The Hebrew Translation of the
Declaration of Independence

S. Ilan Troen

The Declaration of Independence in Hebrew

The first Hebrew version of the American Declaration of Independence appeared in Palestine in a 1945 textbook presenting the Western political tradition. 1The appearance of this document in translation 169 years after it was issued is directly related to two important developments: the emergence of Hebrew as a modern language and the perception that knowledge of the United States might be useful to Hebrew speakers.

Although Hebrew is an ancient language and has been in continuous use for more than three millennia, for nearly the last two thousand years Hebrew was rarely spoken to communicate on secular matters. A vital means of religious expression and of scholarly discourse on the practice and interpretation of Judaism, it was most frequently employed in worship and in the exegesis of sacred texts. During the Enlightenment, or toward the end of the eighteenth century when Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues framed the Declaration of Independence, Hebrew began its renaissance as Jews started leaving the confines of the ghetto for European society. They and their ancient language began to become secularized. Hebrew was increasingly employed beyond the traditional religious framework for all manner of intellectual and mundane discourse. In the course of the nineteenth century, the literature available to readers of Hebrew was increasingly and programmatically extended, but it was restricted to the wealth of writings available to educated Europeans. Translations were made of the Greek and Latin classics and of works in the contemporary European canon, produced from Russia to England and from Italy to Scandinavia. 2

This interest in European culture is not surprising. Jews were an overwhelmingly European people throughout the nineteenth century. In 1900, more than 80 percent of world Jewry lived in Europe. Approaching 2000, less than 20 percent remains there, with approximately 75 percent divided between the United States and Israel. 3Jews who came to the United States could read the Declaration of Independence in the original. In Israel, they would require a Hebrew translation.

This is not to say that the literature of the New World was entirely neglected in Hebrew. The first two American literary works that appeared in Hebrew were Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, both published in Warsaw in 1898. 4During the next half century, other works of history and literature were translated into Hebrew and published in various major European cities. It was only in the 1950s that translations from American culture became prevalent. With the destruction of most of European Jewry during World War II, Palestine emerged as the center of Hebrew culture even as the United States became the home to the most significant contemporary Jewish Diaspora. Jews throughout the world, including Zionists in Palestine, began to look to America for inspiration. The United States held out the best hope for all that was positive and hopeful in Western civilization, the promise that secularized Jews had come to admire and to expect since the Enlightenment. This was the context in which Israelis discovered the Declaration of Independence.

America is given only passing reference in histories prepared before World War II by Hebrew writers, who were nearly all transplanted Europeans and whose first language was rarely English or even Hebrew. They viewed the United States as an offshoot of European history and culture and naturally placed a very limited discussion of the American Revolution and its documents within accounts of the far more momentous and extensive European revolutionary tradition. 5

The Declaration of Independence was finally translated in Chen-Melech Merhavia's Herut u'Mishtar (Liberty and government, 1945) in a modest section of eleven documents related to the coming of the American Revolution. These include the Mayflower Compact of 1620 and the resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. Merhavia provides a translation of the complete text that was reproduced in part or in full in subsequent histories. 6

The translation that probably had the greatest impact on Israeli readers was published in 1969 in a text devoted to American history edited by Yehoshua Arieli, the pioneer and doyen of American historians in Israel. Although Arieli provides only a partial translation, his is probably the most frequently read version among Israelis, particularly those who study American history at universities. It, too, presents the declaration alongside other documents to re-create the revolutionary moment and tradition. 7

The American Revolution had begun to receive more extensive treatment in the decade prior to the publication of Arieli's text. For example, Ya'acov Touray and Dan A. Schmidt's Toldoth Ha-Amim be-Zman he-Chadash (The history of nations in the modern period, 1957) provides a discussion of about 25 pages. Still, the place of American history is secondary. The French Revolution merits 70 pages. Employing the same emphasis that Arieli would adopt a decade later, the authors translate only the first two and the last paragraphs of the declaration, skipping the detailed complaints against the king. 8The implicit interpretation here, as in other Israeli texts on the American Revolution, is that this event signaled the spread of liberal and democratic ideas. The authors focus on the fundamental ideology of the Revolution rather than analyze it as a particular event. In this grand theme, America exemplifies a just revolution that creates a model and a universal document for all to emulate.

