanates.” Similarly, the Lithuanian Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, wrote in his commentary to the book of Genesis that “the real reason that most of our life has been in exile is that […] God revealed to Abraham that his descendants would be created to be a light unto the nations. And this is impossible unless they are dispersed in the exile.” The Netziv’s comment is particularly interesting because the phrase “a light unto the nations” occurs nowhere in the Genesis narrative. By the time of his writing, however, that image was associated so strongly with the idea of a Jewish mission that it flowed naturally from his pen.
The contradiction between this ideology and Zionism was powerfully articulated by the foremost Jewish philosopher of the age. In 1916, Herman Cohen wrote an anti-Zionist tract, in which he argued that Jews are called by their prophets to live dispersed among other peoples. Here too, Isaiah’s image of being a “light unto the nations” takes pride of place. “We wish to remain among [the nations],” he wrote. “All our prophets have us living among the nations, and … felt [the Jews] had been chosen to bring this light to all nations.” Cohen argued that the Zionist movement, which sought to concentrate Jews in their own land, worked against the divine calling to be a light unto the nations.
Given the universalist and often anti-Zionist connotations of the term “a light unto the nations,” it appeared only rarely in the literature and journalism of the Yishuv. Where it did appear, it was almost always used negatively. The rare exceptions to this rule are the occasional use of the expression to critique the moral failures of Zionists in Palestine, to promote the virtues of universalist humanism, or, by Orthodox writers, to argue for the importance of Torah in the life of the Yishuv.
These uses of “a light unto the nations” in the Yishuv, while exceptional, are illustrative. A clear example of the imagery being used to criticize the Zionist establishment is in the writing of Ahad Ha’am. In 1922, Ha’aretz reported that a Jew had attacked an innocent young Arab man in retribution for Arab attacks against Jews in the previous year. Ahad Ha’am condemned in the strongest possible terms a Zionism that was built on the suffering of others. Through the generations of exile, he wrote, Jews rejected violence. “Have the days arrived, that the prophets foresaw,” he asked rhetorically, “that we would return and lift a banner in our land and once again become ‘a light into the nations’ as we were millennia ago? Have we really come just to add a small nation of new ‘Levantines’ in a corner of the east that will compete with the Levantines who are already there in all their corrupt attributes—murder, revenge, competition, etc.—which are the content of their lives?” Ahad Ha’am used “a light unto the nations” as a symbol of a Jewish nation that was, or should be, ethically superior to “Eastern” nations. (The orientalist caricature in Ahad Ha’am’s words should also be noted.) Beyond his objection to violent retaliation, Ahad Ha’am could not condone any version of Zionism that relied upon the abandonment of a pacifistic prophetic vision. “If this is the ‘messiah,’” he concluded, paraphrasing a Talmudic passage, “let him come but let me not see him.”
Another of the rare positive uses of “a light unto the nations” in Yishuv publications appeared in a 1925 article in the Do’ar Ha-Yom newspaper memorializing Ludwig Zamenhof, the inventor of the Esperanto language. Here too, the phrase is embedded in a critique of mainstream Zionist ideas, albeit a more subtle critique than that of Ahad Ha’am. Zamenhof, who had died eight years before the article was published, opposed any kind of nationalism, including Zionism. He promoted a cosmopolitan world view, in which Esperanto played a key part. That Do’ar Ha-Yom published an article about Zamenhof was perhaps due to the fact that its editor Itamar Ben-Avi also believed in the power of language to connect people and reduce conflict. Ben-Avi, the only surviving child of the great modern Hebrew linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, advocated the simplification of the Hebrew language so that it would be more accessible to Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Palestine. He invented a Latin alphabet for Hebrew and even published a short-lived Hebrew journal in Latin script called Ha-Shavua Ha-Palestini. He also supported the separation of Palestine into autonomous Jewish and Arab cantons. The memorial article evoked the messianic imagery of the prophet Isaiah, “the first universalist,” to present Zamenhof’s universalism as a Jewish mission: “From the time that we became a people, we have been charged with the great mission of being a light unto the nations, to scatter the darkness that covers the nations.” It continued with a call to unify the world and bring an end to war, before extolling Zamenhof’s efforts to usher in global peace by developing a universal language and breaking down national boundaries. It is telling that “a light unto the nations” was mobilized in support for a universal language and published by an editor who eschewed territorial sovereignty, both ideas that were opposed by most Zionists.
