Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)

9. Jewish People, Jewish Policy

Ben-Gurion didn’t cry tears, but in his heart he was weeping.

Even before the War of Independence ended, Ben-Gurion was directing a good deal of his energies to the challenge of immigration. He swept aside all doubts and hesitations—some from within his own party—over the wisdom of encouraging an unfettered mass immigration of Jews into Israel, without regard to the “absorptive capacity” (that hated Mandatory term!) of the new state’s economy. The figures are indeed phenomenal. More than 100,000 immigrants arrived during the war itself—from May to December 1948. In 1949 the number was 239,576; in 1950, 170,249; and in 1951, 175,095. In all, 686,748 immigrants arrived in four years—more than the original Jewish population of the newborn state.

The newcomers were housed at first in empty British Army camps and abandoned houses. When these were filled to overflowing, the government supplied tents and tin shacks. Toward the end of 1949, with the physical conditions in some of the immigrants’ camps really wretched, Levi Eshkol, then treasurer of the Jewish Agency, initiated the idea of maabarot, or transit camps, for immigrants, in the suburbs of major cities or in outlying areas of the country where the government was interested, for strategic reasons, in dispersing the population. The idea was that the newcomers could live in these facilities for longer periods than they could in the very rudimentary immigrants’ camps, and that they would be encouraged to go out to work—often in public works projects initiated by the government—rather than sinking into a lifestyle of unemployment and reliance on state handouts.

On April 4, 1950, Ben-Gurion and Eliezer Kaplan took part in a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive at which this new approach to immigrant absorption was endorsed, and in May the first maabara was built, in the Jerusalem hills. Over the next two years, an additional 120 maabarot were put up around the country; in their heyday they were home to more than a quarter of a million new Israelis. Most came from neighboring countries in the Middle East and North Africa; some came from Romania, the only Eastern European country then permitting aliyah. The project was administered jointly by the agency and by the ministry of labor, under Golda Meir.

Conditions in the hastily built maabarot were not much better than in the earlier immigrant camps. Roofs leaked in the winter and provided no insulation from the torrid summer sun. Medical facilities were inadequate, sanitary conditions poor, education for the children patchy. Ben-Gurion sent the army to work in the immigrant camps and later in the maabarot. His view was that the IDF was not solely a fighting force but also an important social instrument for assisting the absorption of its own immigrant-soldiers and for helping absorb others. I remember visiting one camp with Ben-Gurion. It was winter, and it was freezing cold in the huts, pouring rain outside. There were children swarming about us, some clearly sick. No one had jobs. They cried, and we cried. Ben-Gurion didn’t cry tears, but in his heart he was weeping.

At first, the soldiers taught Hebrew and life skills to the newcomers. But when the ravages of a hard winter took their toll on the maabarot in 1950–51, the IDF began taking a much more central role in the physical maintenance of the buildings and in the social, educational, and medical welfare of the immigrants. The same thing happened the following winter. But the soldiers’ work encountered opposition from religious circles, who claimed that their goal was to woo the immigrants away from their religious lifestyles and turn them into Mapai voters, which was as untrue as it was cynical.

Some of the North African immigrants came with messianic ideas, but Ben-Gurion never exploited their simple faith or tried to pass himself off as the messiah (as his critics accused him of doing). He said the country welcomed immigration for reasons of both “salvation” and “redemption”; that is, for people who needed to get away from where they were living, and for people who came out of choice, to enrich their lives as Jews. He didn’t distinguish between them. Some officials wanted a policy of “selective aliyah,” with priority given to younger and more productive people. I don’t think it was ever a serious proposition. Ben-Gurion, at any rate, was moved and excited as soon as the aliyah from Yemen and North Africa got under way. He would not hear of any reservations or any selectivity.

In the early 1950s Ben-Gurion instituted a prize of 100 lirot (more than $100, not an insignificant sum then) for mothers who gave birth to ten children. The letter accompanying the check was signed by the prime minister himself. “It is a token of admiration and encouragement for a Mother in Israel who has delivered and raised ten children,” the letter read. “Rejoice that you have been blessed to raise them to Torah [i.e., to study], to work, and to do good deeds for the benefit of the homeland and the nation. May your hands be strengthened.”

