Israeli Declaration of Independence: A worthy document but not as a billboard

Israeli Declaration of Independence hanging above the entrance to the Gonda Brain Science Building at Bar Ilan University - photo by Ari Zivotofsky

It is there, staring down at me, a huge poster of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Since the beginning of August, every time I enter the building in which I work at Bar Ilan University, hanging over the entrance on the outside wall is a two-story-tall copy of the Declaration of independence. Those who hung it in such a prominent manner obviously intended for all who see it to think about it. And indeed, it has inspired me to contemplate both its content and the message and motivations of those who hung it.

I have now gone back and reread the entire Declaration of independence several times. It is truly a remarkable document of historical significance, expressing values that most Israelis hold dear, and it should be taught in the Israeli education system.

There are three basic sections in the Declaration, with the first part, a synopsis of Jewish history which includes the biblical, historical, and legal justification for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, being by far the lengthiest. This is followed by the actual declaration of the creation of the State of Israel, which is followed by statements about the vision of how the nascent state would be governed as well as calls to its citizens, neighbors, and world Jewry.

It opens by declaring the ancient and deep roots of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, the land in which our religious and nationalistic values were molded. It emphasizes that after our exile from the land, about 2000 years ago, the Jewish people understood that we would one day return home and that in every generation Jews pined and made efforts to come back to the land. It extols the Jewish heroes, those who returned and established Jewish settlements throughout the land. The founding fathers of the State of Israel did not view our right to the land as being solely based on our need for a refuge from oppression, but they included in the Declaration of Independence a mention of the still recent and raw Holocaust, and that Israel would henceforth be a refuge for Jews in need. It declares several times, and unabashedly, that the Jewish people have a natural and historic right to the Land of Israel.

The words Jew or Jewish are mentioned over 20 times, often in reference to Jewish sovereignty and self-determination. The authors of the Declaration, both secular and religious, placed great emphasis on their Jewish identity as can be seen even in subtle manners such as when giving the date of the first Zionist congress they write the year as “5657” followed in parenthesis by “1897” and in declaring the date of independence, it first states that it was the Sabbath eve, sixth of Iyar, 5708, and after that gives the secular date.

The Declaration of Independence includes an important paragraph that begins with the right of all Jews to immigrate and that the state will play a role in the ingathering of the exiles. It then states that there will be freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel, and that there will be equal rights for all. In a later paragraph, it calls upon the Arab residents to preserve the peace and to be guaranteed full and equal citizenship and due representation. Crucially, this was all stated in the context of individual rights, not national rights; the clearly stated assumption was that Israel was to be a Jewish State, and the founders had no qualms about saying that.

The Declaration of Independence concludes by stating that we place our trust in “Tzur Yisrael”, literally “the Rock of Israel”, a reference to God as in Deuteronomy 32 (see eg Guide for the Perplexed 1:16), which in all government English translations of the Declaration of Independence until 1962 was actually rendered non-literally as “Almighty God.”

Much of the current turmoil could have been avoided had the signers of the Declaration followed through on their commitment. They wrote “…in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948…”. In other words, they gave themselves 5 ½ months to write a constitution. An ambitious, maybe unrealistic, task, but if a constitution had been adopted in the early days, there would be no place for the strife.

Having re-read it, I am an even bigger fan of the Declaration of independence than I was before. But turning the wall of a campus building into a billboard is an unusual decision for a university. What message did those who hung it hope to convey? After all, it is a rather strange sight to see a huge copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence hanging on the outside of a building in a public university. If two years ago someone had hung it, I would have found it perplexing and strange, but it would not have been offensive. If around Yom ha’Atzmaut there were flags and a Declaration of Independence decorating the campus, it might add to the festive and patriotic atmosphere. However, unfortunately the Declaration of Independence has recently been co-opted as a symbol by one side of the ongoing heated political battle. Ironically it is the side of the political map that is frequently active in whittling down the Jewish character of the state that has been chanting their allegiance to the Declaration, marching with it, and hanging it. They have carried it in parades and plastered it on their homes. And that is why an individual who holds those political views requested it be hung. Unfortunately, the Bar Ilan administration made the absurd decision to approve hanging it, fully aware it would offend staff and students. And they did not put it on the administration building, but on the neuroscience building!

