The making of a defense minister

A long-overdue biography of pre-state Zionist icon, Eliahu Golomb.

golomb 88 (photo credit: )
golomb 88
(photo credit: )
Had he been alive in 1947-48, Eliahu Golomb would probably have been nominated leader of Israel's defense forces in its War of Independence. This belated, and yet most welcome and valuable book clearly endorses this judgment. While narratives of heroic combatants have often engaged the imagination following dramatic battles, biographies of civilian leaders usually require more perspective and access to archives. Golomb unfortunately passed away in 1945, aged only 52. The author of this biography had abundant data, and could have perhaps left out some details without hurting the story. But he was determined to present the fullest account of Golomb's life, and that necessitates a second volume - from 1929 to 1945 - which is yet to come out. The first volume starts in the summer of 1909, when the young Golomb left his parents in Russia and immigrated to Turkish-ruled Palestine. The parents came later. He wanted to study at Herzliya High School in Tel Aviv. The Jews in Palestine then numbered a few tens of thousand, and had their share of discord, split as they were between those who had arrived in the first Zionist Aliya of the early 1880s and those arriving in the first decade of the 20th century. The latter were named the Second Aliya, and included many people with no impulse for social change, though some of them had a vision of a just and egalitarian Jewish society. For Golomb, study of Hebrew was a first priority, but he also knew that agricultural work was vital. He soon realized, however, that gaining the right to work as an agricultural laborer was not enough; there was a need to train people to defend themselves and Jewish settlements from Arab marauders. Golomb became actively involved in a group of students which included Moshe Sharett (later Israel's first foreign minister) and Dov Hoz, and both became his intimate political partners and brothers-in-law. Mastering Hebrew and tilling the land, defending the rights of Palestine's Jews and waging a campaign to enlist more followers emerged as their goals. Going to work in Deganya was thus the natural course; Golomb didn't consider going to Deganya an upshot of A.D. Gordon's teaching (or Tolstoy's). For him it was a Zionist obligation. In the years preceding World War One - and in the first decades following it - a bitter debate was raging between proponents of "private initiative" and advocates of reliance on public funds for building the country. In reality, there were very few private investors. The few who dared to purchase land did indeed plant vines and citrus, but preferred cheap Arab labor, which limited opportunities for Jewish immigrants. Golomb and his friends called for the much larger public investment that could come only from national sources. This sounded like an "ideological" debate, but in fact the opponents of turning to "national funds" wanted to keep their cheap Arab labor. A more serious controversy emerged during World War I. Moshe Sharett and Dov Hoz, along with several older Jewish leaders, urged the graduates of high schools to join the Ottoman army and attend officers' training courses. Golomb opposed this, arguing that serving in the Turkish army wouldn't contribute to the establishment of an independent Jewish force. He maintained that trouble from both the Turkish authorities and local Arabs had to be expected, and therefore the students should stay in the country. Sharett and Hoz decided to join the Turkish army as officers, but subsequently admitted that thanks to Golomb and a few others, a modest underground force was organized which later served as the nucleus of the Haganah. The vindication of Golomb's conception became even clearer when the British conquered Palestine. There were those - especially Jabotinsky but also Weizmann - who believed that the British would let the Jewish regiment (established late in the war) quell Arab disturbances. The British, however, were not disposed to using the regiment, so Golomb's small underground often had to deal with Arab rampages. Weapons in the hands of Jews were few, and one of Golomb's relentless efforts was to secure them by hook or by crook; it was hell raising funds for guns. Another principle that Golomb preached at the time was that under no circumstances would Jews abandon Jewish settlements. This issue arose in the bitter debate over Tel Hai - Golomb persisting in his opposition to evacuating the place while Jabotinsky and other leaders claimed that evacuation was necessary. Golomb vehemently opposed the course proposed by Nili, an espionage group offering its services - under the Ottomans - to help British Intelligence. He was not alone in considering it deadly not only to those directly involved, but to the entire Jewish community in Palestine. Golomb's basic thinking all through those years was that there must be a Jewish defense organization under the supervision of the authorized Zionist leadership. Jabotinsky and Pinhas Ruttemberg, founder of the electric company, were nominated to serve as leaders of the underground, but Jabotinsky was still of the opinion that there was no place for the Haganah, claiming that a Jewish regiment under British command would see to the safety of the Jews in Palestine. Golomb sharply differed. His most important legacy was that there should be only a single national defense organization, and that it should be under one leadership, reflecting a national consensus. History has proven that Golomb was right.