Besides the idiosyncratic universalism of Ben-Avi and the ethical pacifism of Ahad Ha’am, the term “a light unto the nations” was most common in the Yishuv in the writing of religious Zionists. It occurred frequently in the religious Zionist newspaper Ha-Tsofeh, often in the context of encouraging Jews to follow God’s laws. In 1944, for example, Jacob Berman, a rabbi who was involved in the establishment of religious schools in the Yishuv, argued for the incorporation of Jewish law into the constitution of the Jewish community. “We must be,” he wrote, “a light unto the nations in our constitution, a constitution of righteousness and kindness, a law of God and not of human making.” An anonymous author in the same newspaper wondered if “perhaps, the mission of the new Judah is to serve as a light unto the nations by establishing a Torah state—the ideal society of freedom, equality, democracy and the end of class divisions.”
To be sure, not every sympathetic use of the phrase “a light unto the nations” in the Yishuv involved an implicit criticism of dominant Zionist ideologies. After all, many Jews in the Yishuv had come from places where the idea of a Jewish “mission” was very common. Still, the intellectual and political leadership of the Yishuv tended to associate the term with an ideological critique of Zionism. Ben-Gurion was, therefore, typical of Zionist thinkers who treated the term dismissively. In fact, Zionists of all stripes disparaged their opponents by describing their ideologies as “a light unto the nations.”
The disparaging use of the term was already common during the Second Aliyah. Yosef Haim Brenner reacted strongly against the claim that the Jews had a special calling to be a light unto the nations, preferring the Jews to be a nation like any other. He contrasted the kind of ethical mission promoted by Ahad Ha’am with the more practical concerns that he found in other Jewish thinkers. The Yiddish writer Abraham Lyessin was right, said Brenner, to insist that “the Jews have no historical mission for the sake of others, to be a light unto the nations.” Brenner believed that “our mission is absolutely not to appear ethically superior but rather to strengthen our existence on the basis of building a life in concrete reality.” He paraphrased the Zionist orientation of the Moses Leib Lilienlbum in the same fashion, writing that the Jews “are not obligated to be a light unto the nations in any way. If only we could be like Serbia or Montenegro.”
Another pioneer of the Second Aliyah, Berl Katznelson, was equally dismissive of the term “a light unto the nations”. He had stern words for the Bund, for example, for being more interested in a socialist revolution than the interests of Jewish workers. “The Bund did not labor on behalf of the Jewish worker,” he wrote, “but for the sake of making a light unto the ‘nations’, as a medium for spreading socialism among non-Jews.” In his denunciation of the socialist Jews of the East European haskalah, Katznelson was even more vicious. He decried
this Jewish type, the pampered revolutionary, who, in being a ‘light unto the nations,’ a rebel and a fighter and a hero, is actually lowly and worthless, cowardly and submissive when the fate of his people puts him to the test […] He pretends to be the pioneer of the revolution, but he is nothing more than the slave of the revolution and its destroyer.
Labor Zionists continued on the path begun by Brenner and Katznelson, using the term “a light unto the nations” to criticize Jews they deemed to be “assimilationists” and Zionists they considered to be naively pacifistic. The entire purpose of Zionist education, argued one newspaper, was to teach children that the mission of the Jews is “not to be a light unto the nations and to educate others, but to establish a human and national existence, with freedom and honor.” [Emphasis added.]
The Brit Shalom circle, who supported the idea of a bi-national state in Palestine, were frequently criticized for their promotion of the disgraced mission of being a light unto the nations. An example of such criticism is found in a review of Norman Bentwich’s book, England in Palestine, which was published in 1932. Bentwich was an English Jew, a Zionist, who had served as the attorney-general of the British Mandate before taking up the Chair of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1932. An article in Do’ar Ha-Yom lambasted Bentwich as a British apologist who had a naive understanding of Jewish life in Palestine. According to the article, Bentwich was “a patriotic English Jew, a Zionist of the familiar kind.” It continued:
[Bentwich] believes in the mission of Israel as a light unto the nations and is therefore a quitter and an apologist, a kind of Jew-Christian who turns the other cheek after they have struck the first one. Not for nothing did they choose him as a lecturer in the Chair of “international peace” in our College of Brit Shalom.
