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

1. Beginnings

Ben-Gurion once told me he decided to learn Hebrew at the age of three. “Why did you waste so much time?” I asked him.

David Ben-Gurion was born David Gruen on October 16, 1886, in Plonsk, a town in north-central Poland with a Jewish presence that went back to the sixteenth century. He grew to manhood immersed in that brief but radiant phenomenon in our people’s history that might be called “shtetl Zionism.” When he was a teenager, his father, Avigdor Gruen, wrote to Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary, asking his advice on his gifted youngster’s education. Herzl, busy organizing his Zionist movement, apparently didn’t find the time to write back. How could he know that in less than fifty years this promising lad would be the man whose iron will would translate his dreams into reality?

As in so many of the towns and villages of the Pale of Settlement,* most of the people in Plonsk (which was forty-five miles from Warsaw) were Jewish. As the nineteenth century wore on, many were touched by the winds of modernity and emancipation and by the Haskalah, which blew across Europe from west to east, changing the centuries-old pattern of life in the ancient Jewish communities. A minority channeled their newly acquired intellectual energies into the revival of Hebrew language and literature. Among these was Zvi Arye Gruen, David’s grandfather and a formative influence on his young life. Zvi Arye was among the first in the district to join the Hovevei Tzion (literally “Lovers of Zion”), a movement founded in the early 1880s that encouraged agricultural settlement in Palestine.

Avigdor was a sort of unofficial attorney-at-law—a familiar figure in the Pale at that time—who helped people with their legal problems. He was among the first in Plonsk to set aside the more traditional Jewish garb in favor of the frock coat and winged collar that suited his profession. The Gruens, though not rich, were a comfortable family. But they were stricken by tragedy when David, an introspective boy, was only eleven: his mother, Sheindel, whom he doted on, died in childbirth. It was her eleventh confinement. Five of the children lived: three boys, of whom David was the youngest, and two girls. David now grew even closer to his father. There was one episode of tension—common to many Jewish families at the time—when the young David, after his bar mitzvah, refused to continue putting on his tefilin.* But it didn’t last.

At fourteen David founded his first party—not a political party, but rather an ideological society of like-minded boys in Plonsk that he named Ezra, after the biblical scribe who led the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile in the fifth century B.C.E. The boys studied Hebrew and discussed the weighty issues of the day affecting the Jewish people. Chief among them was what was called within the Zionist movement “territorialism,” which was the idea, supported at first even by Herzl himself, that the Jews make do with a territory of their own somewhere other than in Palestine, perhaps in British-administered Uganda. This would be at the very least an interim solution, to help the Jews escape the steadily worsening threat of rampant European anti-Semitism.

The young members of Ezra were dismayed and outraged at the idea. Sitting on the banks of the River Plonka that ran through Plonsk, David and his comrades drafted their response to the Uganda Plan, which had been submitted to the 1903 Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel. “We have reached the conclusion,” they asserted, “that the way to fight Ugandism is to make aliyah.”* They were not yet adults, but their thinking at that time would inform and shape their entire adult lives. For Ben-Gurion, this brisk dismissal of Zionist rhetoric in favor of Zionist action was a theme that was to recur countless times in his speeches and writings. For him, Zionism was what Jews did in Eretz Yisrael, not what they or others said or did elsewhere.

Soon afterward David became involved in Zionist politics proper. Despite the sense of almost personal bereavement that he and his friends felt at the death of Herzl in 1904 at the young age of forty-four, David threw his energies into founding and running the Plonsk branch of the fledgling Poalei Zion, a socialist-Zionist party. He was supposed to be spending his time now in Warsaw, studying engineering. But the restrictions and quotas on Jewish students imposed by the czarist regime made it hard for him to gain admittance to a reputable college. Back home, he led the fight against the Bund in Plonsk and the surrounding region, persuading the boys and girls of his own generation to give their hearts to the Zionist cause. His own heart was totally committed, though part of it had also been given to the willowy Rachel Nelkin, stepdaughter of another prominent Zionist and scholar of the Haskalah in Plonsk, Reb Simcha Eizik. They had grown up together, but only now, upon his return from Warsaw, was David suddenly and powerfully struck by Rachel’s dark beauty. “In Plonsk people were very conservative,” he recalled many years later. “A boy and girl couldn’t walk out alone. But I walked out with Rachel, and we caused a storm!”