Turning to the nuances of these translations, it is speculative to suggest that use of a particular word or phrase results from a particular political or intellectual agenda. After only a half century of vigorous linguistic development, the Hebrew of the 1945 translation appears stilted and formal. It may have seemed so at the time. The translator tried to impress upon the reader the document's standing as a triumph of rhetoric by using the resources of a tradition of learned writing, but the Hebrew version lacks the grace and fluidity of the English original. The 1967 version is more successful, possibly because it is closer to the present and probably because of Arieli's linguistic gifts. Nevertheless, a few words and phrases reflect the cultural problems of rendering into Hebrew a document that derives from the American experience.

Probably the most obvious and most significant difficulty is in the translation of the word "people," which is universally translated into Hebrew as 'am. This is problematic since the concept of "people" has different connotations in the American and the Jewish experiences. In one of the few footnotes to his version of the declaration, Arieli is at pains to explain that "people" in the American document refers to "members of society" ( be'ney chevra ). 'Am can and often does have a more collective sense in Hebrew. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives as the first meaning of "people," "human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by a common interest." "Persons" is offered as a synonym. A Hebrew equivalent, Reuben Alcalay's The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary renders 'am in the following order: "nation, folk, community, populace, inhabitants, tribe; crowd, multitude, mob." The sense of the collective, and not simply of the association of individual human beings, is paramount in the Hebrew. 9

A recent essay by Israel's attorney general, Eliyakim Rubinstein, may elucidate this point. A noted scholar of Israel's Declaration of Independence, Rubinstein compares the American and Israeli documents from an Israeli perspective. He observes that, as opposed to the American predecessor, Israel's declaration emphasizes collective or national rights rather than individual ones. An essential distinction between the two societies, he finds, is that the State of Israel is defined in ethnic, national terms and was created as an instrument for fulfilling national Jewish purposes and collective goals rather than indvidual liberties. 10

The term "rights" appears seven times in Israel's declaration, and in each instance, it is within a national context. For example, the document refers to the "right of the Jewish people and national renewal in its own land"; "the right [of the survivors of the Holocaust] for a life of dignity, liberty and honest labor in their nation's homeland"; the "natural right of the Jewish people to exist as all independent nations do in its own sovereign state"; and "by the power of our natural and historical right." Moreover, the first set of paragraphs, fully one-half of the declaration, is devoted to reviewing Jewish history in order to establish the "rights" of the Jewish people to a state of their own in Palestine. Such an assertion of collective, national rights would have been premature in the Declaration of Independence, and it probably is still unthinkable in the American experience. Israel's declaration also claims that Israelis are endowed with individual rights, but this assertion comes only toward the end of the document in a section that echoes formulations of human rights promulgated by the United Nations, the international body that granted legitimacy to the "Jewish State." 11

A final issue bears mention. The framers of the American declaration were careful not to include the name of the deity in whom most Americans believed nor the name of their religion. They circumvented traditional religious nomenclature by speaking of "Nature's God." In addition, the declaration's final sentence concludes with a reference to "a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence."

The framers of Israel's founding document also skirted the issue. They concluded Israel's declaration:

With trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand to the Declaration, at this Session of the Provisional State Council, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the fifth of Iyar, 5708, the fourteenth day of May, 1948.

Like David Ben-Gurion, who played a role similar to Thomas Jefferson's in formulating Israel's founding document, the other Israeli framers were nearly all born in Europe and well versed in European social and political thought. Most were secular, and some were avowedly antireligious. Their departure from traditional belief was so marked that they enshrined in the opening paragraph of Israel's declaration one of the most revolutionary statements in the history of the Jewish people: "Here [in the Land of Israel] they [the Jewish people] wrote and gave the Bible to the world." Reversing the accepted "truth" that the Torah was written by God and transmitted to Moses and to the people at Mount Sinai, they assigned to the Bible human rather than divine authorship. 12

