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

2. Young Turk

In his heart Ben-Gurion felt from a very young age that he was destined to lead. But he never said it. And he never would say it.

When David Gruen wrote his article on defense in September 1910, the need to “demand our legal rights” in Constantinople had been on his mind for some time. He felt that the tiny Yishuv needed someone to represent it at the policy-making level within the Ottoman Empire, especially now, after the Young Turk revolution in 1908, when minorities were being allowed representation in the Turkish parliament. Perhaps he was the man. He was troubled by the thought, as he recalled later, that

nowhere in the world is the Jewish community so disengaged from the political life, from the people, and from the language of the country in which it lives, than here in Eretz Yisrael … Even though we are so much more advanced in our education than the native population here, we lag far behind them in terms of political activism … Our political alienation and political ignorance weaken our efforts to establish ourselves in the Land.

In his heart, he knew by this time that his own contribution to the Zionist enterprise could be greater than tilling the soil and mucking out the cowshed—though he never stopped praising, indeed almost venerating, agricultural workers. “Settling the land—that is the only real Zionism,” he wrote to his father in February 1909 from the village of Kinneret in the Galilee, after a brief trip back home. “The rest is just self-delusion, idle chatter, and time-wasting.”

In a long letter home later that year, he considered the pros and cons of the whole family coming out to the Galilee to farm the land while he himself would pursue his legal education and political aspirations on behalf of the Yishuv. “There’s no purpose in life in Plonsk,” he wrote. The family was in danger of dispersion, as one sibling after another sought a better life elsewhere. “Wouldn’t it be better therefore if all of us settled here?” The Jewish Colonization Association* was distributing plots of 250 dunams with a farmhouse, barns, an initial inventory of cattle and seed, and a grant of 2,500 francs. “So I thought I would take one next year for our family, for ‘colonization,’ as it’s called here.” As for their fears of hardships, which some of the family had expressed, they weren’t to worry. “I’ve suffered them—on your behalf, too.” And now there weren’t any more hardships.

We, the first-comers, lived a “barefooted” life. We were inexperienced, lonely, had no homes and no suitable food. We suffered a little. But now, life here is no harder than in Russia …

As to myself, I have no desire to remain a peasant … I despise land ownership, which makes one rich and at the same time makes one enslaved. I love freedom, freedom of body and soul. But there’s a deeper reason. There is much work to be done in Eretz Yisrael. Every Hebrew person in Eretz Yisrael who feels and understands that he can make a contribution to the revival of our land … has the duty to make that contribution … That’s why I would like to study law, in Constantinople or in Plonsk, in order to prepare for the work that I feel myself capable of doing. I don’t know if it will be possible … If the future of our family requires that I become a farmer, then I’ll do my duty and become a farmer.

Meanwhile he became an editor. Poalei Zion voted him onto the editorial board of Ha’achdut, which meant living and working in Jerusalem. A famous photograph from this time shows him sitting with the other editors, including Yosef Haim Brenner, who had recently made aliyah and was already regarded as the foremost Hebrew writer in the Yishuv, and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Ben-Gurion went on to forge a bond of close, lifelong friendship with Ben-Zvi and his wife, Rachel Yannait.

It was for his articles in Ha’achdut that he first took on the pen name Ben-Gurion, which quickly became the name he went by. “The Hebrew Yishuv will be built by the Hebrew worker or it won’t be built at all,” he wrote forcefully. Time and again he insisted in his articles that the pioneers in Palestine, and not the armchair Zionists back in the Diaspora, must be the ones to decide the future of Zionism. This led to tensions when he and Ben-Zvi traveled to Vienna in 1911 to represent the Palestinian branch at a world conference of Poalei Zion. The two of them were accused of separatism by the twenty-three other delegates from Russia, the United States, England, Bulgaria, Austria, and Romania. Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi compounded their guilt by advocating a united front of all Hebrew Palestinian workers, whether they were members of Poalei Zion, or of the rival party, Hapoal Hatzair, or not members of any party at all. This was close to heresy in the eyes of the party loyalists from the Diaspora.