In 1906 they joined a large group of young people from Plonsk planning aliyah. Rachel’s mother came with them, carefully chaperoning her daughter on the voyage to shield her honor from David’s ardor. On September 7 they disembarked in Jaffa. “My Dear Ones,” David wrote on his first postcard home. “Hurrah. Today at the ninth hour I alighted on the shore of Jaffa … We’re going to Petah Tikva. I’ll write in more detail from there. I wasn’t ill on the journey even once! I’m feeling well, full of courage, and full of faith.”

Though I was born more than a generation after Ben-Gurion, I too experienced as a boy both shtetl life and shtetl Zionism. In our little town, Vishneva, there were no Gentiles. We would see them only on Wednesday, market day, when they came to sell the produce from their farms. Like Ben-Gurion, I too was deeply loved and deeply influenced by my grandfather, Reb Zvi Meltzer. He taught me my first Bible stories. An alumnus of the famous Volozhin yeshiva, he later introduced me to the Talmud. I remember going to the train station, sometimes with him and sometimes with others from our shtetl, to say farewell to groups leaving for Eretz Yisrael.

Of the thousand-odd Jewish families in Vishneva, almost half went on aliyah before the Holocaust. In my mother’s family all four of her sisters, together with their husbands and children, made it to Eretz Yisrael. But my beloved and revered grandfather stayed behind and was burned alive in his synagogue by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. I will never forget his words to me on the station platform when my mother, my brother, and I set out for Palestine. (My father, Yitzhak Persky, had gone on ahead and established himself in Tel Aviv before bringing us over.) My zeide embraced me and said, “My child, one thing above all else: Always be a Jew.”

Looking back on that period of profound agitation and dramatic change in Jewish history, the period that produced Ben-Gurion and a whole generation of pioneers, I would say, first, that the Jewish people is a fighting people. The Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction! We’re a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better. The Jews represent permanent revolution in the world. However small a nation we may be, we are the flag-bearers of revolution.

The State of Israel is part of that revolution, part of an ancient ethos that demands that we be a “treasured people” and a “light unto the nations.” The Jews of Europe at the turn of the last century were faced, essentially, with two options: assimilation or Zionism. In Western Europe—in France, Germany, and Italy—the majority of the Jews inclined toward assimilation. In Eastern Europe they inclined toward Zionism. The great debate was catalyzed by the Dreyfus Affair.* Later, the main protagonists were Communists and Social Democrats. But the question remained the same: Why are the Jews so hated? And what can we do about it? The two sides provided different answers. The Communists said, we have to change the world; the Zionists said, we have to change the Jews. The Communists saw the world divided by class, race, and religion, with the Jews as victims on all counts. Herzl said that we have to change the Jewish condition wherein the Jews have no state of their own—no land, no agriculture, no army. All that makes them strange and different. Ben-Gurion took up this theme of Jewish uniqueness. He would often stress the Jewish people’s singularity in its religion and in its unparalleled and incomparable history. To counter anti-Semitism, Zionism posited, the Jews have to change themselves and, hence, how the world sees them.

These were the two broad trends shaping the Jewish world in 1906 as Ben-Gurion made his journey to Palestine. In addition, the young people were rebelling against their parents’ world. Many saw the older generation as provincial, narrow-minded, and hidebound by outmoded traditions.

When their ship docked, David and his friends made their way on foot from Jaffa to Petah Tikva, which was then a Jewish agricultural village some eight miles away. There they joined other young Second Aliyah* pioneers vying daily with local Arab laborers for poorly paid jobs in the fields and orchards of the Jewish farmers.

