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Big Ben

David: The Story of Ben Gurion

by Maurice Edelman
Putnam, 216 pp., $4.95

A spectator at the annual Bible quiz in Jerusalem, an amateur of yoga, a pocket messiah, a shock-headed Peter in a white open-necked shirt at even the most ceremonial occasions, or in Richard Crossman’s eyes “a Pickwickian cherub”—Ben Gurion has acquired the public images, the character, of statesmen who have been in the lime-light for many years. Photographs of his face cast in a slightly truculent mood appear all over Israel, and it is simple to conclude with Mr. Edelman that he has “entered the mythology of his people.” Indeed it is hard to separate him from the spectacular achievement of the Jewish national home, and as with Churchill during his 1951 government, controversy about his policies was considered ungrateful. Before Ben Gurion retired, however, one was likely to hear Israelis, depending on their convictions, say that he was bent on becoming a dictator, on shattering his party for the sake of office, or had sold out on socialism.

Ben Gurion for a long time seemed to express Zionism. Yet to Jews engaged in the struggle, he was merely one politician among many contending for the supremacy of their ideas as the problems of Palestine’s growth succeeded one another. Mr. Edelman has only to relate the facts of his career to give a picture of a whole movement. Born in Plonsk, a small town in the Pale, Ben Gurion was twenty when he came to Palestine with that mixture of inspiration and radicalism which the Jewish pioneers created. His early experiences—working as a farmhand in Galilee, as a journalist and then a labor organizer; attending schools in Warsaw, Salonika, and Constantinople; owing allegiance to the Turks and serving later as a British corporal recruited in New York—all were typical for men of his generation of Zionists, the Second Aliyah. These men from Eastern Europe, fervent and toughened, laid the basis of the state, as well as its institutions, which they have since shaped and controlled.

During the Mandate, the Jewish institutions were “the state within the state” and here Ben Gurion began his career, being elected sectary general of Histadrut, the trade union complex which has been the source of much power and patronage. It was his “modern organizational approach,” says Mr. Edelman, which ensured the rescue of Jewish colonizing from a precarious beginning. “In some other manifestation, he might have become a great businessman with a chain of stores stretching across the U.S.A. or Great Britain.” So years of factionalism are put aside, and Ben Gurion’s skill at acquiring the right office at the right moment, and holding it, is accepted on its face. In this kind of biography, events are supposed to explain their causes, and the recital of success is its own analysis. But what of his contemporaries and rivals, were they the lesser businessmen, their ideologies so many unsatisfactory small shops? And to obscure the issue of personality, Ben Gurion is described within a few pages as a pragmatist, as a tactiturn man nicknamed “der grosse Schweiger” and as an electrifying orator.

I remember being taken on a trip one afternoon by an eminent politician of the old Mapai school. He drove me down to Kinneret, down a valley to the cemetery, where in a latter-day club of high prestige, the Shomrim are buried, those first Jewish watchmen of the settlements whom Arthur Koestler called “Hebrew Buffalo Bills.” A plot was reserved for Ben Zvi, then President of the country, but none for his close friend Ben Gurion. When I asked why, I was told that the watchmen had always found him unsuitable and had excluded him, a rejection which had rankled for a lifetime. And there had been a quarrel between the watchmen and the Histadrut over a special fund…This is where the gossip of the little Jewish village in the Pale runs into the bazaar talk of the Middle East, and provides the stuff of existence. To ignore such folklore, or such history, is to rely on English sources, which can only turn Ben Gurion into a two-dimensional character.

Ben Gurion is still writing his reminiscences but the autobiography published so far reads as if it has been bleached. It has none of the fine tortured fastidiousness of Weizmann’s Trial and Error. In these records, one acutely confronts the individual and the organization-man of the Zionist movement. Through the Histadrut Ben Gurion was anchored to domestic affairs and later, as chairman of the Jewish Agency, he could stand before the British and the world as an embryo prime minister on the spot. Although the elected chairman of a much larger and more representative body, Weizmann appeared to be speaking as much for himself as for anyone else, and if his compassion was deep, it was intelligent, a combination which proved captivating to British cabinet ministers. Ben Gurion was the spokesman for the Yishuv, or the Zionists who were doing the spadework, and he argued from the letter of the law, and the subclause, and the small-print, which exasperated quite as many ministers. “Ben Gurion gave evidence and made a bad impression,” wrote Crossman in his diary of the 1946 Anglo-American Committee, and one can see why, reading now the blend of emotionalism and litigious attack.

