Keep Dreaming: The view from the balcony

Inspiration from our first prime minister as we head off – yet again – to choose our next.

PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion (left) and IDF Southern Command head Ariel Sharon survey the Bar Lev defense line in the Sinai Peninsula. (photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER)
PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion (left) and IDF Southern Command head Ariel Sharon survey the Bar Lev defense line in the Sinai Peninsula.
(photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER)
It was a conversation I hadn’t anticipated having when I traveled to Sde Boker a few days ago. I’d come to lay a wreath on David Ben-Gurion’s grave during the state ceremony marking 46 years since his passing. But then, as the crowd dispersed, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to come face-to-face with a rather disheveled figure, his iconic billowing white hair accentuating his wrinkled forehead and bald crown.
As deputy chairman of The Jewish Agency executive, I’m ever conscious of sitting just down the hall from where Ben-Gurion sat for years as its chairman. And I’m perpetually humbled by the direct access I have to the sweeping balcony my office opens on to where dignitaries of the state-in-the making crowded together on November 29, 1947, as the United Nations voted in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state.
Occasionally I wander out there and gaze below to where the thousands who had assembled on that fateful occasion burst into celebration when the deciding vote had been cast. Standing there, I wonder what Ben-Gurion would make of the Jewish state he would lead into being precisely 50 years after another visionary leaned over the railing of yet another balcony in Basel, dreaming of that very day.
Now I’d have the chance to inquire. The “old man,” as he was affectionately referred to, motioned me to a bench overlooking the majestic wilderness of Tzin and, reading my thoughts, invited me to ask away.
I began with what I thought was a rather innocuous question, asking him if he weren’t duly impressed by Israel’s accomplishments to date. “It’s not enough to be up to date,” he scolded, throwing the words right back at me, “you have to be up to tomorrow,” challenging me to explain two recently published studies, one highlighting the shamefully high rate of poverty among Israel’s children, and the other their appallingly poor ranking in a comparative study of educational achievement around the world.
Before I had a chance to react, he went on to express disapproval of the way in which we were mishandling relations with our minorities, reminding me of what he had said when still in charge.
“We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work... if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.”
Registering my expression of dismay, he said there was no time to dwell on past failures. Instead, he urged a commitment to fulfilling what he had prophesied would one day be when the Jewish state was still in its infancy.
“SUFFERING MAKES a people greater, and we have suffered much,” he ruminated. “We had a message to give the world, but we were overwhelmed, and the message was cut off in the middle. In time there will be millions of us becoming stronger and stronger - and we will complete the message.”
It’s tough getting that across, I told him. Your criticism is the least of our problems. We’re facing a well-orchestrated campaign to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state. Those involved are not particularly open to hearing how we’re making the world a better place.
He cut me short.
“What matters is not what the gentiles say, but what the Jews do.”
Not entirely, I countered. You, in particular, have been castigated for promulgating the expulsion of the Arabs.
He dismissed any such contention as utter nonsense, declaiming from an old speech of his: “We do not want to and we do not have to expel Arabs and take their place. All of our ambitions are built on the assumption that there is enough room for us and for the Arabs in the land of Israel.... Under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahin [Arab farmers] or worked by them. Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement, should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price.”
Being accused of never offering our neighbors an olive branch in the first place, I persisted. Many of our own, particularly those of the next generation, are buying into that narrative. 
Incensed, he pulled from his pocket a rather ragged copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence that he’d played a part in drafting, and began reading aloud. 
“We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
“We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.”
Had the Arabs responded in kind back then, I asked, or if they should do so today, what would you do about Jerusalem?
“We regard it as our duty to declare that Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part of the State of Israel, as it is an inseparable part of the history of Israel, the faith of Israel and the soul of our people. Jerusalem is the very heart of the State of Israel.”
When I asked him what he meant by “Jewish Jerusalem,” he would only say that he knows what he meant at the time he said it, but that it’s up to us to figure out what it might mean today.
I sensed he was already getting impatient, but I did want his thoughts on a few more matters.
ON ISRAEL as the “Start-up Nation,” it was evident from his response that the phenomenon long pre-dated the terminology.
“Israel’s economic and cultural progress is due to three things: the pioneering spirit that inspires the best of our immigrant and Israeli youth...; the feeling of Diaspora Jewry that they are partners in the enterprise of Israel’s resurgence in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people; and the power of science and technology which Israel unceasingly, and not without success, tries to enhance.”
On matters of religion and state he was rather circumspect.
“Since I invoke Torah so often, let me state that I don’t personally believe in the God it postulates... I am not religious, nor were the majority of the early builders of Israel believers. Yet their passion for this land stemmed from the Book of Books which is the single most important book in my life.”
On accusations that the press is being overly zealous in its coverage of alleged abuse of political power he was unsympathetic.
“The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.”
On the phenomenon of Jewish zealotry he issued a fervent warning: “From Jewish terrorism against Arabs it is a short step to Jewish terrorism against Jews.”
On the existential threat facing Israel, his remarks 70 years ago at the end of the War of Independence still ring true: “Let us not be intoxicated with victory.... The enemy forces in the neighboring countries and in the world at large have not yet despaired of their scheme to annihilate Israel... and as long as we cannot be confident that we have won the last battle, let us not revel in glory.” 
On what lays in store for Israel, his evocation of achievements past is a positive portent of things to come.
“The trebling of the population in this small and impoverished country, flowing with milk and honey but not with sufficient water, rich in rocks and sand dunes but poor in natural resources, has been no easy task. Indeed, practical men, with their eyes fixed upon things as they are, regarded it as an empty and insubstantial utopian dream.”
Then with a smile, he added “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert,” concluding with his oft-quoted adage, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
So where do we go from here?
“Without moral and intellectual independence, there is no anchor for national independence,” he answered without hesitation. “The State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, not by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values.”
I thanked Ben-Gurion for his thoughts, glad that the commemoration of his life had turned into more than a ceremony, becoming as well an opportunity to reflect on the legacy he had bequeathed us – particularly important as we are once more being compelled to choose whose we want to inherit next.
The writer serves as deputy chairman of The Jewish Agency executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own. All quotations are from the writings and speeches of David Ben-Gurion.