Rhetorical Style in Israel’s Declaration of Independence
On a warm Friday afternoon in May, shortly before the Sabbath’s arrival, a black chauffer-driven vehicle pulls up in front of 16 Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, and out climbs a diminutive figure with unruly white hair. After brusquely saluting the nervous crowds awaiting him in the sunshine, David Ben-Gurion races up the stairs of the Tel Aviv Museum, eager for his appointment with destiny. Within minutes, history will be made…and an exiled nation reborn.
On the agenda for those assembled inside the building is the announcement and broadcast of what will be the Third Commonwealth of the Jewish People who, for 1,813 years since the fall of Betar and the defeat of Bar Kokhba by Emperor Hadrian, have languished in the Diaspora and been subjected to a litany of discriminations, persecutions, disputations, inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms, and genocide.
The political manifestation of Zionism—the age-old emotional and spiritual longing of Jews to return to their beloved homeland—has now taken on renewed impetus due to the exigencies following Hitler’s Final Solution. Holocaust survivors have been struggling to penetrate the borders of British Mandate Palestine, and many have died en route or have been turned back by the stringent authorities. The small local Jewish community is struggling to withstand the siege and terrorism of Arab forces, yet this night is to be a defining moment in the course of events, culminating decades of organizing, planning, building, and advocating for the national restoration of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
With that subject and occasion in mind, the Zionist leaders have prepared a foundational document to be read by Ben-Gurion and heard and seen by two audiences: world Jewry, and the world as a whole. Crafted into the text of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel are statements directed to both audiences, and making unique requests of each. With Arab armies poised to surround and overwhelm the fragile state, and their leaders threatening and mobilizing to annihilate the Jews in their midst, the Zionists risk not only worldwide humiliation in the event of defeat by their enemies who greatly outnumber them, but indeed their very lives remain imperiled. Jerusalem is already sorely besieged and Tel Aviv lies in the sights of every advancing Arab gun and tank cannon in the region, compounding the gravitas of the event.
Despite their hour of dire need, the Jewish leadership has been carefully toiling on the final wording and structure of the declarative discourse, whose statecraft genre encompasses proclamations of independence and emancipation, constitutions, basic laws, bills of rights, charters of rights and freedoms, and other official documents or pieces of legislation of national import to any given political entity. Repeatedly redrafted by committees in Hebrew, Israel’s Declaration of Independence is finally approved by Ben-Gurion and other principals of the People’s Administration and People’s Council, pre-State institutions of governance.
The official English translation is mostly loyal to the original, with a few minor, and two major, exceptions. Overall, its twenty sections—nineteen textual paragraphs and a coda of signatures—feature a straightforward, narrative style which steadily progresses to the climactic proclamation itself, followed by a denouement, and which utilizes a variety of sentence types, primarily simple and complex. The diction is usually general, concrete, common, formal, emotive, and denotative, but there are also instances of the specific, abstract, referential, connotative, and Latinate. The shortest section (para. 10) is a single sentence of 26 words; the longest (para. 13) is a single sentence of 103 words. The discourse’s overall brevity and concision add to the sense of gathering momentum and urgent reality of the situation. Few transitional devices are used, but there are ample rhetorical schemes and tropes, particularly anaphora, alliteration, climax, periphrasis, synecdoche, parallelism, assonance, polysyndeton, and prosopopoeia—stylistic tools effectively used to enhance the resonance of their messaging.
Like the original Declaration, the English translation’s sections can be grouped into five coherent divisions, as follows:
- Narrative Preamble (paragraphs 1-3)
- Jewish History Summation of the Modern Era (paragraphs 4-9)
- Proclamation of Independence (paragraphs 10-14)
- Entreaties (paragraphs 12-18)
- Signatures (paragraphs 19-20)
In the preamble, the English version correctly translates “Eretz-Israel” as the “Land of Israel” (para. 1), although on subsequent occasions it notably retains only the transliterated form. The effect of this is to ease the international community into the Jewish context, a gradual plumbing of the depths. Interestingly, the document will return to the Gentile worldview by concluding with the date in the Western (Christian), Gregorian calendar, coming full circle. Outlining the heritage and connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel sets the tone of justification, and highlights the key motif of repatriation. The early use of anaphora in “Here their spiritual […] Here they first […]” (para. 1), sets the concise, factual tone that permeates the text throughout. Initial instances of alliteration, “created cultural” (para. 1), and periphrasis, “Book of Books” (para. 1) also occur, and the entire passage is an example of climax, building until mention of “values of national and universal significance”. Together these signify the beginning of a rhetorically sophisticated document marshalling diverse figures of speech to make its case.
