Natural and Historic Right: Investigating the American and Israeli Declarations of Independence

Neil Rogachevsky presents at the conference
Dr. Neil Rogachevsky presents at the workshop.

On December 2, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah & Western Thought, in partnership with the Jack Miller Center, hosted a workshop on the American and Israeli Declarations of Independence at the Yeshiva University Museum. The workshop, entitled “Natural and Historic Right,” invited renowned scholars of American and Israeli history to reflect on the enduring significance of these founding documents.

Seventy faculty members, students and guests attended the workshop, with Straus Associate Director Neil Rogachevsky presiding. Rogachevsky opened the workshop by spotlighting the ideological link between the Israeli Declaration and its American predecessor. He also noted how key principles of each declaration spark fierce controversy to this day. Some consider the American Declaration’s emphasis on individual rights to be corrosive to communal responsibility, while others find the Israeli Declaration’s commitment to Jewish sovereignty to be anti-democratic. These controversies, Rogachevsky argued, make a careful examination of these texts more vital than ever.  

Rogachevsky then turned the floor over to a panel on the Israeli Declaration moderated by Yael Hungerford (Executive Director, Adam Smith Society) and featuring James Diamond (Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies, University of Waterloo), Liel Leibovitz (Editor at Large, Tablet Magazine), Donna Robinson Divine (Morningstar Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and Professor Emerita of Government, Smith College) and Dov Zigler (independent scholar).  

James Diamond spoke about biblical language in the text of the Israeli Declaration, arguing that it serves to channel humanitarian principles through the familiar medium of prophetic scripture. Dr. Leibovitz noted the boldness in the Israeli founders’ decision to declare a state despite growing uncertainty about Jewry’s future in Palestine. He argued that this kind of audaciousness is characteristic of covenantal societies, wherein the social contract hinges not on past associations, but upon future aspirations.

Liel Leibovitz Conference
Liel Leibovitz presents at the conference.

Donna Robinson Divine also commented on Israel’s bold beginnings, noting the declaration’s ambiguity regarding the political architecture of the proposed state. She demonstrated how competition between Zionist organizations like the Jewish Agency and the Histadrut further complicated the matter. Finally, Dov Zigler spoke about the starkly different drafts of the Declaration, drawing on his and Neil Rogachevsky’s forthcoming book Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment.

Following the panel, Moshe Halbertal (Gruss Professor of Law, New York University) discussed how ongoing debates about the State of Israel’s Jewish character reflect a deeper tension between national identity and democracy at the heart of the Declaration.

Next, a panel on the American Declaration was convened, featuring William Galston (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution), Steven Smith (Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science, Yale University), Bill Kristol (Editor at Large, The Bulwark) and Samuel Goldman (Executive Director, George Washington University’s John L. Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom).

William Galston contrasted the American and Israeli Declarations, characterizing the latter as a declaration of sovereignty while presenting the former as a more universal proclamation of rights which ultimately justifies the latter document’s argument.

Steven Smith spoke about Abraham Lincoln’s rephrasing of the Declaration in his Gettysburg address, reframing the founder’s broader ideological argument into a distinctly American vision.

Bill Kristol interpreted Jefferson’s efforts in 1776, speaking about the role of both democratic and aristocratic principles in America’s Declaration of Independence. Finally, Samuel Goldman described tensions between the appeal to universal principles and the appeal to history in Lincoln’s day in our own time.

Audience members participated vigorously throughout the event, which, as Dr. Rogachevsky put it, aimed to “produce further writing, thinking and debate on the founding principles of Israel and America.”

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