Even in those very early years—the dawn of organized Zionist settlement on the land—the Zionist movement as well as the individual pioneers were already preoccupied with two issues of principle. One was avodah Ivrit, or Hebrew labor, the social imperative for Jews to work their own lands or hire other Jews to work them. The fear was that the Zionist aliyah would become like the British presence in India, with the natives (in this case, the Arabs) doing the work. Avodah Ivrit was the ideological and rhetorical bulwark against nativism. The second principle was geulat hakarka: literally “redemption of the soil,” the political imperative to buy up tracts of land and not occupy them by force.

People ask me what Ben-Gurion would have thought about avodah Ivrit today, especially given that Israel employs many foreign workers from around the globe, in agriculture, construction, and paramedical care. But physical work as such is no longer a matter of principle, because muscles aren’t what matter anymore; what matters is brainpower. There’s not much human labor required on the land today, what with the mechanization of agriculture and, more important, with the huge changes that have come about in the use of land. For instance, there used to be a quarter-million dunams* of citrus groves in the area around Ness Ziona and Rehovot. In the early years of the state, they brought in $100 million a year in hard currency and were considered, rightly, a major export industry. Now the orange trees have been largely uprooted. On a 400-dunam corner of the former orchards, there’s a science and technology park that brings in $4 billion a year.

It’s amusing, and also perhaps heartening, to recall that the two great exports of Israel in the early years were actually oranges and false teeth. All over the world Israeli diplomats were required to help sell false teeth. It sounds funny, I know. Yitzhak Navon and Yaakov Tsur were in Argentina once, meeting with Juan Peron. Their main goal was to sell him false teeth! And oranges.

Young David Gruen had had no training or experience in agricultural work and found it hard going at first. After just a fortnight he was felled by the malaria that made life so miserable for so many of the pioneers. A doctor who examined him quietly suggested that he might do well to consider returning home. He had clearly misjudged his patient. “For weeks, the whole country prayed for rain,” David wrote to his father in December 1906.

When the rain comes, the oranges are picked, so there’s work. That’s not the only blessing it brings us workers: when the rain comes the malaria stops. At the end of Heshvan the skies to the west darkened with clouds. Gradually they spread … The parched earth swallowed or, more accurately, sucked in the liquid treasure that the skies emptied down on it for two whole weeks … In the morning, in groups of ten or a dozen, we young men and women go out to the orchards to pick the oranges. This is one of the easiest and pleasantest tasks.

Rachel, not a natural laborer, much to David’s chagrin, had dropped out of the group by now. And she fell in love with somebody else.

David went on to describe in detail, in flowing Hebrew and with occasional Yiddish terms thrown in for clarity, the techniques for harvesting oranges and his own prowess and progress in moving up the ranks of pickers. Lunch, he wrote, was bread, eggs, halvah, and oranges. Sometimes there were sardines too. “Some people eat olives and tomatoes,” he added, supplying in parentheses the Yiddish word for tomatoes, pomadoren, in case his father was unfamiliar with the Hebrew agvaniot. “But I haven’t got used to eating this sort of food yet.” He signed off, “With greetings from Zion.” Clearly he was in his element.

Yet David did not stay long in Petah Tikva. He moved on to Kfar Sava, another farming village nearby, and then on to the famous winery at Rishon LeZion, founded by the French Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the major philanthropic backer of many of the First Aliyah settlements. About a year after his aliyah, David moved to the Galilee, where he found work, pleasure, and peace of mind in the village of Sejera, near Mount Tabor. All the farmhands in this small settlement were Jewish. “I get up at half past four in the morning,” he reported to his father in February 1908,

