A graveside battle over Ben Gurion’s legacy

At memorial for first prime minister, Peres and Rivlin slam legislation as Netanyahu defends it

Former president Shimon Peres (photo credit: KFIR BOLOTIN)
Former president Shimon Peres
(photo credit: KFIR BOLOTIN)
Thursday’s ceremony at Sde Boker marking the 41st anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s death turned into a backdrop for the continuing contretemps over the “Jewish state” bill, as former president Shimon Peres slammed the legislation, even as its chief backer – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – sat listening in the front row.
President Reuven Rivlin, who has already spoken against the proposed legislation, reiterated his criticism, saying it seemed as if the “political considerations of different groups in Israeli society were mixing into the national political judgment, and we must ask ourselves tough questions.”
Rivlin quoted from a letter that Ben-Gurion wrote to Jewish National Fund president Menahem Ussishkin in 1936 in which he stated, “No external danger, even the greatest threat does not frighten me, but I am fearful of the danger from within – the danger of our political blindness.”
Peres, a Ben-Gurion protégé, said he came to honor the legacy of Israel’s first prime minister, but on this occasion was visiting the grave with a trembling heart, because he was fearful of the cracks that threaten to split the nation.
“The nation state bill is an attempt to undermine the Declaration of Independence for political interests. The bill will damage the country both at home and abroad and it will erode the democratic principles of the State of Israel,” Peres warned.
“Ben-Gurion’s legacy demands us to make sure Israel remains the state it was founded to be – a model state, enlightened, seeking peace, justice and equality,” he added.
Peres said that the Declaration of Independence made ample provision for Israel being the state of the Jewish people while simultaneously guaranteeing the equality of all Israeli citizens, without regard to religion, ethnicity or gender. In formulating the declaration, Ben-Gurion wisely struck the right balance between a Jewish and democratic state, Peres said.
“Ben-Gurion’s voice calls out to us and asks: How could a distinction between Jewish and democratic be made at all in the State of Israel? And which one overrides the other? His voice demands of us to return to ourselves” he said.
Netanyahu, however, remained unbowed by the criticism, saying that some of his “best friends” oppose the bill.
“But as the prime minister of Israel, the Jewish people’s one and only state, I think differently.”
Netanyahu said that he would not presume to know what Ben-Gurion would say in this situation, but that when Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the state, he did not see the need for basic laws to ensure its Jewish and democratic character.
“But over the years there have been challenges to its democratic character and therefore the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was legislated,” he said. “Now, many are challenging the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and therefore we need to anchor that character in the Nation State bill.”