“Mother in Israel” was a traditional Jewish phrase, although the prize money was also made available to Arab mothers who fulfilled the required complement of offspring. This in no way deterred Ben-Gurion, although his intention was obviously to boost the Jewish population of Israel. Somewhere in the back of his mind there was always a vague, inchoate thought that some Arab Israelis might one day become Jewish Israelis by some process of voluntary conversion. And anyway, as he wrote to a doctor who protested that his prize spurred the birth of poor, weak, and sickly children, “I don’t think a woman has ten children in order to win the prize, just as I don’t think a scientist or author—if I may resort to such analogy—does his creative work in order to win prizes.” He pointed out to the protesting doctor that the prize was sent “to a mother who has ten living children, not to a mother who gave birth to a total of ten children, even if some of them have died meanwhile.”

And alongside all of this absorption and acculturation of Jewish immigrants into the new Israel, there was the question, sometimes addressed overtly and sometimes implicitly, of what Israeli Judaism would consist of. What role would religion play in the life of the state?

Ben-Gurion’s 1949 coalition with the Religious Front, an alliance of the Zionist-Orthodox Mizrachi Party and the non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael, flowed from a concordat that he had reached almost two years earlier with Agudat Yisrael on matters of state and religion in the still-to-be-created Jewish state. In a letter signed by himself, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon, and Yitzhak Gruenbaum,* Ben-Gurion noted that the anticipated state must provide and protect freedom of conscience for all its citizens and must not be a theocracy. It would thus win the endorsement of the United Nations, which it needed in order to come into existence. It would have within its borders, moreover, Christians and Muslims as well as Jews, and “obviously must undertake in advance full equality for all its citizens and no coercion or discrimination in matters of religion.” Furthermore, the constitution of the new state would be determined by its citizens and could not be laid down in advance. Having said that, however, the Jewish Agency Executive was prepared to pledge to Agudat Yisrael that its own position on the key issues of state and religion was as follows:

1. Shabbat. Clearly, the legal day of rest in the Jewish state will be the Sabbath day, with obvious exceptions for Christians and others to rest on their religious day of rest.

2. Kashrut. All the necessary measures will be taken to ensure that in every state eating facility … there will be kosher food.

3. Personal status. All the members of the Executive understand the seriousness of the problem and the great difficulties it entails, and all the component-parts of the Agency will do whatever is possible to facilitate the deep need of believing Jews to prevent, Heaven forfend, a split within the House of Israel. [That meant, in practice, that marriage and divorce would be administered exclusively by the Orthodox chief rabbinate for Jews, and by other statutory religious authorities for Muslims and Christians.]

4. Education. Each educational stream will have its autonomy ensured, as is the case in the Yishuv now, and there will be no infringement on the freedom of religion of any group. The state, of course, will determine the required minimum of compulsory studies in Hebrew language, history, sciences, etc., and will supervise the fulfillment of this minimum requirement.

This letter became the core of what is known as the “status quo,” an uneasy arrangement governing issues of state and religion that has been the subject of incessant political strife to the present day. In addition, and even more controversially, Ben-Gurion had agreed in 1948 to exempt full-time yeshiva students from military service. There were only a few hundred of them at the time. Nevertheless, this was not an easy decision. The war was raging throughout the country, and all able-bodied men had been mobilized. The yeshiva deans threatened to move their institutions abroad if the concession was not granted. I was instrumental later in negotiating on Ben-Gurion’s behalf with the ultra-Orthodox Council of Yeshivot and in formalizing the exemption. Over the years, and with the changing demography, it has grown to embrace tens of thousands of men of military age who would otherwise be serving in the regular army or the reserves. It is a perennial focus of political and judicial battles. And it offers an opportunity to assess not only Ben-Gurion’s leadership but also the complex twinning of religion and nationhood that had not been an option since the destruction of the Temple, but that the creation of the state made possible once again. This historical context is very important.

Ben-Gurion was a master tactician, and his confrontation with the Orthodox was a prime example of that. If he had made it a fight against faith, he would have lost, because the number of people in Israel who defined themselves as people of faith was huge.