For such a group, it was both imperative and difficult to find a formula that could tactfully elide the long-established and popular identification of the Jewish people with a God who made covenants with his people, particularly at a moment when the promise of the Return was apparently being fulfilled. Since they shared the same negative orientation to traditional religion found in the world of Thomas Jefferson but wished not to offend those who held to established beliefs, they also exploited the linguistic ambiguities found in the American solution. Although it cannot be claimed that there was explicit imitation, they, too, employed an apt metaphor -- Tzur Yisrael, or the Rock of Israel -- that resonates with the image of "Rock of Ages," a traditional name for God. This formula, the Israeli equivalent to "Nature's God" and "Divine Providence," permitted Israel's founders to obfuscate an intractable problem by allowing divergent readings of the same phrase. 13

I would conclude by noting a benefit the Hebrew translation of the American Declaration of Independence may provide. Among the most frequently recalled phrases from the document is "the pursuit of Happiness." Hebrew-speaking students readily apprehend how an early draft's "pursuit of Property" became the final version's "pursuit of Happiness." The relationship between property and happiness may cause some embarrassment to English speakers, and a learned disquisition, such as the well-known analysis provided by Carl L. Becker, may be required to explicate the connection. 14 That is not the case for Hebrew speakers. "Happiness" is universally translated into Hebrew as 'osher. Hearing rather than reading 'osher leads to ambiguity since 'osher sounds the same when spelled with an aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) or with an ayin (the sixteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet). The former means "happiness." The latter means "wealth." Thus, for most auditors the distinction between the two is readily blurred, and they are primed to consider the affinity, if not the identity, between "happiness" and "property." Presenting the American Declaration of Independence in Hebrew can thus facilitate the exploration of the causes and the meaning of the American Revolution.

S. Ilan Troen is the Sam and Anna Lopin Professor of Modern History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel, and editor of Israel Studies.
Readers may contact Troen at troen@bgumail.

1. Chen-Melech Merhavia, Herut u'Mishtar (Liberty and government) ( Jerusalem, 1945).

2. For an extended discussion of the turn from Europe to America, see S. Ilan Troen, "The Discovery of America in the Israeli University: Historical, Cultural, and Methodological Perspectives," Journal of American History, 81 ( June 1994), 164 - 82.

3. S. Ilan Troen, Jewish Centers and Peripheries: Europe between America and Israel Fifty Years after World War II (New Brunswick, 1999).

4. For a detailed publishing history of these two books, see Troen, "Discovery of America in the Israeli University," 169n9.

5. See Avigdor Tcherikover, Historia Klalit: Ha-Eyt Ha-Chadasha mey-Tekufat Ha-Techiya ad 1776 (General history, from the Renaissance to 1776) (Tel Aviv, 1935), 1; Eliyahu Blank, Historia Klalit (General history) ( Jerusalem, 1938), 150 - 52.

6. Merhavia, Herut u'Mishtar, 272 - 81.

7. Yehoshua Arieli, Ha-Machshava ha-Medinit be-Artzoth-Habrith; Mekoroth ve-Teudoth (Political thought in the United States: Sources and documents) (2 vols., Jerusalem, 1969), I, 107 - 8.

8. Ya'acov Touray and Dan A. Schmidt, Toldoth Ha-Amim be-Zman he-Chadash (The history of nations in the modern period) (Tel Aviv, 1957).

9. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, s.v. "people"; Reuben Alcalay, The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary ( Jerusalem, 1963), 1910.

10. Eliyakim Rubinstein, "The Declaration of Independence as a Basic Document of the State of Israel," Israel Studies, 3 (Spring 1998), 195 - 210. The literal translation of the title of the Hebrew document is scroll of independence ( Megillath Ha-Atzma'ut ).

11. The official translation first appeared in the Palestine Post, May 16, 1948, pp. 1 - 2. A more accessible publication is Itamar Rabinovich and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., Israel in the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, 1948 - Present (New York, 1984), 12 - 15.

12. See Zeev Sharef, Three Days, trans. Julian Meltzer (London, 1962), 226 - 27, 273. The translator of this volume incorrectly translates Tzur Yisrael as "Almighty God."

13. Ibid. , 273.

14. Carl Becker found the roots of the formula, "life, liberty, and property" in John Locke's Two Treatises on Civil Government. See, for example, Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922; New York, 1942), 64-66, 122. Two more recent and more thorough studies explore the exchange of "happiness" for "property" in Thomas Jefferson's appreciation of Locke and other theorists. See Howard Mumford Jones, The Pursuit of Happiness (Ithaca, 1966), 20-26; Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (London, 1980), 229-39.