How it really was!

Principles, pragmatism, Pittsburgh and Ben-Gurion.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion addresses a luncheon at the King David Hotel in honor of industrialist Jacob Blaustein, attended by ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett on August 23, 1950 (photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion addresses a luncheon at the King David Hotel in honor of industrialist Jacob Blaustein, attended by ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett on August 23, 1950
(photo credit: GPO)
DAVID BEN-GURION’S closest aides are all gone. Now thanks to a report in The Jerusalem Post, I have discovered that I am probably the last of the Mohicans, that is the last of the generation that had some regular contact with Israel's founding Prime Minister.
This writer never claimed to be as close as the inner circle, which consisted of Teddy Kollek. Yitzhak Navon, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan. Nonetheless, even though I was a member of the next echelon, it was always a cause for anger when one of my seniors would say in reply to a question, “Ben-Gurion would have said this or that, or done this or that.”
No statesman is perfectly consistent, and Ben-Gurion himself was a mixture of principles and pragmatism. There were a few absolutes in his life:the Bible, the people’s need for a state, and Jewish brainpower.
Out of these rose the particular policies of post-statehood, such as sponsoring scientific research, and developing Israel’s armed strength.
Now we need to go back almost 80 years.
David Ben-Gurion by the late 1930s and early 1940s shifted the diplomatic efforts of the Jewsh Agency executive more and more to the United States. As World War II went on, it was clear that an attempt would be made to create a worldwide “concert of nations” and try to establish a forum to deal with unsolved problems, like that of Palestine, under the British Mandate, with Arabs and Jews determined to claw out its future.
Ben-Gurion realized that the US would play a major role in the postwar world, while Britain would sink under blood and debt.
First, Ben-Gurion wanted to unite the Zionist movement around the clear demand to establish a Jewish “Commonwealth” once World War II ended. The word commonwealth was used because Britain held the international mandate over Palestine, and to use the word “state” would automatically lead to heightened British opposition.
In essence, the word fooled nobody, but at least left a sliver of hope that Britain would still be able to play a direct role in relation to Palestine. And for the sake of clarity for today’s readers, Palestine then was a geographic rather than a political entity.
The first mission of the postwar commonwealth- to-be would be the free immigration of two million Jews. Obviously when these decisions were made in May 1942 at a conference held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, the eventual murder of six million Jews was unimaginable.
After uniting the Zionists, his next step would be to try to bring the rest of the organized Jewish community aboard. At that time, there were powerful forces within the American Jewish community, aided and encouraged by the Roosevelt administration, which were opposed to the demand for statehood. Reasons ranged from pressure from the State Department either because of its innate antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and/or pressure by the British, or fear that the Jewish state might raise the issue of “dual loyalty,” that is, if there were to be a Jewish state, would Jews be loyal to it rather than to the United States? Some of the opposition to what was called the Biltmore Program also stemmed from religious reasons, following the line of the early Reform movement that Judaism was a religion only, and thus German Jews could be Germans of the Mosaic persuasion. This early approach – long abandoned – had removed all reference to Zion from their new prayer book.
Thus in the post-WWII period, while most identified Jews were Zionist or pro-Zionist, a small percentage were ant-Zionist, and a somewhat larger minority was classified as non-Zionist.
That latter category though could not be ignored because its leading spokesmen were the heads of the American Jewish Committee.
This body had the best political connections in the US administration and was led by “old” Jewish wealth: German-Jewish Wall Street figures had been its founders.
As the extent of the Holocaust became clear and the need to solve the problem of where to settle more than 600,000 Jewish survivors, the non-Zionists recognized more clearly the need for a Jewish state.
Ben-Gurion ultimately was able to spearhead a united Jewish front, ranging from Agudath Israel through the organized Zionist and pro-Zionist movements to the American Jewish Committee.
(To be fair, the efforts vis-à-vis the AJC were conducted over a period of years by representatives of the Jewish Agency in the United States, and by American Zionist figures.) The unity of the various Jewish groups regarding the need for a Jewish state eventually did lead to the UN resolution of November 29, 1947 calling for a partitioned Palestine with a Jewish and an Arab state.
The United States had willy-nilly become a supporter – perhaps the major supporter of Israel. The AJC, now under the leadership of Baltimore oil and gasoline station magnate, Jacob Blaustein, continued to see Israeli calls for aliyah from America as a threat to to the perception that American Jews have loyalty to only one country, the United States of America. Blaustein and the AJC had such clout in the US administration and within the UJA major donors category that Israel could not ignore their pressure.
With statehood, and under the scrutiny of dozens of reporters from all over the Western world, Ben-Gurion and Israeli leaders issued calls for aliyah from America. In Hebrew, words like “people”and “exiles” were used by Israeli/Zionist spokesmen.
In Hebrew, am can be translated as either “people” or “nation.” In some cases, translations used the term “Jewish nation.”
And the Zionist/Israeli term for aliyah was frequently the Biblical sounding “kibbutz galuyot” – the ingathering of the exiles.
To use an Americanism, “them’s fightin’ words.” To the sensitive hearing of the AJC leadership, the Jews were at most members of a people, and at very least members of a religious faith. But “exiles? America is our home. We are at home here! We are not living in exile.”
Eventually Ben-Gurion and Blaustein worked out a statement, which basically said that Israel does not speak for all Jews but only for its own citizens, and that calls for mass aliyah would refer to undemocratic countries, but that from the US Israel would welcome people who freely decided to emigrate and who would bring their needed skills and initiative to help build the Jewish state.
The principle of kibbutz galuyot, a basic Zionist tenet, was watered down pragmatically by Ben-Gurion. Israel would take in the tired and huddled masses from other countries, but would tamp down zealous language toward Jews of the free countries, especially the United States.
Ben-Gurion was not sacrificing very much because even American Zionists – except for the youth movements – had never seen aliyah as a personal aim. To put it crudely, the state was for “them,” not for “us.”
Given that as a lengthy background, what would Ben-Gurion say about the attack and murder of Jews in the United States today? The knee-jerk Israeli response would be “Well, if Jews are being killed in the United States, no one in the Diaspora is safe.”
Therefore they should come to Israel.
Problems with “the Arabs”? Well, Israel is still the safest place in the Western world, or at least one of the safest places.... These are immediate reactions, knee-jerk, Zionist, Israel-centric responses.
I am tempted to think what BG would say. Given that American Jewry is generations older today than in the immediate post-State period, the Jews in the United States – in a vast yet clear generalization – have no fear of double loyalty accusations.
They are American. Even within the ultra- Orthodox separatist communities, they are American. This I base on conversations, reading and even remarks by Israeli leaders.
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett raised the issue of aliyah, as far as I could see. They, of course, were correct in that approach. Bennett certainly would have a further problem. How could he invite Conservative and Reform Jews to the country in which he plays a key role in not recognizing their equality in prayer with other Jews? Ben-Gurion looked down on TV. But today, when NBC’s millions of viewers are shown the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with the first words of the Hebrew Kaddish as its main headline, and where a cantor closes the NBC Nightly News with the full mourners’ Kaddish, the message is clear. Jews, Jewish prayers and Hebrew are nowadays all part of the American kaleidoscope.
I think – were he alive – Ben-Gurion would have to agree.
Avraham Avi-hai worked in the Prime Minister’s Office of David Ben-Gurion, and then with his successor, Levi Eshkol. One of his major roles was to build relations with Jewish organizations of all ideological and religious coloring. As a representative of the Jewish Agency, he spoke in the Great Synagogue in Rome the day after the murderous attack by Arab terrorists on a Jewish house of prayer, in October 1982. A two-year-old child was killed and 37 congregants were injured then