Saving Ben-Gurion

Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) is a time to reflect on the origins of Israel as the Jewish National State, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. 

Most Jews need little reminder Israel had its own “George Washington,” one David Ben-Gurion, born David Grün (Gruen) in Poland in 1886. He united the various militias into the Israel Defense Force, emerged victorious from the 1948 Arab-Israel War and became the first Prime Minister of the new State of Israel. While his career was not without controversy – like the massive reparations deal he forged with West Germany — today’s Israel is inarguably the manifestation of his unstinting vision, commitment, bravery and statesmanship.  

His much-dissected public life and political policies shouldn’t require us to rise to the defense of his reputation, but contemporary attempts at revisionist history demand our fervent response. 

The New York Times, widely regarded as the eminence gris of American journalism, also suffers a well-deserved reputation for anti-Israel editorial bias. Sometimes the editors stray so far over the line into unsubstantiated Israel bashing, we need to step up and counter the misinformation. Recent books and articles – pushed to the fore by the recent Arab Israel Summit — put a tragically anti-Arab spin of Ben Gurion’s legacy. The historical record belies these false narratives. 

A recent NY Times article asserts that Ben-Gurion didn’t believe in peace. Of the Peace Summit, it said, “…if he were alive today, no one would be more stunned than Ben-Gurion himself.” According to Ben-Gurion biographer Tom Segev, “He never believed in real peace with the Arabs.” To this, the respected American Jewish journalist Ira Stoll responded in the Algemeiner newspaper, “That’s nonsense.” 

While Segev’s Ben-Gurion bio was attacked by critics at the time of its publication, it continues to find currency with those who have a political axe to grind. Alas, as satirist Jonathan Swift noted as long ago as 1710, Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

Ben-Gurion told the Knesset in his Declaration of Independence in May, 1948: “We extend the hand of peace and good-neighborliness to all the States around us and their peoples, and we call upon them to cooperate in mutual helpfulness with the independent Jewish nation in its Land. 

“The State of Israel is prepared to make contributions in a concerted effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East,” he continued. 

Even more directly, he added, “I believe with implicit faith that the day will come when true peace will reign between Israel and her neighbors.” Candidly, these aren’t the “fighting words” one would expect from a government leader who knew his country was about to be attacked by literally every neighboring nation. It strikes me more as the lament of a supremely practical man who saw the senselessness of a war that was all but inevitable. 

Much is made of the conflict with Israelis over land occupied by the Palestinians, or conversely, land settled by Israelis that Palestinians see as theirs by right. On this, Ben-Gurion had something to say, but it does not in any way suggest a policy of confiscation. In fact, quite the contrary is true: “Under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs (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.”

On the subject of Israel, the Times benefits from a startlingly short memory. Had it a better sense of itself, it might acknowledge Dan Kurzman’s 1993 article, “The Shadow of Ben-Gurion,” published one month after the historic but ultimately unfulfilled Oslo peace agreement. Kurzman, author of the well-regarded biography Ben-Gurion: Prophet of Fire, paints a starkly different picture of Ben-Gurion than what the paper hopes to portray today. In the 1920s, Ben-Gurion believed (perhaps naively) that the economic challenges of Arab and Jewish workers would create a commonality of interest and they would form a bond borne of mutual struggles.  Yet as early as 1933, Ben-Gurion was determined to end the years-long, bitter struggle over the disposition of Palestine. 

Over tea with Musa Alami, then the Secretary to the High Commissioner and Junior Crown Counsel in the British Mandatory administration, Ben-Gurion proposed that when the British Mandate expired, a Jewish State would be formed and join a regional Arab Federation. Practically, Israel and several Arab countries would have been linked in much the same way as Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg (BENELUX) functioned in the Common Market, and to some extent, in the European Union today. 

“This came as a bombshell to the Mufti (Alami), he had not imagined that there were Jews who sincerely wished an understanding and an agreement with the Arabs,” Ben-Gurion later wrote. Alami apparently supported this proposal, but the Syrians rejected it immediately, leaving both men bitterly disappointed. A reasonable path to peace had been discarded out of hand. 

Kurzman related the contents of a secret note the 84-year-old retired politician wrote to a lifelong friend in 1970, “There is hope… that peace is approaching, not quickly, but slowly, slowly and it appears to that by the end of this century, the prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled.”  

Why the NY Times chooses to rewrite history as the Arab world inexorably moves closer to normalizing relations with Israel is a discussion for a different day. As of now, all countries in the region remain alarmed at the ever-looming threat of an increasingly belligerent, nuclear capable Iran, which the U.S. State Dept. ranks among the world’s leading exporters of international terrorism. The threat of a common enemy is a strong incentive to forge a new bond with a militarily powerful ally. Plus, the Arab Bloc is losing its taste for perennial tensions with Israel, which continues to prosper despite ongoing hostility from its more bellicose neighbors, especially the Palestinian Authority (PA). This may not make the PA happy, but it puts relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors on a more rational footing as a basis for future negotiations. 

There is much to be worked out with the Arab world as a whole, and specifically with the PA, for there to be a lasting cessation of hostilities. But casting aspersions on David Ben-Gurion, whose legacy is the establishment of the only true democracy in the Middle East, is not helpful to forging a lasting peace. 

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