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Israel Studies 7.3 (2002) 117-133

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Ben-Gurion's Mamlakhtiyut:
Etymological and Theoretical Roots

Nir Kedar

As central as the ambiguous political expression mamlakhtiyut is to Israeli culture and history, very few serious, systematic studies have heretofore attempted to deal with it. 1

At first glance, the term mamlakhtiyut appears quite confusing since no English equivalent exists for it. Hebrew-English dictionaries translate the term as "statehood" or "sovereignty," with the adjective mamlakhti rendered as "officially of the state." 2 Historians and scholars often refer to mamlakhtiyut as "statism" or "étatism," 3 but these attempts fall short of the exact meaning of the concept and fail to convey the meaning in such common Hebrew expressions as a "mamlakhti approach" (gisha mamlakhtit) or "mamlakhti personality" (demut mamlakhtit). The English translations are sorely misleading because they ascribe to the Hebrew concept a pejorative nuance absent in the Hebrew. The concept of "étatism" not only places the state in the center of the political sphere but it also de-legitimizes all other aspects of public life. 4 Identifying mamlakhtiyut with étatism therefore imposes an unfair burden of proof upon the Hebrew idea, that in turn forces those who use it to demonstrate the difference between mamlakhtiyut and fascism or other forms of totalitarian étatism.

In the following pages I would like to offer a new understanding of mamlakhtiyut as a concept. According to my analysis, mamlakhtiyut is a complicated, even dialectical political concept, and not merely a term that posits state predominance over other power centers. More than a political theory of sovereignty, as in the classic works of Jean Bodin, Samuel Pufendorf and Thomas Hobbes, mamlakhtiyut is a contemporary political ideology that copes simultaneously with the form and substance of two basic characteristics of the modern state: sovereignty and norm. I will attempt to prove that the term not only implies sovereignty (i.e. power) and formal state-machinery but is a normative expression that stresses "state consciousness," i.e. society's ability to construct a civilized sovereign polity based on the respect of democracy, law, and civic values. 5 [End Page 117]

The idea of mamlakhtiyut is identified with Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who coined the word, introduced it into the Hebrew language, altered its meaning a number of times according to changes in his political thinking, and eventually adopted it as his guiding principle. The complete history of mamlakhtiyut goes beyond the aims of this article. I will therefore bypass the "battles over mamlakhtiyut" waged during Israel's first fifteen years of independence (e.g. the dismantling of the pre-state militias, and the centralization of a mamlakhti education system), and concentrate, instead, on the intellectual history of mamlakhtiyut as the idea evolved between the two world wars. Social injustices perpetrated in the name of mamlakhtiyut notwithstanding, I will address the theoretical and ideological roots of the concept in order to illustrate the social questions mamlakhtiyut endeavored to solve.

Recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein's notion that the limits of our language are the boundaries of our universe, the article begins by investigating the historical and etymological roots of mamlakhtiyut, showing that the Hebrew word was not contrived in order to bestow a glorious ancestral past on the young state, but that it had been translated from Russian already in the early 1910s. The second part of the article will correlate the original Russian expression to Ben-Gurion's political conception of the nation-state and explain the development of the adjectival form mamlakhti from a descriptive expression of "the state as an institution" into a comprehensive normative concept.

Mamlakhtiyut: between nation and state

Curiously, it is hard to find a single serious attempt to uncover the historical and linguistic roots of mamlakhtiyut and explain the facility with which it entered the Hebrew language and became a key concept in the Israeli political discourse. 6 The reason for this might be that the word is in such general use today that most Hebrew speakers imagine it comes from the Bible, Talmud, or medieval Hebrew.

Mamlakhtiyut can indeed trace its...


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