The Gruen family did not, after all, make aliyah at that time, and Avigdor, fortunately for his son, was prepared to subsidize David’s legal studies. “If you can send me money quickly,” David wrote in August 1911, “I’ll go straight to Salonika without wasting any further time.” In the ancient Greek port city, which was then under Turkish rule, he proposed to study the Turkish language prior to entering law school in Constantinople. “Your advice to me to set aside all my other affairs and focus solely on my studies is completely superfluous. I know as well as you that until I’m a student at the university I must do nothing other than study.” He had already decided to drop all his public and political work for the duration of his language course, “for I know that later I’ll pay it back sevenfold. So don’t worry about me wasting time. My studies are intended to facilitate my work, which is the essence of my life and my soul’s soul … I shan’t be wasting a minute.” In another letter he asked his father to make sure the money for his upkeep arrived regularly, “for otherwise I could find myself in Salonika facing very great difficulties indeed.”

Avigdor apparently lived up to his commitment, and David spent a year in Salonika studying hard. He was pleased to see, he wrote, that the Jews of the city worked hard too at physical labor. Among them, famously, were the stevedores at the port.* His landlord was a local Jew, and at his table, David wrote, he celebrated “a kosher Passover in every detail and regulation, as I never did in Eretz Yisrael.” But the Sephardic foods and smells were not the foods and smells of home, and he missed “the family warmth of Plonsk and the comradely and ideological warmth of Eretz Yisrael.”

Having mastered Turkish, Ben-Gurion moved on to Constantinople where, in 1912, together with his friends Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Yisrael Shochat, he embarked on his legal studies. The well-known photograph of Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi dressed in Turkish tarbooshes was no mere posing for the camera. Ben-Gurion believed that the Yishuv’s basic political interest lay in nurturing its loyalty to Turkey. He saw his own future role, inter alia, as a faithful and efficacious conduit of political communication between the imperial government in Constantinople and the Jews returning to settle and rebuild the far-off province.

The young men’s studies were disrupted somewhat by the outbreak, in October 1912, of what later became known as the First Balkan War. Turkey did badly against an array of Balkan states and emerged stripped of almost all her remaining European territories. Ben-Gurion followed events with insight and prescience. “Maybe this war will end soon,” he wrote to his father in November 1912 (it ended the following May), “and maybe we face a large-scale European war. In any case it’s clear that we are on the cusp of huge historical events that will completely change the politics of Europe.”

“You can imagine how turbulent life is here,” he wrote. “Food prices are rising sharply. Bread is in short supply. It’s pretty impossible in this atmosphere to study or to do any cerebral work. The university is gradually filling up with wounded from the war front. There seems no chance of it reopening soon.” He sailed back to Palestine to wait out the conflict. “If it turns out that the university won’t reopen this entire academic year I think I’ll go to Damascus to study Arabic in order not to waste valuable time.” In fact, the university reopened in March, and Ben-Gurion was back in class in April.

Another letter to Avigdor from that period shows that David’s temporary dislocation and pursuit of a bourgeois profession had in no way cooled his Zionist and socialist ardor.

About [his brother] Avraham’s idea of selling lottery tickets in Eretz Yisrael, I can only express my total deprecation of it. Better he should stay in Plonsk and not bring such “business ventures” into Eretz Yisrael. Let him engage in it in Poland; Eretz Yisrael needs other kinds of “businesses.” If he thinks that to be redeemed it is enough simply to change one’s place of residence from the Diaspora to Eretz Yisrael without repudiating all the dirt and sordidness that has stuck to us in the Diaspora—all the “airiness,”* all the abnormal and ugly and unnatural lifestyles that we wallowed in in the ghetto—then he is absolutely wrong! Eretz Yisrael is not just a geographical concept. Eretz Yisrael must be a process of repairing and purifying our lives, changing our values in the loftiest sense of the term. If we merely bring the life of the ghetto into Eretz Yisrael, then what’s the difference if we live that life here or live it there?

In the summer of 1913 Ben-Gurion attended a Zionist congress in Vienna, then returned to Constantinople for another intensive phase of studies. This time he was disturbed by illness and by a worrying but thankfully brief interruption in his father’s remittances. He spent Passover of 1914 with his family in Poland. “Shalom to you, my very dear ones!” he wrote to them from Odessa, on his way back to Constantinople.

Thank you for the pleasant moments I’ve spent with you. Years may pass before we see each other again, and we can only pine for each other across the cruel expanses that separate us. And perhaps that day will come at last when we can all unite, never to be separated again—in our Land. Goodbye and lehitra’ot [until we meet again]. Your David.