The treatment of Bentwich drips with sarcasm. It derisively called the Hebrew University “our College of Brit Shalom” because of its close association with members of the Brit Shalom group. Similarly, it referred to Bentwich’s chair of international relations as a chair of “international peace,” perhaps because his first course in that position was entitled “For the Sake of Peace” and was disrupted by Zionists who thought he was too conciliatory toward the Arabs. Most striking, however, is that the article links the principle of Jews being a light unto the nations to a kind of naive Christian pacifism.
A similar attack on Brit Shalom and Bentwich was published two years later:
In Bentwich, the teaching of “mission” and “Brit Shalom-ism” have met. It places on the people of Israel a giant double role: to be a light unto the nations in the Diaspora and to be good to the Arabs in the Land of Israel. But a Zionist would say that our only role is to work for the sake of the redemption of Israel. Why […] are we alone required to justify our human yearning to live on our land with a promise to combine our redemption with the redemption of all of humanity?
The association of “a light unto the nations” with a naive approach to the Arab population intensified as Palestinian resistance to Zionist activity increased. Haim Shurer was the editor of Davar, the leading organ of the Labor Zionist movement, which Katznelson had founded. In the aftermath of the Arab uprising of 1929, he wrote that “we did not come here to be a light unto the nations, nor a light to the house of the Arabs.” Apparently fearful that the belief in the need for Jewish ethical superiority was incompatible with Jewish survival in Palestine, Shurer wrote that rather than bringing light to the nations, their goal was “to enlighten the place that we live.” Only then, once self-preservation had come first, would “the light will eventually settle also on those who are making darkness around us.”
The imagery was also used to criticize Jewish intellectuals, particularly those from outside of Palestine, who had some notion of a universal or pacifistic Jewish culture. In 1930, for example, the first issue of Gazith, a Hebrew-language journal of art criticism, was published. It featured an article by Waldemar George, (born Jarocinski,) a Polish-born Jew living in Paris. Waldemar had written provocatively about Jewish art, describing it as “international, even supranational,” and claiming that “its universalism assures it an unlimited reach.” Dov Sadan, a literary critic on the editorial board of Davar, objected to this analysis, in which he detected the old idea of the Jewish mission. Although George nowhere mentioned the term, Sadan used the imagery of “a light unto the nations” to criticize George’s interpretation. George and those like him, wrote Sadan, want to “strip Judaism down to its spirit and mission.” The result is just the same as the “assimilation movement that sought to compensate for the infirmity of the nation’s spine with a bit of babble about Judaism, based on the great and extraordinary intangible idea of our day, the exalted mission to be a light unto the nations.” But, argued Sadan, these nations, unlike the Jews, “already have their own light, their own air, and their own land, and have no need for a penny candle from the hands of beggars pretending to be philanthropists.” The mocking tone in Sadan’s writing, indicated by the hyperbolic adjectives, exposed the idea as an unconvincing attempt to cloak the vulnerability and instability of Jewish life. Jews should firm up their own national existence before engaging in abstract nonsense and pretending to dole out moral advice to others.
If Labor Zionists from Brenner onwards criticized those they considered to be assimilationists and naive pacifists by associating them with the mission of being a light unto the nations, Revisionists criticized Labor Zionists in exactly the same way. They accused Labor Zionists of being naive and too eager to appease their enemies and often linked this perceived behavior to the imagery of “a light unto the nations.” The revisionist intellectual Yosef Klausner, for example, praised Jabotinsky for understanding that it was unwise to combine socialism and Zionism because “it is impossible to chase two rabbits at the same time, to create a homeland for the people and also to be ‘a light unto the nations’ by creating a ‘new society.’”
By and large, then, before the 1950s, “a light unto the nations” was associated with the naivete of exilic Jews who failed to realize that the idea of a “Jewish mission” came at the expense of the Jewish people. Even those who fought for the creation of a just society in a Jewish state often felt the need to distance their ideas from the tainted term. As one writer put it:
Even if we ridicule the words of those daydreamers about the mission of the State of Israel to serve as a light unto the nations in matters of brotherhood and justice, we may at least strive to establish a society in which it is possible to live with relative quiet, with a modicum of security.”
