Forty-two years have passed since the day David Ben-Gurion died.
A leader and a mentor who was my lighthouse and compass.
It was my great privilege to know him and work with him for over 20 years. Each day alongside Ben-Gurion was for me a new page in history.
Standing by his grave this year, honoring his memory, it suddenly occurred to me that all those years we worked together, when I perceived him as a one-of-a-kind leader, he has never regarded himself as a leader. Once I was curious about it and asked him who is a “leader” in his own eyes.
I felt that my question made him uncomfortable; he hesitated for a brief moment, and then answered, “The moment you feel that you do not have anyone to ask a burning question, that very moment you are probably becoming a ‘leader’ yourself.” Saying that, Ben-Gurion did not refer to himself. In the current Israeli reality, the question “Who is a leader?” seems to be relevant more than ever before.
I became a “Ben-Gurionist” before I even met him in person, just by reading what he said and listening to his speeches. They revealed to me his unique personality. In the most critical and crucial moments of our state’s history, he was not fearful and was not spreading fear. He was not afraid to see the truth, to tell the truth, without turning around, trying to see how many supporters or opponents there were to what he had said. “I do not know what the people want, but I want to know what is wanted for the people,” he used to say. He was sharp-minded; he knew how to be polemical, but without even one drop of cynicism in his heart. He was innocent, without being naive. I could see his deep innocence in the way he regarded the Jewish heritage, and through his belief that “In the image of God He created them,” as the Torah of Moses says, and by fulfilling the mitzva “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben-Gurion remained faithful to the Jewish values that are based on our moral code – the Jewish people prefer moral values prior to any desire to become rich, strong or ruling. No idols, no paganism, no lords, no oppressors.
Ben-Gurion believed and acted for the realization of the moral vision that all human beings are born equal, to wit, each and every human being is innately entitled to equality and remains free all along the way.
Alongside his passionate belief in the moral call and the moral preference, Ben-Gurion was also blessed by extraordinary mundane gifts and natural talents; above them all was his courage – both physical and mental. He knew that courageous leadership means decision making, even when he stood alone, even when he found himself in a minority among his own people.
Indeed, Ben-Gurion made a decision, a heroic decision, in a situation of being almost alone – the decision to establish the State of Israel on a part of the Land of Israel.
I was with him from the beginning of 1947, almost a year before the UN adopted its Partition Resolution to establish two states in Palestine – an Arab state and a Jewish state.
I witnessed his shock when he returned from his visit to the death camps in Europe after the war, anxious about the fate of the survivors who were faced by closed gates all over the world, including Palestine’s gates that were controlled by the British Mandate.
Ben-Gurion knew that only a decision to establish a Jewish state immediately would grant the Jewish people an open gate and a safe haven.
He stood firm, almost by himself, in front of his people.
The majority could not support his decision because it divided the Land of Israel, but Ben-Gurion did not evade the truth, saying that “A Jewish state on a part of the Land of Israel is better than the entire Land of Israel without a Jewish state at all.” He believed that it was more desirable to establish a Jewish and a democratic state even if the cost would be the partition of the Land. Ben-Gurion foresaw the probable scenario in which the Arabs would not accept the UN Partition Resolution, and being much stronger than Israel, would try to wipe it out by force. He estimated that they would attack the small Jewish population that at the time had no weapon, no arms, no jet fighters, no warships.
Moreover, Ben-Gurion understood that if the Jews remained in exile, that would virtually annul the UN resolution due to the difficulty in accepting such a tough resolution.
He stood almost alone weighed down by heavy concerns.
We had no friends to supply us with weapons; even those states that supported the resolution, including the United States and France, had imposed an embargo on arms supply to the entire Middle East. This hard decision meant a de facto embargo on Israel, as the Arabs were getting arms from the Soviet Union.
Ben-Gurion had fears about the fate facing the Jewish people, and at the same time he felt the burden of his own lonesomeness while deciding to accept the UN resolution.
The territorial compromise was almost unbearable, but if the goal, which was the immediate establishment of a Jewish state =, were missed, it might have been an irreversible historical mistake. Indeed, he reached a decision. Such a courageous and a brave decision that today seems almost obvious. His historic decision to accept the partition of the Land of Israel to secure the State of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state shines forth today as a beacon of statesmanship and sagacity.
Immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion went on with his valor and uncompromising determination to realize and guarantee Israel’s deterrence capability and admonition strength. He knew that besides the vision of Israel as an exemplary state, he must promise and fortify Israel’s hard power and human advantage. When I began working with him, he told me very briefly; “Weapons, from anywhere, in any way, and right away. Without weapons, we will not be able to realize the international legitimacy given for the establishment of a Jewish state.” And on some other occasion, he told me: “A leader must decide either war and take the risk, or peace and pay the price.”
At the same time, Ben-Gurion realized that force should be also based upon international cooperation, alliances and friendships with other states; and we must not remain “the people that shall dwell alone.” Indeed, first we managed to build a special relationship with France, a deep friendship which enormously advanced Israel’s deterrence capability; and afterward with the US, our major and closest ally and friend.
Today we must think ahead how we can educate the young generation by Ben-Gurion’s values. What does a “Ben-Gurionist” leadership mean? We should educate the young generation to behave and act according to the moral values of our nation, and in accordance with our national interest, since populism is a risky illusion, a dangerous delusion. A leader must be a forerunner, a visionary, a seer who prefers the long run, and does not get overexcited about the height of his own position; who looks far away without considering himself high up; who carries a promise for his people. A leader with no vision is merely a pursuer of power; and power paralyzes.
The people do not need crisis managers; they need pathfinders and groundbreakers.
In a wide historical perspective, we shall remember and remind ourselves that the real groundbreaker who established the Jewish state, David Ben-Gurion, combined the security needs with offering our hand in peace to our neighbors. That is true today more than ever. Unless we pursue peace and reach a historical political settlement based on the two-state solution, Israel alongside Palestine, we are doomed to live as a binational state lacking a Jewish majority and a Jewish character.
There is no single doubt in my heart that Ben-Gurion would have made the same decisions today, the same tough, courageous and fearless decisions, for the sake of the State of Israel, and for Israel’s safe existence as an exemplary state among the nations, Jewish and democratic alike. Only then will we be able to lead our children towards a bright future, and secure the existence of our nation, which is tiny in its territory, but immense in its human potential.