In August 1914, after excelling in his end-of-year exams, Ben-Gurion sailed back with Ben-Zvi to Palestine for their summer vacation. They learned that war had broken out in Europe when the ship suddenly changed course and headed full speed for Alexandria. The captain had received the news on wireless telegraph and, fearing German warships off the Palestine coast, sought safety under the guns of the Royal Navy. Once they did get back to Palestine, they found the Yishuv in a state of distracted anxiety. Zionist leaders abroad, dispersed among the fighting nations, were at odds over where the movement’s allegiance should best lie. Chaim Weizmann,* working in his chemistry laboratory for the British war effort, wanted young men in Palestine to enlist in the Allied cause. Two other Russian-born Zionists, Vladimir (in Hebrew, Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and Josef Trumpeldor,* both now in Egypt, campaigned for the creation of a Jewish legion to fight as part of the British Army. Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi stuck to their pro-Ottoman guns and joined an Ottomanization Committee that the Yishuv set up in Jerusalem. But it didn’t help them. All Zionists were suspect in the eyes of the beleaguered Turkish regime. Ha’achdut was closed down, and Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi were incarcerated in the Kishle jail, inside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, in preparation for their deportation to Alexandria. From their cell, they penned an appeal in florid Turkish to Jamal Pasha, the supreme military commander of Syria and Palestine.

We have heard that at Your Excellency’s orders we are to be expelled from Turkish soil and forbidden from continuing our studies at the Ottoman University, all this on the grounds of our membership in a purportedly secret society inimical to the welfare and interests of the motherland … We have never been members of a secret society, as we made clear during our interrogation. We are members of a section of the Zionist organization called Poalei Zion, which defends workers’ interests. Poalei Zion, like the Zionist organization itself, is not secret. All its activities are open and public, and it does nothing it needs to hide … It was out of the love we have felt from our earliest youth toward the Ottoman Empire—which distinguished itself throughout history by its humane attitude toward the Jewish People—that eight years ago we left Russia, which is well known for its persecution of the Jews, and came here to live as sons of the homeland. We are tied not only to this Land, which is dear and holy to us, but also to the Ottoman Empire, which has given refuge to our people for hundreds of years. By going to Constantinople to study … we linked our own personal futures to the Ottoman regime, to the Ottoman legal system, and to the Ottoman language … When universal conscription was announced, we duly registered to defend the motherland alongside all the other subjects of the empire.

They sent off their letter by registered mail but received no reply. Ben-Zvi went to find out why. (The conditions of their incarceration were not especially onerous, it seems—they came and went with relative freedom.) Ben-Zvi takes up the story:

As I turned to leave through the gate I saw Jamal Pasha walking with his adjutant. Someone approached him and greeted him, so I did the same. He turned to me.

JAMAL PASHA: What are you doing here?

BEN-ZVI: It’s about our appeal. We haven’t got an answer.

JAMAL PASHA: I knew it. You’re the same two. I threw your letter away. You’re Poalei Zion. There’s no place for Poalei Zion in this country. You want to establish a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. You can’t stay here as long as you espouse those views.

BEN-ZVI: God forbid. We absolutely do not espouse such views …

JAMAL PASHA: I have ruled that you are to be deported.

BEN-ZVI: I would like to see the ruling.

JAMAL PASHA: I’ve torn up your appeal. Do you understand me?

BEN-ZVI: Well, we are going. But nevertheless, we remain tied and committed to the Ottoman cause, and we’ll work as hard as we can to get back.

JAMAL PASHA: You can work as hard as you like, but you won’t succeed. As long as you hold those opinions of yours, you won’t come back here.


* This fund for assisting the early settlers was established in the late nineteenth century by the philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch; it was later taken over by Baron Edmond de Rothschild and known as the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, or PICA.

* Salonika’s approximately 70,000 Jews accounted for half the city’s population at that time and much of its commercial life. The port closed down on Shabbat and during Jewish festivals. More than 90 percent of the Jewish population would be murdered by the Nazis.

* A luftmensch (literally “man of air,” Yiddish) is an impractical, contemplative person having no definite business or income.

* Weizmann (1874–1952) was a Russian-born, German- and Swiss-educated chemist who moved to Britain early in the century and quickly rose to a leadership role in the British and international Zionist movements.

* Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was a journalist, writer, and Zionist leader who later founded the Revisionist Zionist movement. Trumpeldor (1880–1920) was a decorated czarist officer who joined the Zionist movement.