This all goes to show that Ben-Gurion’s early contempt of the notion of the Jews being a light unto the nations was far from an anomaly. The question then remains: Why did Ben-Gurion move away from a blanket condemnation of the term, and begin to use it with great frequency until the end of his life?
Part of the explanation can be found in Ben-Gurion’s more general turn to messianic rhetoric from the early 1950s. As he shifted his focus from Israel’s establishment to its future, Ben-Gurion began to feel that the task of Zionism would not be complete until Israel had become an ethical paragon. Take, for example, this characteristic statement from a 1952 speech, that was later published under the title of “The Chosen People:”
Security and economy are only a means and not a goal. We are building the state of Israel out of a prophetic vision and messianic yearning, to be exemplary, a guide for humanity. The words of the prophet are entrusted to us: “I have given you as a light unto the nations to be my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Ben-Gurion’s messianic turn has been discussed by several scholars, who have placed it in the context of his own thought and of Zionist ideology more broadly. Some have explained the development as Ben-Gurion’s reaction to Israel’s growing social crisis as it struggled to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants. According to this account, Ben-Gurion became concerned with the growing social divide between more established citizens and those languishing in transit camps, and tried to inspire his people to tackle these challenges with a new messianic idiom. This development is consistent with Ben-Gurion’s use of the expression “a light unto the nations,” which is, after all, part of Isaiah’s messianic vision. Indeed, Ben-Gurion frequently combined the expression with other phrases with messianic overtones, referring to the Jewish people, for example, as “a chosen people for a light unto the nations.”
The messianic turn does not, however, suffice as an explanation for the sudden embrace of the term. For one thing, although Ben-Gurion’s use of messianic symbolism increased during this period, it did not begin then. During World War I, Ben-Gurion believed that “the sound of the messiah’s horn reaches us through the storm.” He referred to the Bolshevik revolution as a redemption and associated Soviet Russia with a messianic utopia after visiting there in 1923. In 1934, during a commemoration ceremony for Theodor Herzl on the 30th anniversary of his death, Ben-Gurion referred to the “messianic vision” as “the heart of Jewish history.” And he believed that the founding of the State of Israel was a messianic phenomenon. But in all those years, although he repeatedly returned to the messianic idea, he only ever mentioned the term “a light unto the nations” in order to dismiss it. His messianic turn does not, therefore, fully explain the ubiquity of the image after the early 1950s.
Although it is difficult be categorical about this, a provisional explanation can be offered. Ben-Gurion’s use of “a light unto the nations” had a very specific purpose: to increase international support for Israel. Ben-Gurion implied as much in a speech to the Knesset in 1956, that was reported in full in the Israeli press.
What is a valid and lasting basis on which to found our aspiration to find friends and allies? There can only be one basis: The light of our creative enterprise, which frees and redeems. By the fact that we are a wonder to other peoples, by our talent for helping peoples who are weak in scientific education, technology, and culture […] While we cannot ally with other nations on the basis of shared religion, language or race, we can find friends and partners on the basis of shared values and the interests that are bound up in those values […] We have succeeded so far in finding sympathy and good will in the world […] almost entirely through the strength of the cultural, spiritual and social light or our actions. Every act that involves a light unto the nations is a messenger from our little state to collect rays of sympathy and friendship and good will for Israel. [Emphasis in the original]
In this speech, Ben-Gurion uses not only the phrase “a light unto the nations” but repeatedly emphasizes the imagery of light. Israel’s advanced scientific enterprises enlighten under-developed nations and in turn secure for Israel the rays of international friendship. This indicates that, for Ben-Gurion, the vision of “a light unto the nations” went beyond his more general use of messianic language. It was part of a specific approach to Israel’s international relations.
