The Old Man's legacy

Many of David Ben-Gurion’s principles are still relevant today.

David Ben Gurion 521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90 via MCT)
David Ben Gurion 521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90 via MCT)
It is 38 years since the death of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, or “the Old Man,” as he was called.
Only a few today remember Ben-Gurion the leader and politician, but his influence can be found everywhere. He declared the Jewish state, set the tone for its relationship with its Arab neighbors, did not commit himself to specific borders, refused the Palestinian “right of return,” affirmed Jerusalem as the country’s eternal capital, built the IDF and engineered massive immigration. Moreover, nuclear capability and the decisions not to have a constitution and to keep a religious status quo were all his doing. No other leader combined vision and politics as he did.
Shlomo Aronson, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his latest book David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Renaissance tackles the legacy of the Old Man in the context of what he calls Jewish renaissance. Aronson offers a timely reexamination of Ben-Gurion’s role in Jewish- Israeli history from the perspective of the 21st century, in the larger context of the Zionist renaissance, of which he was a major and unique proponent.
Many have described Ben-Gurion’s Zionism as a dream that has gone sour, or an unattainable utopia that would never come to fruition. Now 62 years after the creation of modern Israel, Aronson is able to comb through the recently released documents in the archives and assess the statesman-intellectual and his successes and tragic failures during this “Jewish renaissance.”
He examines the relationship between Ben-Gurion’s hard-nosed political leadership and his deep, often eccentric intellectual commitments, and takes the reader through a review of major issues and events that engaged Ben-Gurion and shaped Israeli history.
One of Aronson’s important contributions is showing the Jewish code that Ben- Gurion lived by during all the years of his leadership, from the pre-state era through the post Six Day War period. Moreover, he is right to describe the Zionist approach of Ben-Gurion and his peers in terms of collective individualism; “the individual should assume the weight of the responsibility for Jewry at large and for the collective that was then gathering in Eretz Israel – the practical translation of which was a subject of dispute within the Zionist Labor Movement itself.”
A comprehensive understanding of Israel requires an understanding of Ben-Gurion and his mark on its leadership. Ironically, the last two students of the Old Man were Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres. Sharon rose through the military and became prime minister, while Peres has culminated a long career in government and politics as president. Though they represent two opposite sides of the political map, they both saw themselves as continuing Ben- Gurion’s legacy.
In this sense Ben-Gurion’s actions can be interpreted as aligning with both the Left and the Right of Israel’s political map. On the Left, the Labor Party prefers to remember his support for partition of the land and his agreement to a cease-fire at the end of the War of Independence. On the Right, the Likud prefers to remember his aggressive policy toward the Palestinians and the forceful military tactics implemented on the Jordanian border.
Peres believed that Ben-Gurion would have negotiated any amount of land to achieve peace. “Ben-Gurion, who said that for real peace he would have given back most of the territories, was not at the helm.
His words were heard, but as the words of a statesman, not as the commitment of a leader. Peace with Egypt would have led to peace with Jordan. And King Hussein would have been the one to manage the Palestinian issue (as was proved in the agreement I reached with King Hussein in London in 1987, an agreement that Yitzhak Shamir thwarted, and which I know many of his supporters regret to this day).”
Sharon remembered a different Old Man, the defense minister who supported strong reprisals against Egypt in February 1955 after a Jewish cyclist was killed and an IDF patrol was ambushed. This resulted in Operation Black Arrow led by a young Sharon. At the time, when Ben-Gurion was asked by prime minister Moshe Sharett to comment on the latest military actions, he said, “Our isolation is not a result of [the operation]; it came [about] earlier when we were pure as doves.”
Aronson is able to illustrate how Ben- Gurion and his colleagues used the lessons of the Holocaust to their advantage as a springboard to promote moral and political support, as well as distinguishing between the enemy and those who simply decided not to assist. Ben-Gurion and his peers used the Holocaust as a popular form of condemnation against “democracies” that refused to fight against Nazi Germany.
Sharon and now Binyamin Netanyahu tried to follow in their mentor’s footsteps with regard to foreign policy; each strongly believes that Israel’s strength will determine the reality only if he can ensure a relatively good relationship with Washington.
Ben-Gurion in 1919 said, “Everybody sees the problem in the relations between the Jews and the Arabs. But not everybody sees that there’s no solution to it. There is no solution!... I don’t know any Arabs who would agree to Palestine being ours even if we learn Arabic... and I have no need to learn Arabic. On the other hand, I don’t see why ‘Mustafa’ should learn Hebrew...
There’s a national question here. We want the country to be ours. The Arabs want the country to be theirs.”
Israel in 2011 is very different from that of 1948, but Aronson is able to show that the infrastructure that Ben-Gurion and his colleagues laid out is still relevant. This understanding would serve policy makers well when they attempt to negotiate the Middle East today and the role Israel plays in the tragic puzzle we call the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Aronson creates an illuminating portrait that challenges the recent litany of attacks that have become standard fare in the relentlessly negative discussions of Israel.
His sympathetic rehabilitation of Ben- Gurion is also a timely and intricate refutation of its critics.
The writer is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.