November 1945. David Ben-Gurion visits the death camps of Germany. We all know their names: They are too painful to repeat. He was chairman of the World Zionist and Jewish Agency Executives, the effective prime minister of a state-not-yetborn.
What he saw, what he heard, whom he saw, whom he heard, brought him to one simple decision. The Jewish people must have every means of defense.
In June 1952, he created the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.
But the tale of Israel’s search for nuclear materials began earlier. Whether by accident or by design, “materials” – I believe, though I heard it only from one source, now dead – materials hidden by the Nazis found their way to Israel. The search for materials – uranium in this case – began as well in the Negev. But Israel also needed know-how and experience.
About two years ago I met Michael Karpin, a former Israel Radio newsman, an author whose book The Bomb in the Basement surprised me by how much information had passed censorship, and how fascinating had been the search for the know-how. Israel pursues a policy of ambiguity, We acknowledge “research” and options.
Only by citing overseas sources can more specific terms be used. Karpin revealed so much: I wondered whether “someone” in the Israeli hierarchy had not wanted to send a clearer message to Iran and to our neighbors who are laden with rockets and chemicals.
Some of the names Karpin mentioned triggered memories.
Let me clear about it. When I was in the Prime Minister’s Office, I suppose I had top security clearance.
But I never knew about Ben-Gurion’s decision that – in the face of the hostility of all the Arab states and the massive quantity of Russian arms available to their arsenals – Israel must have the ultimate capability to ensure its survival. Suddenly I began to put together a jigsaw puzzle of people I had met or heard about.
Memories. In the waiting rooms of the PM and his aides, I had met some of the greats, but did not know the real reason they were there. I also heard names, people referred to in that soft, reverential tone which marks the highest level of respect. One of them I always thought was a woman because of his unusual first name: Shalhevet Freier, a great physicist who at one time wrote articles for this newspaper. Of course, I did meet the professors who headed the commission, but their names were not secret.
Only later did I learn of the storybook exploits of Shimon Peres, then the young, capable and determined director-general of Ben-Gurion’s Ministry of Defense, and his colleague, one of most accomplished (and unsung) heroes of Israel, Arthur (Asher) Ben Natan.
These scientists and these public servants exemplified Ben-Gurion’s dictum: “We cannot match our enemies in quantity, but we must in quality.”
BUT WHAT chutzpah! How could the head of a barely surviving state even think of an ultimate security net in 1952? How in the midst of the chaos of mass immigration, food rationing, tent and tin-hut “transit camps,” maintaining an army, and what-not – a strapped state hardly managing to keep head above water – how could he? The Shoah had left its black indelible mark on the Yishuv – the Jewish community in then Palestine – during the dreadful war years. There was hardly any family here that had not suffered a loss, or losses, sometimes everyone who had been left behind in Europe.
Israel’s victories in 1948-49 stemmed in no small measure from a Shoah-crazed group of young men and women. Under a determined leadership, they trained soldiers, procured arms, organized reinforcements from the camps and volunteers from abroad, gathered intelligence and fought in the great effort to prevent the shattering of the Zionist vision and a second Shoah. It was Ben-Gurion’s visit to the death camps, without a doubt, which made him do everything to ensure Israel’s existence.
In one of his speeches in the Knesset, Ben-Gurion said Israel had a secret weapon. I asked him while researching my doctorate on his leadership, “What did you mean when you said that?” His answer consisted of two words. “hasechel hayehudi.” In this case, this can only be translated as Jewish brainpower. His absolute determination that Israel should be able to face multiple and well-armed enemies, his unshakable belief in Jewish ability, his vision, made the impossible possible.
ALL THIS I began to relive vividly a few months ago.
Avraham Kushnir, the TV and movie producer and director, told me that he was casting his feature-film, fictionalized story of Israel’s atomic option: Operation Sunflower, (Mivtza Hamaniya). I will not give away the plot. It includes the moral dilemma of the scientists: Hiroshima versus Auschwitz; the complex relationships, the French connection. It’s all there. So is the timing. Just reported as I write, Iran is making mock attacks on Tel Aviv.
The Jerusalem Post film critic has the monopoly of writing on films, so why then am I writing this column? First, thanks to Kushnir’s ground-breaking film, I met stars Yehoram Gaon and Tzofit Grant, Baruch Brener and Daniela Kertesz. And thanks to his unusual casting, I was finally able to personally make a major contribution to our nuclear option. Well anyway, at least on film.
How many people have had the luck to play a small role in building the state, and then have the opportunity – at least in a movie – to play a role in the building of an ultimate guarantee of safety for us and our future? This all adds up to one simple truth. Only great Zionist belief could lay the foundations of Israel. And only a great and desperate and daring people could have had the vision and the strength to shape this land out of the horrific clay of the Holocaust.
Avraham Avi-hai has added to his long career as a public servant, scholar, educator and author, a fictional role in the movie Operation Sunflower (Mivtza Hamraniya) which premiered this week.