Ben-Gurion was not the first to use the image as a way of gaining international favor for the Zionist movement. In 1930, Herbert Samuel, a Jewish Member of Parliament who had previously served as the first British High Commissioner for Palestine, spoke to Parliament to oppose the Passfield White Paper, which he regarded as harmful to Zionist interests. He sought to persuade the Christian members of Parliament by referring repeatedly to Isaiah’s imagery of light. The Jews, he argued, were a people uniquely, divinely, ordained to bring light to others. “Through the Dark Ages,” he said, the Jews “kept alight the torch of learning.” They have, he told the chamber, made disproportionate contributions “to the common treasure-house of mankind in matters of religion, in philosophy, in science, in music, in the drama […]” At this point during his oration, Samuel was interrupted by a member whose comment was anonymously included in the official parliamentary record: “And economics […]” This comment was presumably meant to undercut Samuel’s paean to the Jews’ spiritual accomplishments by suggesting that money was the most important thing to the Jews. Samuel continued, undaunted. The Jews in Palestine, he insisted, were not interested in politics. They had purely spiritual motivations, “that that centre may be a stimulus to intellectual and religious forces.” If Christian England is a “new Jerusalem,” he urged, quoting William Blake, the English should remember that “still the old Jerusalem exists—the model, the ideal.” He concluded with an unmistakable reference to Isaiah: “Let us remember that on the hills of Zion there is a spiritual beacon still burning, perhaps dim and low in these days, but destined, who knows, to blaze out again, and for the third time to give illumination to all mankind.”
As a seasoned English politician, Samuel knew that Isaiah’s symbolism of light would appeal to his countrymen. At the time, that symbolism was unpopular among most Zionists in Palestine. Indeed, when Samuel’s speech was printed in Hebrew translation in Palestine, it was criticized on exactly those lines. One writer, Abraham Schwadron, (later Abraham Sharon) wrote sarcastically about Samuel’s assertion that the Jews had no political pretensions, but merely cultural and spiritual ones: “How beautiful would be small gardens, glorious, blossoming and quiet, surrounded by the temple of science, philosophy, and art, over which would hover the pure spirit of Jewish ethics […] What a shame that our people has other worries right now.” Schwadron’s opinion that philosophy and culture took second place to more existential concerns had an extra bite considering that Schwadron himself was a philosopher and artist of some renown in the Yishuv.
Schwadron’s principal concern with Samuel’s comments, however, was not its naivete but its Christian overtones. “In speaking about the spiritual flame which will […] become for the third time a light unto the nations,” Schwadron wrote, “Samuel was apparently referring to ‘that man’ [i.e. Jesus].” Schwadron correctly recognized that Samuel’s use of Isaiah’s image of light was intended to resonate with a Christian motif in the hope of persuading Parliament. This rhetorical tactic was unpopular in the Yishuv of the 1930s, but by the 1950s Ben-Gurion had determined that international support was in Israel’s overriding interest. The reminiscences of people close to Ben-Gurion confirm that he cultivated this kind of rhetoric quite consciously and that its audience was not only Hebrew speakers, but also foreign leaders.
Miriam Taub, Ben-Gurion’s secretary, believed that his use of the imagery of the Jews as a light unto the nations was designed to impress a foreign audience:
[…] He always said that they must be “a light unto the nations.” He ended every speech with the idea that this must be a state, which will be small, it will never be large, it will never compete with the U.S. or any of the nations great in size, so we must have a moral greatness that will make us unique in this world and that’s what it’s all about.
What is more, continued Taub, this strategy was successful in impressing world statesmen, “the British particularly, because the Protestant British really know the Bible and have a tremendous respect for it.” Ben Gurion had a great capacity, she added, “to impress strangers with the nobility of his purpose and the nobility of his own dedication.”
A similar observation was made by Meir Avizohar, a politician who served in Ben-Gurion’s party, and the author of several works about him. Avizohar’s recollections corroborate the archival findings presented above that that Ben-Gurion settled upon the term “a light unto the nations” only in the later years of his leadership, as a way to achieve international support:
Particularly in later years, he sharpened the issue of “a light unto the nations” as a condition for getting support. He sought external support for the Jewish people through the ethical quality of the return to Zion, so much so that I sometimes found it irritating. It was like an instrumental calculation—we have to be good and pleasant so that they will love us and support us, because this support is a condition of our existence … He called this ethical standard a light unto the nations.