The preamble’s abstract diction—e.g. “kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion” (para. 1)—lends itself to the overarching narrative sweep, and this division also includes examples of hyperbole, as in “never ceased to pray”; polysyndeton, “and hope for their return to it and for the restoration […]” (para. 2); and antithesis, “loving peace but knowing how to defend itself”. Climax is again evident at the introduction’s end: “they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture […] and aspiring towards independent nationhood” (para. 3). Momentum increases for rhetor and reader alike, laying the groundwork for a summation of the modern age.
Beginning with the advent of political Zionism, the historical summation serves to delineate the major steps en route to renewed statehood for the Jewish People. An underlining climax arises from the progression of Herzl’s First Zionist Congress in 1897 until the UN General Assembly’s resolution half a century later in favor of a Jewish state. Apposition, “the spiritual father of the Jewish state, Theodor Herzl,” (para. 4), and parallelism, “recognized in the Balfour Declaration […], and reaffirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations” (para. 5) or “Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world” (para. 7), are utilized in balancing the argument for Jewish sovereignty before the world. Latinate diction is more apparent in such legal passages, as in “convened and proclaimed” (para. 4), “international sanction” and “historic connection” (para. 5), and “implementation of that resolution” (para. 9), which amplifies the lawful and official tone. The evocative synecdoches, “gates of the homeland” (para. 6) and “blood of its soldiers” (para. 8), graphically depict Israeli borders and lives, respectively, which compels reader attention, while the phrase “fully privileged member” (para. 6) is connotative diction indicating the lesser status Jews have heretofore experienced. Sibilance, “ceased to assert” (para. 7) or “establish their State” (para. 9), assonance, “right to a life” (para. 7), and alliteration, “community of this country contributed” or “right to be reckoned” (para. 8), are each embedded to maintain the brisk tempo of the text despite the weighty particulars of the recapitulated facts. Interestingly, the translation uses the lower case “holocaust”, as in burnt offering or destruction, in place of the original Hebrew “Shoah”, evincing that the definitive term Holocaust was not yet commonly applied to the Nazi genocide in 1948 . On the whole, the summation is both a review of legal precedents and a detailed précis for international legitimation of the current action, and readers and listeners are made to bear witness to what seems the forward march of fate, whose inexorable culmination is now embodied in stalwart spokesman Ben-Gurion.
The next division asserts the auto-emancipation, or agency, of Jewry, epitomized in the proclamation of independence itself. As “masters of their own fate” (para. 10), Palestinian Jews are surpassing the emancipation of fellow Jews in foreign countries, in favor of liberation and self-determination in their homeland. Transitional devices such as “this” and “accordingly” (paras. 10, 11), along with instances of polysyndeton, “our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution” (para. 11) and alliteration, “accordance with the constitution” or “moment of the termination of the Mandate” (para. 12), are used here to quicken the pace and focalize the momentous declaration. Apposition, “tonight, the eve of the Sabbath”, and parallelism, “the People’s Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People’s Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State” (para. 12) again help to balance and moderate the excitement of this historic proclamation. Latinate diction, as in “termination” (paras. 11, 12), “inhabitants” (para. 13), and “implementing” (para. 14), adds to the officialese and authoritative nature of the declaration. The prominent double anaphora, “The State of Israel” (paras. 13, 14) and “it will foster the development […]; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace […]; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights […]; it will guarantee freedom of religion […]; it will safeguard the Holy Places […]; it will be faithful to the principles” (para. 13) is a tactical manifestation of the reality transpiring even as Ben-Gurion speaks: repeating the nascent country’s name is a speech act which solidifies and corroborates the newly announced circumstances, and the decisive tone of the national intentions displays organization of thought and implies matter-of-fact determination. The fact that this is the lengthiest section of the document is therefore no coincidence, since the text here asseverates the actuality and ontology of the newborn nation. This division closes with a conciliatory ethical appeal, positing Israel’s readiness to “cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations” and to “take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel” (para. 14), the latter phrase being connotative diction signifying those parts of the historical Land of Israel excluded from the State of Israel, i.e. Jordan and Palestine. The placatory tone smoothly transitions into the division of entreaties, continuing the discourse in a vein of humility.
