A Curious Case

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.
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Usually, the Speaker of the Knesset’s opening address commencing Israeli Independence Day, given at the ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, is a pretty dull series of clichés: “In this —th year of our independence, we take pride in our achievements and look forward to the future with hope,” etc., etc. This year, however, it was different. Speaker Reuven (“Rubi”) Rivlin, a senior Likud politician and a former close associate of Ariel Sharon’s who has broken with the prime minister over the Gaza disengagement plan, opened his heart and spoke emotionally about the difficult months ahead. Making no attempt to hide his own anti-disengagement views while showing empathy for both sides, he pleaded with the country to avoid civil conflict. Rivlin ended with an emotional declaration of faith in “tsur yisra’el,” “the Rock of Israel.”

Or should it be “the rock of Israel”? Hebrew, after all, has no capital letters, so one doesn’t have to choose between the alternative of capitalizing the word, in which case it clearly would be a reference to God, or lowercasing it and making it more ambiguous.

In fact, it’s a good thing that there are no capitals in Hebrew, because if there were, its 1948 Declaration of Independence, in which this phrase occurs, might never have been signed in time. What happened was this:

On the afternoon of May 14, 1948, as the British high commissioner was about to leave Palestine with the last of his troops, the final draft of the declaration that David Ben-Gurion intended to read to the nation that same night still had not been agreed on. The last remaining bone of contention was a religious one: The representatives of the religious parties, while accepting the draft declaration’s promise of religious freedom for the new state’s inhabitants, wanted God to be mentioned in it. Their chief negotiator, Moshe Shapira, then head of the Aliya Desk at the Jewish Agency and future minister of the Interior in Israel’s first Cabinet, suggested a closing reference to “elohei yisra’el,” “the God of Israel.”

However, the representatives of the left-wing Mapam (an acronym for Mifleget ha-Po’alim ha-Me’uh.edet, the United Workers Party) were adamantly opposed. Religious freedom, they insisted, applied to atheists and to freethinkers, too, and God did not belong in an official statement by a secular state, much less in its founding proclamation. If God was in, they were out.

To make matters worse, it was a Friday. If the text was not finished and declaimed before the Sabbath began, it would have to wait until Saturday night, in which case the Jewish people would spend their first 24 hours of freedom in their ancestral land without a state.

At the last minute, Shapira came to Ben-Gurion with a proposal for a compromise. Why not replace “elohei yisra’el” with “tsur yisra’el” “the R(r)ock of Israel”? Although this was a biblical phrase clearly referring to God (as in, for example, II Samuel, 23:3 “The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me….”), Shapira argued that entrenched secularists could interpret it if they so wished as a metaphor for any source of national strength. Ben-Gurion liked the idea, went to the leaders of Mapam with it and managed to convince them. Before the sun had set on that Friday afternoon, the world heard him read a declaration of independence that concluded:

“Placing our trust in the R(r)ock of Israel, we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional council of the state, on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve the 5th day of Iyar, 5708 [May 14, 1948].”

In point of fact, Ben-Gurion himself, who was far from being a traditionally believing Jew, preferred the interpretation with which he persuaded Mapam. As far as he, too, was concerned, he later said, “tsur yisra’el” meant to him that “the R(r)ock of Israel is to be found in the State of Israel and the Book of Books [i.e., the Bible].”

On strictly linguistic grounds this is a difficult position to defend. True, the word tsur in the Bible does not always denote God; in quite a number of places it signifies a literal rock. Yet whenever used metaphorically, it always means God and has no other possible referent. At bottom, the secularists who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence were willing to pretend otherwise for the sake of mutual concord.

It was this same concord that Rubi Riblin was seeking to evoke in his address on Independence Day eve. By calling for faith in “tsur yisra’el,” he was in effect saying, “On the brink of disengagement, let the heavily secularist left and the heavily religious right understand that it is still possible to compromise and work out solutions between them.” What was doable on the afternoon of May 14, 1948, is doable, so his choice of language implied, now, too.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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