Why Ben-Gurion is still relevant

By Tom Segev, October 31, 2013

Two years ago President Shimon Peres published a biography of David Ben-Gurion. The book, in the form of conversations with the journalist David Landau, first came out in the US and shortly afterwards in Israel. Since then more books about BG have come out in Hebrew, among them one about BG and the media, and another about the last years of his life.

At least three more full-length BG biographies are due to appear in Israel in the next three years. They will join innumerable other BG studies, including two classic, multi-volume biographical works.

I am not familiar with any professional survey of BG’s current popularity, but since I have begun working on my own BG biography, I have noticed that there is hardly a day without some reference to BG in the Israeli media.

In addition to frequent historical and political comparisons, BG’s pictures and sayings have recently appeared in communal election campaigns and are frequently used even in commercials. A new Israeli feature film to be released soon, Operation Sunflower, deals with one of BG’s most dramatic achievements: Israel’s nuclear option.

BG has not always been so popular; there was a time when many Israelis identified his name mainly with their country’s international airport or the university in the south.

Israeli media mention BG nearly every day

In recent years more and more people have come to conclude that some of Israel’s basic problems stem from the days of BG. One of them is the lack of peace with the Arabs. Following three generations of life from war to war, most Israelis today no longer foresee peace. They long for peace, they are willing to pay a certain price for it, but they no longer believe that peace is possible. Many don’t even care to debate the issue any more, and those who do, know that they are repeating the same arguments, often the same words, that were used generations ago, under BG.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alarming statements about Iran sound as if Israel were faced once again with an existential danger: BG’s 1948 seems to be back.

One of the major problems which BG left unresolved was the definition of a common identity. The first Israelis seem to have shared BG’s dream. It was that dream that should have bound them together as a new nation and give them the strength and the courage to start a new life after the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, the common dream often seems a faded myth. Israel is a deeply divided society, a mosaic of different, often conflicting identities.

BG also used to preach values of biblical and universal justice, including social solidarity. Today many Israelis, probably most, don’t feel that their country represents those values, which were not always adhered to, even under BG himself. The systematic violation of human rights in the Palestinian territories bothers some Israelis and a majority of them feel that their country’s social structure today is unjust. Many long for BG’s declared, though not always implemented, social democratic principles. Naturally people tend to look back at “square one”.

More than anything else BG’s prominent role in Israel’s current public discourse seems to reflect mistrust in the country’s political leadership. Like people in other countries, many Israelis no longer believe in politics generally.

The cases of a former president in jail for rape, a former prime minister charged with financial corruption and a number of cabinet ministers and mayors involved in other illegal activities, do not exactly encourage respect for the political system. BG had his faults — but was never accused of personal corruption.

And at a time when one constantly gets “personal messages” from the prime minister on one’s Facebook account, one is naturally inclined to long for past statesmen, with authority, like BG. Ironically Prime Minister Netanyahu himself seems to feel the lack of great leadership: in a recent interview Netanyahu revealed that he now keeps in his office a portrait of Winston Churchill.

Tom Segev is an Israeli historian, writing a biography of David Ben-Gurion. He is speaking at the LondonJewish Cultural Centre on Sunday November 10 at 8pm

Last updated: 10:21am, October 31 2013