Translatable but Debatable — ממלכתיות mamlakhtiyut (statism?)

by Mark L. Levinson

When Benjamin Netanyahu chose Ran Baratz to head the Prime Minister’s office of public diplomacy, and criticism arose because Baratz had posted some sneering remarks about Israeli and American public figures, Baratz said:

מה שאני אעשה בתפקיד ממלכתי יהיה ממלכתי לחלוטין

I couldn’t find a news item in English with a translation of that sentence, and I’m not surprised.  The starting point, the direct translation, is “What I do as the holder of a national office will be perfectly national.”  The first “national” (mamlakhti in Hebrew) works perfectly fine in English.  But the second, although it’s the same word in Hebrew, has to be morphed in English to mean something like “in line with the interests of the state” or “putting the national interest above party politics.”  Those two translations come from Ya’acov Levy’s Oxford dictionary, the only Hebrew-English dictionary I found that attempts to list the relevant political meaning.  British-Israeli educator Matt Plen calls it “the belief that sectarian ideologies and interests must be replaced by loyalty to the state as a whole.”

Ilan Yavor noticed the lack of a simple English equivalent, and this column is inspired, with thanks, by his query.

By all accounts it was David Ben-Gurion who popularized  the adjective mamlakhti and the noun mamlakhtiyut, apparently derived from the Russian gosudarstvo.  Ben-Gurion then “altered its meaning a number of times according to changes in his political thinking,” according to Nir Kedar of Bar-Ilan University.

Kedar writes:

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.” Historians and scholars often refer to mamlakhtiyut as “statism” or “étatism,” 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.

Solidarity is part of the concept.  Reform Jewish activist Peter Shapiro considers that mamlakhtiyut means “unity despite difference” and has to do with “the line where ‘party and political differences should give way to the overriding needs of the national agenda’”.  Eric Yoffie, another prominent Reform Jew, calls it “the doctrine that Zionism, threatened by the hostility of its neighbors in an unstable region, required an assertive state that would set aside narrow party concerns in the interests of national well-being.”  With less reserve Prof. Shifra Shvarts of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev writes in Health and Zionism: The Israeli Health Care System, 1948–1960 that “Stateism was a desperate attempt to broaden the common denominator to prevent a society in-the-process of becoming being torn apart by conflicting cultures and interests.”

“Statism” does seem to be the standard translation, although writer after writer complains about its inadequacy.  Ilan Peleg, paraphrasing Peter Medding from The Founding of the Israeli Democracy, 1949–1967, presents the idea that Ben-Gurion “did not consider the state an end in itself.  According to Medding, Ben-Gurion wanted to instill in Israelis respect for ‘legitimate state public authority’ or a ‘sense of public responsibility.’”  I’m no scholar of German, but I think that the German equivalent, Staatlichkeit, may carry the intended meaning better.  The political party named after the concept, Ha‑reshima ha‑mamlakhtit, is often called “the State List” in English, although “the National List” is also used (Wikipedia prefers it) and occurs much more often than “the State List” on the Knesset website. 

Not everyone agrees that a pejorative nuance would be “sorely misleading” when mamlakhtiyut is translated.  What the term means depends partly on whether the definition comes from Ben-Gurion’s friends or foes.  But the word that Ben-Gurion chose, with the Hebrew idea of a king (melekh) embedded in it, seems to imply that the person is giving the state’s interests priority not because he is an obedient peasant but because he is a participant in the power of sovereignty.  The message back in those days, when the State of Israel was still taking its initial form, was “Turn health, education, welfare, and defense over to the new establishment, and consider yourself among its members.”  

It was all about building the state.  If there were such a word as “statebuilderly,” I think it might be a suitable translation for Ben-Gurion’s mamlakhti.

Historian and Knesset Member Michael Oren writes: “By mamlachtiyut, Ben-Gurion meant the Jews' ability to handle power--military power as well as democratic and political power--effectively, justly, responsibly.”  Prof. Yagil Levy of the Open University of Israel writes in Trial and Error: Israel’s Route from War to De-Escalation that the “state internal expansion by which the state assumed roles that had been carried out by the pre-state power centers” such as political parties, militias, and religious organizations “was not, per se, excessive as compared historically to bureaucracies in other states, new states in particular.”

Historian Jerome Chanes takes a less sympathetic view, remarking that “mamlachtiyut, (‘statism’)—the idea that everything is subsumed to the needs of the state—derived as much from B.-G.’s socialist-collectivist ideology as it did from his Zionist ideology.”  And commentator Susan Hattis Rolef speaks of “the ideological touching points with fascism, of which even David Ben-Gurion's concept of mamlachtiut (statism), and the highly collectivist and conformist character of the State of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, were not completely free.”

So given all that, how would you translate the contention by Ran Baratz that “What I do as the holder of a mamlakhti office will be perfectly mamlakhti.”  I’d suggest “If I receive national-scale responsibilities, I’ll behave with national-scale responsibility.”  It sounds flippant, but so — according to the complaints — does Ran Baratz.

As always, responses relating directly to the topic are welcome below and suggestions for further words and phrases are welcome at .