These recollections of some of Ben-Gurion’s closest companions support the claim that his use of the term “a light unto the nations” was part of a calculated strategy to find support for Israel from foreign powers. It is difficult to know how effective this strategy was at currying favor for Zionism. There is no question, though, that Christian supporters of Zionism had been moved for decades by the idea that the Zionists might be fulfilling Biblical prophecies. The Reverend William Hechler, for example, a clergyman from London and Vienna, was an acquaintance of Herzl and attended the first Zionist congresses. In a letter to the Grand Duke of Baden in 1898, Hechler remarked “how literally the Jews are fulfilling God’s prophecies.” In America, from the time of the Puritans in the sixteenth century, through the Second Awakening and up to the rise of Evangelism in recent decades, Christian thinkers have associated the political restoration of the Jews with Biblical prophecies. Ben-Gurion’s political instinct in mobilizing “a light unto the nations” as an appeal to foreign powers, therefore, was based upon solid historical precedent and political instinct.
This strategy was accompanied by a subtle but distinct way that Ben-Gurion used the expression differently from its diasporist inventors. Before Ben-Gurion began to use it, it was associated with the mission of the Jews to teach ethics to other people. Indeed, one of the main Zionist objections to the term before the 1950s was that it was used to justify the persistence of the Jewish Diaspora. Ben-Gurion stripped the idea of its diasporist connotations. The Jewish mission, he implied, would be carried out not by individual Jews in the Diaspora but by the entire Jewish nation in its homeland. In a typical speech, for example, he emphasized the “human and universal” elements of national independence, the vision of “the prophets of Israel who were also the prophets of the nations of the world […] a vision of a life of brotherhood and equality, a life of freedom and justice and peace for all the members of our people and of all peoples […] so that we may be a light unto the nations and a salvation for our people.”
Ben-Gurion’s use of Isaiah’s imagery went beyond the shift from a diasporist to a Zionist reading. He also introduced a new shade of meaning that does not have a precedent in Jewish or Zionist history, a meaning that one observer called “the most modern interpretation of the ancient idea of ‘a light unto the nations’.” This was the idea that being a light unto the nations did not just mean teaching ethics but also more practical lessons of technology and statecraft, particularly to developing states in Africa and Asia. In 1963, for example, Ben-Gurion was interviewed for an American Jewish magazine. The interviewer, an American rabbi called Jay Kaufman, asked Ben-Gurion whether Israel accepted the aspiration to “serve as a ‘light unto the nations,’ as a moral model for other states.” Ben-Gurion answered as follows:
Israel with its own crushing burden of security, immigrant absorption, and development has in a few short years become an important factor in the development of the new nations. From Burma and India, Ceylon and Cambodia, Ghana and Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanganyika, Kenya, and Uganda, Mali and Senegal, Upper Volta and the Ivory Coast, Malagasay [sic], Guinea, and the Congos, Niger and Togo—and the list is longer—young people have come to Israel to study cooperative living, education, Nahal techniques, agricultural and settlement, and the civil service, while Israel sends them experts and instructors.
Ben-Gurion was extremely gratified by the fact that other countries looked to the Jewish state for guidance. His pride is indicated in the extensive list of countries that he believed Israel was helping. His interest in helping other nations was not purely altruistic. He believed that Israel’s relationships with developing countries promoted its standing on the world stage. In an earlier speech, he reported with pride that an English statesman had said: “in Africa they ask themselves: Whose help should we take? China, Russia or Israel?”
Ben-Gurion’s innovative use of the “light unto the nations” theme was adopted by others among Israel’s political leadership. After the Sinai Campaign, for example, Shimon Peres, then Director General of the Minister of Defense, spoke of the need to establish relationships with African countries through what he called “a kind of new version of ‘a light unto the nations.’” This would involve, he said, sending to Africa “experts from Israel who will bring the pioneering good news that it is still possible to do in the world things that have never been done before—to settle desert, while safeguarding political freedom, for the sake of raising the dignity and living standards of every person.”
It is possible to detect echoes of an Enlightenment “mission civilatrice” in Israel’s interest in teaching developing nations. This tone comes through, for example, in an article by Yonah Yigal, a Histadrut functionary who was closely associated with Mapai, in which he wrote of Israel serving “as a light to these wretched and poor nations,” such as Ghana, which had learned “democracy, socialism, the welfare state, the workers’ movement, cooperation, urban planning and a public economy from the West.” Indeed, some contemporary observers warned against this tendency. Moshe Zak, the editor of the Ma’ariv newspaper, cautioned that Africans “will not suffer condescension, as if our experts coming to Africa are a savior, bringing them from darkness into light.”