Ben-Gurion’s approach to the Rabbinate was in some sense deeply personal, at times almost conversational. He was pitting his self-assured Jewishness against theirs, but he also saw the state itself as a place of natural overlap and organic resolution for religious differences within a larger context of Jewish nationalism. And in that spirit, we break once more into conversation ourselves.

DAVID LANDAU: Did Ben-Gurion think the number of traditionally observant Jews would decline?

SHIMON PERES: That’s not important, because his fight was never against the individual Orthodox Jew but against the Orthodox political establishment. If an Orthodox Jew or an Orthodox Jewish community made aliyah, he was automatically and wholeheartedly supportive.

But beyond that, yes, he saw changes developing in the Jewish state. We believed that the Diasporic version of Judaism was transient. We didn’t think we Israelis would stop being Jews! You can’t be Zionist without being Jewish. But we saw two historic perversions in this Diasporic version of Judaism: the Diasporic condition itself—statelessness, homelessness—and the aping of non-Jewish values. Ben-Gurion’s objection was not to the religion but to the organized “church.” He maintained that pristine Judaism had no hierarchy, no God’s deputy, no bishops. Judaism is a faith, he held. Everyone is connected directly to God.

DAVID LANDAU: And therefore?

SHIMON PERES: Therefore the Rabbinate should not run our lives. Therefore halacha [Jewish religious law] should not be the law of the land.

DAVID LANDAU: But the opposite happened.

SHIMON PERES: No, it didn’t. Israel is a secular state. The Orthodox have bargaining power, so everything had to be done by compromise. But Israel is not under religious control: It’s not a halachic country, it’s not a theocracy. Ben-Gurion opposed religious coercion and opposed antireligious coercion.

DAVID LANDAU: Ideally, would Ben-Gurion have preferred an American-style constitution with separation of church and state, rather than a European-style nation-state with religious antecedents?

SHIMON PERES: No, he thought it would be possible to provide another interpretation of Jewish law, one that holds that Judaism consists of variations. What you’re asking is complicated: Judaism is both leom, nationality, and dat, religion. Therefore, it is impossible to separate the two. To say “I am a Jew” is like saying “I am a white horse.” “White horse” is not two things, white and horse. It’s a white horse. When you say you are a Jew, you are stating your nationality and your religion at one and the same time. They are inseparable. What is separable are the institutions. Ben-Gurion wanted to separate the institutions of faith and state. In the Bible there were kings, prophets, judges, and priests. The prophets reflected and articulated dissatisfaction; morally at least, they were more exalted than the kings. The priests had a function to fulfill. But they weren’t a decision-making institution; they were, rather, service providers. Ben-Gurion didn’t want a priestly establishment; he didn’t want any religious establishment.
   But Ben-Gurion decided not to fight this ideological battle. His leadership was based on prioritization—both because he believed this was the way to lead, and because the objective circumstances of coalition life dictated that you couldn’t deal with even two things at once. You had to choose one issue and gather a coalition around it. He couldn’t have held a coalition together had he pushed, say, four separate issues at once, because that would have created a common denominator for all the rejectionists on all four issues to unite against him. For instance, the dispute between socialism and social revolution did not interest the Orthodox. But if he’d fought on all fronts simultaneously and with the same passion—socialism versus communism, secularism versus religion, a free-market economy versus a centrally directed economy—he’d have united all of them against him and remained in the minority. So he took up one issue with total passion: setting up the state.
   In his battles with the Orthodox, he exploited the fact that many of them tended to focus on the Talmud and neglected the Bible. He put the Bible at the center of his philosophy and of the national ethos as he sought to fashion it, because the basis of the Bible was in Eretz Yisrael, whereas the Talmud, the “Oral Law,” was a product of the Diaspora. The Orthodox weren’t ready for that. They didn’t know how to handle it. If he’d have come out against everything relating to Jewish religious practices, they’d have said he wasn’t an authentic Jew, that he was an assimilationist. But he advocated the restoration of the Jewish people to the Bible and of the Bible to the Jewish people. As he famously declared in his testimony to the Peel Commission, “The Bible is our Mandate.” He initiated a Bible-study circle at his home, and the annual Bible Quiz, which became a popular national event, was his idea. Religious Zionist leaders like Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon and Dr. Yosef Burg* were captivated by his enthusiasm. He liked Maimon, partly because Maimon understood what he meant by mamlachtiyut. Maimon was a serious intellectual but was a very practical politician at the same time. Ben-Gurion, for his part, thought he would be able to understand the Orthodox viewpoint better through conversations with Maimon than with anyone else. They seemed to enjoy each other. Ben-Gurion told me that Maimon once asked him, “What’s the one thing God can’t do?” Ben-Gurion, taking on the proffered role, insisted that God can do everything. To which Maimon replied, “No, even God can’t change the past.”