The fourth division features four separate pleas directed to the UN, Arab Israelis, Arab neighbors in the Middle East, and Jews in the Diaspora (what was then, and for the remainder of the 20th century, the majority of world Jewry). Once again anaphora leads the rhetorical way: “We appeal to the United Nations […]; We appeal […] to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel […]; We extend our hand to all neighbouring states […] and appeal to them […]; We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora” (paras. 15-18). A minor change in the translation is the substitution of “community” of nations for the original Hebrew word for “family”. Emotive diction resonates in the notable instance of parenthesis, “We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants” (para. 16), suggesting the desperate plight of the Jewish residents, harried and beleaguered in the hostilities already underway. The leadership knew that surrounding Arab armies were threatening full invasion, and that the odds of survival were unfavorable. This appeal, therefore, is a rhetorical attempt to appease the local Arab residents who might join the imminent military escalation, and if nothing else enhances the ethos of the Jews seeking compromise and peace in the face of predicted aggression from within and without.
In these passages figures of speech continue to play a salient part. The assonance of “State on the basis” (para. 16) or “prepared to do its share” (para. 17) or “appeal to the people” (para. 18), and the alliteration of “preserve peace and participate” or “provisional and permanent” (para. 16) or “rally round” (para. 18) assist in the fluidity and urgency of the implorations. Polysyndeton is also critical here, evident in almost every passage of this division: “and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions” (para. 16); “and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help” (para. 17); “and upbuilding and to stand by them” (para. 18). The latter phrase is connotative diction implying both financial and military volunteer support for the Haganah defense forces (later the IDF). The synecdoche, “We extend our hand to all neighbouring states” (para. 17), adds to the earnest and familiar quality of what is being beseeched, namely friendship and cooperation. Thus, the division of entreaties is important for the nascent state’s ethical appeal and in asking key stakeholders for their aid in trying times.
To muster the requisite moral support for the reestablishment of the State, and to call upon allies to ensure its survival through practical means, the eminent members of the Jewish leadership now sign the declaration, showing their unity and determination in founding anew the national home of the Jews in their native land. They do so with a transitional device, “Placing our trust in the Almighty” (para. 19), a denotative allusion to God, although the translation uses the word “Almighty” in lieu of the original Hebrew epithet “Rock of Israel”. This is a seminal distinction because, after heated debate, the secular Ben-Gurion finally agreed to the age-old honorific for Yahweh which satisfied the religious Zionists, though he and other nonreligious principals interpreted the terminology in a more literal sense, that of the Land of Israel. The fact that the translation uses the unambiguous “Almighty” is therefore a fascinating decision, making it clear that, internal Jewish nuances aside, the nation chose to affirm its sense of divine aegis to the outside world. The religious aspect is also noted in the translation with the words “Sabbath eve” (para. 19), the literal equivalent of the Hebrew, although “Friday night” would have worked just as well if a secular slant was intended. The passage closes with the date, first in the Judaic calendar, then reverting to the Gregorian so as to punctuate the bond Israel seeks with the West.
Ultimately, then, this final textual passage should be read as a strategic blend of religious and secular Jewry coalescing in the reestablishment of Israel, sending Jews in the Diaspora and Gentiles the world over a strong message: the State of Israel is undertaken by and open to Jews of all observance levels—revealing unity without uniformity or even unanimity—and a country desirous of good relations with other nations premised on respect, peace, and mutual interest.
 Another noteworthy word choice in this division is one of hyperbole, occurring when the UN’s recognition of Jewish statehood is termed “irrevocable” (para. 9), since in a few decades’ time the UN would deem Zionism a form of racism, only retracting that canard over a decade later, proving that the UN can resolve and revoke at whim.
 This notion is further evidenced in the signatures themselves, which include names indicative of all three Jewish classes: Priests (e.g. Yehuda Leib HaCohen Fishman, Rachel Cohen), Levites (e.g. Saadia Kobashi HaLevy, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin), and Israelites (most of the others). The mix also joins Ashkenazim and Sephardim, men and women, young and old, religious and secular, socialists and communists, soldiers and statesmen (including several future prime ministers and presidents of Israel).