Many Israelis saw things quite differently, however, attributing Israel’s interests in teaching technology to genuine mutual interest rather than some kind of benign colonialism. Israel would teach technology and would hope in return to make diplomatic gains in Asia and Africa. What is more, many Israelis perceived a genuine affinity with countries that were often, like Israel itself, young nations with socialist leanings. Indeed, some believed that Israel should pursue these opportunities precisely because their interests were not colonial. They thought they could build close relationships with newly independent countries, which would rebuff the global powers of the cold war because the latter were transparently motivated by the desire to control and exploit. One journalist wrote that Israel is the only source for African nations to receive aid that is not secretly exploitative. These nations recognize the Europeans in “the cold personality of conquering naval officers; colonial representatives with the face of the missionary or the exploitative merchant looking for profit.” By contrast, Israel’s “sole interest is relations of friendship and economic, trade, and cultural cooperation, on the basis of mutual advantage and reciprocal relations.”
Although Ben-Gurion’s subtle new application of “a light unto the nations” spread quickly, there was also some resistance to it. Criticism originated from two opposite points of view. Some complained that Ben-Gurion’s use of the term still preserved its old, anti-Zionist connotations whereas others faulted his politicization of the term, which corrupted its ethical meaning.
Many were concerned that Ben-Gurion’s vision was contaminated with the exilic mind-set that Zionism was meant to have overcome. Moshe Zak believed that forming a relationship with African countries on the basis of the old idea of a Jewish mission would work against the fundamental goals of Zionism. “We have had enough of the burden of being a ‘light unto the nations,’” he wrote. “Zionism was a rebellion against this idea, which troubled us for all our years of exile.” Sterner criticism along the same lines was leveled against Ben-Gurion in the Revisionist newspaper Herut by Aba Ahimeir, writing under the name A. Shamai. In Ben-Gurion’s strategy of currying international favor, Ahimeir wrote, he “has returned to the world view of those who assimilated in their time, the ‘Protestrabiner,’ the Reverends and the rest.” In other words, Ahimeir compared Ben-Gurion’s use of “a light unto the nations” with the Orthodox and reform opponents of Zionism. This approach, Ahimeir argued, was doomed to failure: “Bitter experience has shown us that ‘a light unto the nations’ is as likely to help us in our time of need as a blood letter’s tool in the flesh of a dying man.”
Others criticized Ben-Gurion’s use of the phrase for precisely the opposite reason, claiming that he had distorted its true, original meaning. In 1977, Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote that the referent of “a light unto the nations” was not the people as a whole but the prophet Isaiah himself. “The idea that the people of Israel has been endowed with a capacity for instructing and guiding all of humanity has no basis in authentic Jewish sources,” Leibowitz insisted. “This idea was fabricated by the heretics—from the Apostle Paul to Ben-Gurion—who meant to cast off the yoke of Torah by substituting it for a faith in an abstract ‘vocation.’” Interviewed the same year, the leading American Conservative rabbi Louis Finkelstein expressed “complete disagreement” with Ben-Gurion along similar lines. He objected to Ben-Gurion’s transformation of the prophetic imagery from an ethical ideal into international realpolitik. Finkelstein reported that he had disagreed with Ben-Gurion’s claim that “when we bring the African people to train and send people to Africa, we become ‘a light unto the nations.’” Isaiah, retorted Finkelstein, “didn’t mean that we should train the African nations how to use steam ships.”
For all these criticisms, however, Ben-Gurion’s constant use of the expression took a lasting hold in Israeli society and beyond. Israeli newspapers were full of reports of Israel being “a light unto the nations” as representatives from around the world visited Israel to learn about their agricultural techniques. The expression subsequently took on a life of its own. Its connotations widened beyond Ben-Gurion’s own novel usage and it came to be applied to virtually any way in which Israel was made to look good, especially when it could present itself as “enlightening” the region and the people around it. For example, Israel was described as a light unto the nations because an international conference of scientists gathered there, and the Hebrew University was said to be a light unto the nations because of its growing numbers of Muslim and Christian students. After one of the “rare victories” of the national football team, the players were called “the bearers of ‘a light unto the nations.’”
