The remarkable resonance of David Ben-Gurion's actions

Jonathan Freedland reflects on the draw of Israel's mythic founding father

March 06, 2020 16:31

Thirty-six hours before the Israeli elections, I was thinking about David Ben-Gurion.

And not just thinking, but talking about him, too, in front of a packed house at Jewish Book Week, where I was interviewing the Israeli historian Tom Segev about his meticulous and challenging new biography of Israel’s first prime minister.

I think Segev was struck by the size of his audience: all these hundreds of Brits turning out on a chilly Saturday night to discuss a faraway politician who died nearly half-a-century ago.

Segev registered that, along with the degree of interest the Old Man — as even his closest aides used to refer to him — still arouses among Israelis, who in recent years have devoured a clutch of books about Ben-Gurion along with a documentary film consisting of nothing more than one long interview.

Perhaps this is no surprise given that, for Jews and Israelis, Ben-Gurion is a legendary figure: part man, part airport. He’s mythic, a founding father.

When Segev said that, as a student in 1968, he had once interviewed Ben-Gurion, I remarked that the equivalent would be a US journalist casually mentioning that he had once sat down with George Washington.

But Segev suspected another there was another explanation for the resurgent interest in the man who proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel nearly 72 years ago.

It was the contrast with the current occupant of the prime minister’s chair, who not long ago broke Ben-Gurion’s record to become Israel’s longest-serving leader and who this week seemed to have won at least a chance to extend that run yet further: Binyamin Netanyahu.

In terms of personal abstemiousness, Ben-Gurion was the un-Bibi. He didn’t just eschew the champagne-and-cigars lifestyle that, among other things, has landed Netanyahu at the centre of several corruption cases — with a criminal trial less than a fortnight away.

Ben-Gurion was positively spartan in his tastes. He retired from the top job to a monkish hut on a kibbutz in the middle of the desert.

While the Netanyahus have racked up huge bills at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer, Ben-Gurion’s greatest financial vice was his propensity to buy too many…books.

That, suggested Segev, was why so many Israelis were nostalgic for the Old Man: they longed for the days when you could look to the nation’s leader knowing that, love him or hate him, at least he wasn’t corrupt.

Of course, those on the traditional left of Israeli politics have reasons beyond his personal modesty to yearn for the Ben-Gurion era. He personified the age of Labour hegemony, when the nation’s ethos spoke of socialism and the pioneer spirit of the chalutz.

This week, the same Labour party which ruled Israel unbroken for its first 29 years — many of them with Ben-Gurion at the helm — barely scraped into the Knesset, as merely one component of a three-party alliance. The results could not have confirmed more starkly that Israel is Ben-Gurion’s country no more.

Except, that’s not quite right. Segev’s book makes clear that that narrative — of an Israel tragically strayed from the vision of its founder — misses something.

True, Ben-Gurion did once say he would rather a small Israel at peace than a large one permanently at war, a remark that has sustained the peace camp to this day,  but, Segev argues, such talk was cheap for Ben-Gurion, because he never believed peace was a realistic prospect.

On the contrary, he reckoned that the conflict with the Palestinians could never be resolved, only managed – a view which, says his biographer, is not so far from Netanyahu’s.

Similarly, it has become a commonplace for successive Israeli leaders to say their mission is to complete the task left unfinished by David Ben-Gurion — to settle Israel’s borders once and for all.

Yet the record shows that Ben-Gurion quite deliberately left Israel’s borders unfixed, ensuring, for example, that the Declaration of Independence did not spell out the parameters of the new state. “Borders are not forever,” he said.

He was keeping Israel’s options open because, when it came to land, he was a maximalist: he wanted Israel to have the largest possible territory and for it to contain the smallest number of Palestinian Arabs, so that Israel would be guaranteed a Jewish majority.

There is no document containing an explicit order from Ben-Gurion to expel Arabs from their villages inside the new Jewish state, but in, say, Lydda or Ramle, the commanders on the ground — including the future PM Yitzhak Rabin — were left in no doubt as to what the Old Man wanted.

Segev’s portrait of Ben-Gurion is not flattering. For those raised to see him as either a mythic hero or a cuddly grandpa, the details are discomforting: his coldness towards Holocaust survivors, for example, along with his view of both them and Mizrachi Jews as “human debris”, too weak to build his new state.

His view of Arabs would not register him as a progressive in today’s terms.

The point here is not to suggest that the gap between Israel’s first and current prime ministers is narrower than you might expect: Binyamin Netanyahu barely belongs in the same sentence, let alone the same league, as David Ben-Gurion.

Rather, it’s that the attitudes which were ratified once again in this week’s elections hardly represent the radical break from the Israeli past that we might like to imagine.

There is much about today’s Israel that would astonish its founder. But there’s much that he would recognise, too. 

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian journalist

March 06, 2020 16:31

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