DAVID LANDAU: He seems to have had a fairly good relationship too with the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael, Rabbi Yitzhak-Meir Levin, who was a brother-in-law of the Hasidic Rebbe of Gur. I heard this story from Levin’s son-in-law and aide, Moshe Sheinfeld. One night during the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion arrived unannounced at Levin’s home on Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. They closeted themselves away for two hours. Sheinfeld presumed they were discussing urgent matters of state; Levin was a minister in the government. But Levin reported later that Ben-Gurion had asked about the Orthodox view of the famous eighteenth-century dispute between two leading scholars of that age, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz and Rabbi Jacob Emden. He explained that he’d been reading all the Haskalah literature [writings on Jewish subjects by secular Jews] on the subject but wanted to hear the Orthodox viewpoint.

SHIMON PERES: That sounds authentic, and I’m sure it was sincere on Ben-Gurion’s part. He was unboundedly curious. Though at the same time, of course, this sort of intimate, scholarly conversation was intended to create confidence on their part in his leadership and his good faith.

DAVID LANDAU: You were his emissary in the matter of exempting yeshiva students from army service. Would you say that his subtext in this mission of yours was that with time this problem would simply disappear, or at least would not grow? History has of course shown that that was not the case, and the yeshivot have grown exponentially.

SHIMON PERES: His purpose was to remove every obstacle on the path to the creation of the state, which for him was an ongoing process, not a one-time event that took place in 1948. He wasn’t thinking about what was going to happen later. He sent me on many assignments. For some reason he thought I could do things, let’s say, unconventionally. So for all sorts of unconventional things, he’d send me. He once asked me, for instance, to set up a national soccer team that would beat the world.

DAVID LANDAU: And why weren’t you successful?

SHIMON PERES: Because it was impossible. There’s a limit to what you can do.

DAVID LANDAU: You didn’t think of buying foreign players?

SHIMON PERES: No, it never occurred to me. The team was going to be purely Israeli.

DAVID LANDAU: So this was one of your failures?

SHIMON PERES: Yes, you can put that on the list. Anyway, to be completely frank, in negotiating with the venerable rabbis, I felt like I was sitting with my grandfather.

DAVID LANDAU: Who was murdered by the Nazis.

SHIMON PERES: Yes, who was burned to death in his synagogue as the head of his community. And who influenced my life, in a positive way, more than anyone else. Personally, I had yirat kavod [reverence] toward these people. I didn’t sit with them to haggle. At the same time, I knew that Ben-Gurion’s approach was mamlachti, and that was the basis of my mission. First, I asked myself: Imagine there were Buddhists in Israel and they’d asked for 150 of their people to be monks. I would have approved. So for Jews not? Second, they claimed very cogently that throughout the Diaspora period even the czars and other rulers had facilitated the existence of yeshivot. Did I want all the yeshivot to be abroad? I thought this was a powerful argument. I reported everything to Ben-Gurion—except the bit about feeling like I was sitting in front of my grandfather.

DAVID LANDAU: That’s what I wanted to ask: Could you have said to Ben-Gurion that you felt reverence for these people?

SHIMON PERES: Yes, I had no difficulty with that. But strange though it may sound, I’m shy. I’m an introvert. So I didn’t mention it. But not because I was worried about how he would have reacted. I had no fear of Ben-Gurion in that way.


* Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon (born Yehuda Leib Fishman; 1875–1962) was a leader of the Mizrachi Party and a member of the board of the Jewish Agency; he later served in the Knesset and as minister of religions and war victims. Yitzhak Gruenbaum (1879–1970) was a member of the Jewish Agency Executive and the Provisional Government; he was also the first minister of the interior.

* Burg (1909–99) was a longtime leader of the Mizrachi Party and held many ministerial positions over the course of his career.