and go to the cowshed to feed “my” animals. Then I brew up some tea and have my breakfast. At first light, I take my “flock”—two pairs of oxen, two cows, two calves, and a donkey—over to the trough to drink. The sun’s still not up, and I’m harnessing the yoke on my oxen, putting the bag of seed on the donkey, getting my cattle-prodder ready [a detailed description of this implement appears here in parentheses], and heading for the field, where I plow steadily all day long. How easy and pleasant plowing is! … The oxen plod slowly ahead, like important burghers, and I have all the time in the world to think and to dream. And how can one not think when one is walking and plowing the land of Eretz Yisrael, and when all around other Jews are plowing their land in their own country? This land that you tread on, this land that reveals itself in all its rich shades and magic charm … isn’t this experience itself a dream? … At four I’m back home. I feed and water the oxen, muck out the cowshed, and clean up—and then I’m free for myself! I spend the evenings reading, writing, partying with friends (there are some twenty Hebrew workers here), or busy with public work.

Despite his pride and self-assurance, others at Sejera appear to have been less appreciative of David’s bucolic abilities. Some recalled the time he was so engrossed in his newspaper while plowing that he failed to notice that the oxen had plodded right out of the field and headed off to pasture elsewhere. David himself gave voice, in letters to his friends, to the loneliness that sometimes assailed him up in Sejera, a small settlement surrounded by Arab villages, some of them hostile. Later he moved farther north, to Kinneret and Menahemia, then returned to Sejera, where he witnessed at first hand the shooting of one of the Jewish guards by Arab marauders.

In one of his early articles in the newspaper of the Poalei Zion Party, which was called Ha’achdut (literally “Unity”), David plunged into the issue that would preoccupy him for so much of his time as leader of the nation: defense. He pointedly compared the Turkish authorities’ lackadaisical attitude toward the murder of Jewish farmers by Arabs to their stern efficiency in pursuing and punishing the killers of a German resident of Haifa. But his criticism was aimed not so much at the Turks as at the fledgling Yishuv itself.

Who is to blame if not the Hebrew public, which reacts apathetically to the murder of one of its own? When a German is killed, all the Germans immediately bombard the Turkish authorities, the German consul, and the Emperor himself with their vigorous demands for protection of their persons and their property and for punishment of the miscreants. And they, the Germans, do not rest until they obtain firm assurances … Whereas in our villages there have been assaults, brawls, armed attacks, and six murders, and what have we done to protect our persons and property? Nothing!

We Jews don’t have a foreign government to come to our aid. But precisely because we don’t, precisely because our existence and our future depend on ourselves alone, we absolutely must be more active politically, always on guard to assert our national and political interests and to demand our legal rights from the central government in Constantinople.


* The Pale was a swath of territory in the western Russian Empire where permanent Jewish residence was permitted. It included much of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Bessarabia, and Ukraine and parts of western Russia, but it excluded some of the major cities within that area.

* Tefilin are phylacteries, or black leather boxes containing parchment scrolls with handwritten passages from the Bible. Males over thirteen are required to don them each morning at the start of prayers.

* Aliyah, literally “ascent,” is the Hebrew term for immigration to Eretz Yisrael.

* Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army, was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Those who struggled to exonerate him found themselves engaged in a battle that had anti-Semitic undertones that affected large sections of the French establishment. Theodor Herzl covered the trial as a journalist, an experience that inspired his embrace of Zionism.

* In Zionist parlance, the First Aliyah was the wave of immigrants, mainly farming families, who came to Eretz Yisrael between 1882 and the turn of the century; the Second Aliyah were mainly young socialist pioneers, like Ben-Gurion, who came before World War I; the Third Aliyah arrived in the immediate postwar years; the Fourth Aliyah were mainly bourgeois families who arrived in the 1920s; and the Fifth Aliyah were refugees, mainly from Germany, who came in the 1930s.

* One dunam equals 1,000 square meters.

 The Haskalah, literally “Enlightenment,” was a loose movement of intellectuals promoting secular learning and modern modes of studying Jewish texts.

 The Bund was a Jewish socialist party advocating cultural and social autonomy in the Diaspora.

 Ness Ziona and Rehovot were two early Zionist villages in the center of the country.

 Navon was Ben-Gurion’s long-serving secretary and subsequently the fifth president of Israel. Tsur was a senior diplomat.