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David Ben-Gurion and the Meaning of ‘Mamlachtiut’

avatar by Gershon Hacohen


Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (right) visits the “Machal 101” air squadron. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For David Ben-Gurion, the concept of mamlachtiut captured the perennial tension between the establishment of the State of Israel as an orderly and delimited institutional project, and the view of the state as a means of an exalted process of redemption. Hence, even after its establishment, Israel would continue — as an instrument through which to fulfill an infinite vision — to be “a state in the making.”

During and after the recent election campaign, Israeli political discourse was replete with calls for the need for “mamlachtiut” in the conduct of political affairs, though the current meaning of this concept differs drastically from its original idea as conceived by Ben-Gurion.

While present day politicians view mamlachtiut, which cannot be translated directly into English, as subordinating political and sectoral interests to the general good (or “Israel before everything,” to use the election slogan of the newly formed Blue and White Party), Ben-Gurion did not confine the concept to proper administration and the rule of law, to avoiding conflicts of interest and ensuring integrity.

According to Ben-Gurion’s creed, mamlachtiut is the compass that should guide leaders even when they come into conflict with the law and with the political opposition.

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Mamlachtiut was behind Ben-Gurion’s injunctions to dismantle the Palmah and close down the separate Labor Zionist school system. He likewise demanded an uncompromising effort, transcending administrative and rational considerations, to fulfill the Jewish state’s commitment to the in-gathering of the exiles. Accordingly, he insisted that all immigrants be brought to the country without delay, despite a severe shortage of resources and the lack of any comprehensive solution for housing and employing them.

It was also on the basis of mamlachtiut that Ben-Gurion rejected the demand for a constitution. He rightly maintained that the part of the Jewish people then living in Israel was not entitled to lay down a constitution that would prevent future immigrants from exerting their own influence and effecting their own changes. In this regard, Ben-Gurion’s mamlachtiut constitutes a demand for loyalty to the meta-story of the Jewish nation as it renews itself in the homeland.

Ben-Gurion understood that a state is a dynamic entity, and that the Jewish state would always have to cope with crises and stresses. With the concept of mamlachtiut he sought to create an escape hatch from the fixation with laws and regulations. From public servants as well, he demanded a loyalty that was not merely formal: “The workers of the state will indeed shape the image of the government. Not the law but the performance is what counts. … The special historical mission of the State of Israel cannot be fulfilled merely in proper laws and faithful clerical work.”

Tensions arising from basic contradictions cannot easily be contained by laws and a constitution. Mamlachtiut means choosing a different way of running things. In a way, it is comparable to choosing a homeopathic medical treatment over a conventional one.

Only by using a holistic thought model is it possible to contain the contradiction entailed by Ben-Gurion’s use of the concept of mamlachtiut. On the one hand, it means abandoning the Jewish people’s millenarian exilic legacy of surviving as small minorities in hostile environments by circumventing the policies and legislation of repressive regimes. On the other, it requires that public servants interpret the law flexibly and non-bureaucratically, so as to remain loyal to their mission.

In using mamlachtiut as a kind of compass, Ben-Gurion sought to enhance loyalty to an exalted vision that is beyond the here and now. As he explained: “The resurrection of the Jewish state does not mean the fulfillment of the vision of redemption. Since the overwhelming majority of the Jewish People are still dispersed among the nations, the Jewish state is not yet the actualization of the Jewish redemption; it is only the main instrument and means of our redemption.”

Thus, Israeli mamlachtiut entails a sense of moving in perpetual tension between, on the one hand, the establishment of the state as an orderly and delimited institutional project, and on the other, its establishment as a means in an exalted process of redemption that extends into eternity. It is in this light that, in Ben-Gurion’s view, even after its establishment Israel will continue — as an instrument to fulfill an infinite vision — to be “a state in the making.”

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years and commanded troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.

This article was originally published by The BESA Center. An edited version was published in The Liberal.

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