Misguided appropriation of the Declaration of Independence by people who seem not familiar with its content is not new. In 2014 Shimon Peres said that the proposed Nation-State Basic Law was “an attempt to undermine the Declaration of Independence for political interests.” In early 2019, in a lead-up to elections, Benny Gantz told a crowd of Druze protestors who were angry with the Nation-State Basic Law that had been passed in 2018 and he promised to strengthen “the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country in light of the Zionist vision expressed in the Declaration of Independence.” Indeed, the Declaration has a strong and clear Zionist vision, but it is noteworthy that the words democracy or democratic are absent from the document. And its use of the words equal and equality (which appear twice) are in the context of civil rights not national rights. In reality, based on the very Zionist Declaration of Independence, it seems that the founding fathers would likely have agreed with this Nation-State Basic Law. All three basic principles of the Nation-State law are found almost verbatim in the Declaration of Independence. They are: 1) The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish People, in which the State of Israel was established. 2) The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. 3) The realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People.

The request to hang the Declaration of Independence on a university building was inappropriate, and I am disappointed that the university administration saw fit to approve it, knowing that it would offend people on campus. What justification can there be to hang a symbol that makes a clear political statement? That was obviously the reason for the request; given the current political atmosphere in the country, what other reason could there be?

A number of students and staff feel uncomfortable to the point that they do not want to come to campus. The campus is supposed to be a “safe space” and this has created an atmosphere where people feel intimidated and threatened by their colleagues and superiors. It should be obvious to anyone making this decision that it could marginalize many individuals.

A group of students in the building expressed their discomfort: “As research students and as people who deal with academic science on a daily basis, we understand the importance of freedom of expression and politics in our public life. We feel that the current sign creates an uncomfortable and unbalanced charged environment in the academy and in particular in the building where we work. It is politically identified with a certain party that holds opposing demonstrations.”

In response to a media request, the university explained: “Bar Ilan University, through its senate, made a decision by a majority of votes to support the Jewish and democratic principles of the State of Israel. The principles of the Declaration of Independence, signed by Dr. Zerah Warhaftig from Bar Ilan, like the flags scattered around the campus, are our symbols. In their name, we research and represent Israel with pride.”

It is unbelievable. That statement is disingenuous and condescending. We all respect the Declaration of Independence and its principles. We all appreciate its detailed description of the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in the Land of Israel following the millennia of Jewish longing and we appreciate the Zionist movement. The Declaration of Independence places great emphasis on the Jewish nature of our country while pledging equal rights for all. But none of that is why it is hanging on our building. No one ever thought of hanging it before and no one is reading the huge poster. It was hung for one reason and only one reason – as a symbol of those looking to overthrow the elected government. And for anyone to pretend otherwise is hogwash. If the university administration is taking a political position, I think it is very wrong, but let them be honest and say so. But to issue this statement as an explanation is dishonest. And it is misleading – the senate decision mentioned in the opening sentence was taken months before and was unrelated to the recent hanging of the Declaration of Independence.

The university campus provides an environment in which various sectors of society can meet and it is an ideal place for the nurturing of understanding of the other and thereby taking steps to create a harmonious society. If the university administration truly wants the university to play a part in healing the gaping rift in Israeli society, this is not the way. The hanging Declaration of independence is “in your face”, as the expression goes, and further drives a wedge between segments of society as it makes a declaration of a political opinion by the university and a statement of who is in charge. It certainly does not further dialogue, nor does it bring us closer to working, living, and functioning as a united society.

The precious and profound Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel written by the state’s founding fathers after much thought and deliberation, so eloquently describes the right of the Jewish people to a Jewish country in our homeland, should be respected, taught, studied, and serve as a unifying document – not hung as a political statement on the side of a university building in the current political climate.

An early version of this appeared in the Jerusalem Post on August 24, 2023.

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in Mishpacha magazine and in his regular column (now running 20+ years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action.
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