On the one hand Ben Gurion could point to the consolidation on the soil and the determination to fight for every inch of it, if need be, and on the other he could pull at every susceptible nerve abroad. Since these were the twin approaches by which Israel was to be established, he was making a realistic assessment of Jewish strength under the Mandate. Every Zionist seems to have felt these tugs in proportions which governed his tactics, and so his party. To the British, this looked like an effort to have it both ways, to point up Jewish sentiment and suffering, and also to be held down to colonial responsibilities. So it was too, and Ben Gurion’s genius lay in getting away with it. Eventually he was able to take credit for those actions which favored policy, and disclaim the rest, using the Haganah, for instance, while abusing the terrorist Irgun. No wonder Weizmann with his single-track diplomacy was shelved on the way, and in an act of small-mindedness was not even allowed to sign the Declaration of Independence. That he too appreciated the opposing views towards founding the state is shown by his bursting into tears at the news of the King David Hotel outrage by the Irgun: “I can’t help feeling proud of our boys. If only it had been a German headquarters, they would have got the Victoria Cross.”

Jabotinsky and the Revisionists, later the terrorists, were exclusively concerned with one approach, the use of force in Palestine even at the expense of settlement. Ben Gurion could outmanoeuver them. 1948 was the Churchillian climax when he gathered the available resources to defeat the Arabs. No less dramatic was his courage over the Altalena incident when he ordered the army to sink a boatload of arms for the Irgun, and so destroyed a para-military commando threatening the state from within. Mr. Edelman goes over this but makes no reference to something just as stormy, the disbanding of the Palmach, the left-wing shock troops of the official Haganah. Unification of the state was no doubt the priority, but his operations against the right and the left have influenced subsequent Israeli affairs at all levels. Mr. Edelman investigates neither how this happened, nor the outcome—that series of uneasy coalitions over which Ben Gurion has presided rather like the superego holding in check the ego and the id.

To remain prime minister for fourteen years, with one interlude, entailed a naked fight for place, with cycles of allegiances and recriminations which have disrupted not only the ruling Mapai party and the Histadrut, but all shades of the opposition. Personalities have cut across policies, as the murky Lavon affair exemplified. Since his retirement, Ben Gurion’s interventions and comebacks have been embarrassing to Eshkol, the Prime Minister whom he nominated. Ben Gurion has always left economics to the experts, and in promoting one of them to be his heir, the socialist principles of Mapai have been allowed to slide into the expediencies of making ends meet. Concessions to the religious parties have been quite as complex and far-reaching, liable to blow up the Kulturkampf latent in the society. The politician, who drove me to Kennent told me more rumors: that Ben Gurion’s civil marriage in the New York City Hall would not satisfy the law whereby only religious weddings are recognized, that somebody unscrupulous enough could use this to make any coalition impossible.

If Zionism was a moral necessity, particularly after the Second World War, Ben Gurion transformed it, as much as anyone, into a political compulsion. With the rest of the Second Aliyah, he had expected Russian Jews to form the bulk of the immigrants. Instead, American Jews have provided money but few Zionists, and Ben Gurion has provocatively maintained that while Jews must be reminded of their Jewish obligations, only in Israel can there be fulfilment. This has its repercussions in foreign affairs, for it enables the Arabs to project their antagonism to an ever-growing Israel on to Russia and America, obliging the one to restrain Jews and labeling the other neo-imperalists. The Second Aliyah generation preferred not to examine too closely the Arab question, or if they did, it was in terms of an old-fashioned socialist solution. It was to Ben Gurion’s credit that he stood firm against the exploitation of cheap Arab labor and so blocked any Jewish colon mentality. Today, however, Arab socialism is useful to its rules mostly as nationalism the impasse is complete. These are the old Mandate frustrations in a newer, larger guise.

The more the Arabs menace Israel, the more the Israelis build the country as they most fear it. The Israeli immigrants from Arab lands do not love their former masters, and it is in the army that years of resentment are energized into nationalism. At home, Herut offers them a right-wing party, one to compensate too, for their supposedly inferior status to Jews of European origins. The longer Second Aliyah ideas remain current, the more inflexible this becomes. Ben Gurion kept out the strongmen, but seems likely to be succeeded ultimately by one, at best one of his own praetorians, Dayan or Peres.

Writers about Israel often gloss over the difficulties and Mr. Edelman is no exception. Surely the triumphs of statehood are so exciting and complex that sentimentality is out of place. After a parliamentary oration, and yards of Hansard prose, Mr. Edelman has merely proposed a vote of thanks, another formal entry on the scroll. “I would rather a grain of action than a mountain of revolutionary rhetoric,” Ben Gurion once said, and it is a yardstick of the man. The actions are still vital, they cannot be embalmed, and certainly not by Israelis, who are now evaluating Ben Gurion and the future of what has been called, not without reason, the most faithful nineteenth-century democracy in the modern world.

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