Apologia for Ben-Gurion

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, December 27, 2011

At this year's yahrzeit ceremony in Sde Boker for David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Iran clearly on his mind, emphasized—eight times—Ben-Gurion's capacity for making hard decisions.  This theme permeates Ben-Gurion: A Political Life.  The book is a "conversation" between the author, advocacy journalist David Landau, and Israeli President Shimon Peres.  Landau calls it a "fusion of memory and history and multiple competing narratives."  Here we have truth in labeling, for what this slim volume is not is reliable history.

The first consequential encounter between Ben-Gurion and Peres occurred at the 1946 Zionist Congress.  Chaim Weizmann was hesitant to demand immediate fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion was planning a walk-out, and Peres seized his opportunity.  "I had incredible chutzpah," he recalled.  "Ben-Gurion hardly knew me, but I said, 'Yes, we'll go with you.'"  Peres had made a smart bet.  Ben-Gurion was assembling a powerful politico-military machine: the Histadrut, the government-in-waiting Jewish Agency, and the Haganah.  Peres became Ben-Gurion's indispensable man.

They were kindred spirits.  Both were voracious readers, polymaths, single-mindedly ambitious, and coldly pragmatic.  Both had high, unself-critical opinions of themselves.  They ruthlessly battled foes within their political camp, though Ben-Gurion was arguably the more vindictive.  Both were Big Idea men.  Ben-Gurion envisioned a renascent Israel along vaguely biblical principles; Peres, more ambitious still, sought an entirely "new Middle East."  Both rebranded themselves.  Ben-Gurion shifted his socialist Mapai Party toward the center; Peres, defeated for Labor's leadership, aligned with Ariel Sharon to form Kadima.

There were differences.  Where Ben-Gurion was feared, Peres was despised.  Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister, found him revolting; Yitzhak Rabin, untrustworthy; Yigal Yadin, insolent; and Golda Meir found him an unwanted nuisance.  These matters are not part of the book. 

The authors—it's not always clear where Peres' voice ends and Landau's begins—move quickly from Ben-Gurion's brief early days laboring in Palestine's fields to his emergence as a socialist Zionist polemicist and politician.  Even as he consolidated power, Ben-Gurion traveled widely.  In Russia he became infatuated with Vladimir Lenin (though he loathed Stalin).  Lenin's "decisiveness," Ben-Gurion told Peres, outweighed Leon Trotsky's greater intellectual gifts.

Ben-Gurion was, unquestionably, often wise and decisive.  He accepted the United Nations' flawed 1947 Partition Plan.  He ignored a 1949 General Assembly resolution calling for the internationalization of metropolitan Jerusalem.  Against the principled opposition of Menachem Begin, he made the unpopular but prudent decision to accept West German reparations.  He championed pre-emptive military strikes.  He ordered Eichman's capture and disregarded UN criticism.  In perhaps his longest-lasting contribution, he gave Peres the green light to build Israel's nuclear capacity (though Peres implies that he mostly left Ben-Gurion in the dark about all that).

The more Ben-Gurion concentrated his power, the more he accused his opponents of anti-democratic tendencies.  He slammed Ze'ev Jabotinsky as a fascist with dictatorial ambitions—though it was Ben-Gurion's own party, according to Labor theoretician Berl Katznelson, that had fascistic tendencies.  Those outside his socialist orbit, including Menachim Begin and his Irgun, were violently quashed; the sinking of the Irgun arms ship Altalena typified Ben-Gurion's capacity to conflate his political needs with the national interest.  When the Israel Defense Forces supplanted the Haganah, Ben-Gurion placed all command decisions with his loyalists.

Between Weizmann and Jabotinsky, it's hard to know whom Ben-Gurion hated more.  He schemed with Weizmann against Jabotinsky—but had contempt for Weizmann's hesitancy and ultimately sidelined the elder statesman.  True differences of principle separated Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky.  Ben-Gurion favored class struggle and an agrarian economy; Jabotinsky was a classical liberal who wanted to foster an urban middle class.  Ben-Gurion also scorned Jabotinsky's demand for the territorial integrity of Eretz Israel.  But it went deeper: Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in 1940 in New York; when the state was founded, Ben-Gurion refused to allow his adversary's remains to be reinterred in Israel.

Still, Ben-Gurion (Peres takes him at his word) "loved" Weizmann, had "genuine friendship" for Jabotinsky, and did not hate Begin "personally."  Odd, then, that he could not bring himself to utter Begin's name for most of the years they served together in the Knesset.

The most unsettling pages of this book involve Peres-Landau's paroxysms of partisanship concerning the Holocaust era.  They contrast Jabotinsky's 1933 pooh-poohing of Hitler's Mein Kampf with Ben-Gurion's supposedly prophetic 1934 warning about the enormous threat to Europe's Jews, but that is less than a half-truth.  In 1933, Jabotinsky told the 18th Zionist Congress that it was "duty-bound to put the Jewish problem in Germany before the entire world" and "destroy, destroy, destroy" the "murderers."  Meanwhile, the Ben-Gurion clique, according to Jabotinsky scholar Yisrael Medad, was sabotaging every attempt by Jabotinsky's men to force the World Zionist Organization to take a "vigorous attitude on the German situation." 

Landau, to his credit, challenges Peres on whether Ben-Gurion, leader of the Yishuv throughout the war, did enough for European Jewry.  Peres does not waver: We didn't know.  There was nothing we could have done.  As for the Jabotinsky loyalists operating in wartime America who tried to shake heaven and earth, Peres' assessment is cold: "What did they achieve? Nothing."

In their "conversation" about the pre-state Jewish underground, Peres and Landau achieve a moral nadir, disgracefully embracing the essentially Palestinian Arab narrative that blames Begin's Irgun for "outrages" such as "deliberately killing civilians" in Deir Yassin and "helping to spark the Palestinian refugee crisis."  It is a relief, toward the end of Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, when the authors turn to other matters, including the intriguing claim that Ben-Gurion wanted to reform Israel's electoral system of proportional representation.

Peres and Landau close by acknowledging that Ben-Gurion would under no circumstances have agreed to an Israeli pullback to the 1949 armistice lines.  Indeed, he favored extensive settlement in metropolitan Jerusalem and in Hebron.  Maybe their point is that Ben-Gurion had no interest in ruling over Palestinian Arabs.  Though the authors can't bring themselves to say so, neither does Netanyahu.  But the Arab rejectionism that made peace unreachable in Ben-Gurion's day still grips today's Palestinian leadership.

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