The expanded meaning of the expression reached beyond the borders of Israel. For example, The Sentinel, a Chicago Jewish weekly newspaper and one of the longest continuously published weekly publications in the United States, published a regular column entitled “Israel: ‘Light Unto the Nations’” during 1967. Achievements worthy of this description included economic successes such as an increase in the number of tourists, exports of avocados and bananas, and the sale of road construction equipment to countries in Europe; successes in international relations, such as the hosting of an agricultural exhibition in Tel Aviv, a book fair in Jerusalem, and the visit of the foreign minister, Abba Eban, to counties in Asia; advances in technology such as the Israeli invention of a solar cooker; and Israeli international aid, such as the difficult repair of a crashed American freight plane in the Ethiopian jungle, or the hosting of children from flooded Venice and Florence by the Israel Rotary Club. The final article in the series reported Israel’s delivery of medications for Pakistani refugees in India. It also featured a photograph of an Israeli nurse tending to a young child accompanied by an Arab man in a plain white keffiyeh. Its caption reads: “A nurse in an Israeli hospital ministers to an Arab girl with a face injury. Israeli know-how not only is used for the benefit of all residents of Israel, but is also transferred to other nations via special medical missions to underdeveloped countries.” The variety of these stories indicates that by the 1960s, the category of “a light unto the nations” might include anything that was seen to increase Israel’s reputation as a force of enlightenment, be it the export of avocados or the nondiscriminatory administration of medical care.
This expansion of the category, however, was a two-edged sword. If “a light unto the nations” could be applied to any achievement of Israel, it could also be used to criticize its every failing. As early as 1955, Betsalel Elitsedek, (Yosef Klausner’s brother,) criticized Ben-Gurion in the Revisionist newspaper Herut after a report of violence in a prison in Jaffa. “The head of the ruling party claims that the State of Israel should be a model state, a light unto the nations. But the picture before us is nothing but a horror.” Journalists criticized the state along similar lines concerning all kinds of social problems and political scandals. As one journalist wrote at the height of the Lavon affair, “before we go spreading ‘light’ among the peoples of Africa, we must be a holy nation in all our own lives.”
Both the celebratory and censorious uses of the phrase long outlived Ben-Gurion. His insight that Biblical imagery had the power to sway foreign leaders continues to motivate Israel’s politicians. Benjamin Netanyahu reminded the United Nations in 2017 that Israel is “a light unto the nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.” At the same time, the term has also found its way into some of the sharpest criticisms of Israel. The politician and left-wing activist Avraham Burg used the phrase to criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, writing that “the Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs, or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed.”
The term “a light unto the nations” has had a mercurial history. Plucked from a relatively obscure biblical passage, it was promoted by religious reformers and diasporist Jews as the singular mission of the Jewish people. As a result, before 1950 it was rejected, and even derided, by Labor Zionists and Revisionists. In a reversal in the early 1950s, Ben-Gurion brought it squarely into the center of Zionist discourse. In order to raise Israel’s standing in the international community, he catapulted the prophetic imagery from a rejected fossil of exilic thinking into a centerpiece of Zionist ideology. The long career of “a light unto the nations” contributes to a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between Zionist ideas and other strands of modern Jewish thought, and to the periodization of Zionist intellectual history before and after 1948. On the one hand, it illustrates surprising continuities. The concept of “Jewish mission” that was explicitly mobilized as an anti-Zionist argument was absorbed into the Zionist mainstream through the deft and unceasing rhetoric of Israel’s first prime minister. Similarly, the “light unto the nations” imagery has been used to lend prophetic weight to internal Zionist critiques of Jewish behavior in Palestine and Israel from the period of the Yishuv until the present day. On the other hand, the subtle shifts in the meaning of “a light unto the nations” serve as an important reminder that a recurring use of a phrase can mask conceptual fluctuation. The words of Isaiah have been applied to anything from a philosophy of Jewish humanism, to diplomatic ties between Israel and Burma, to the surge in the sale of bananas. The interplay between continuity and change that lies at the heart of the history of “a light unto the nations” is, therefore, one piece of an intellectual history of Zionism that appreciates the novelty of the State of Israel while also recognizing its place in the long continuum of Jewish life.