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

4. Onward and Upward

Ben-Gurion thought the Jewish people lacked statesmen and that this was a key reason for its long history of disasters.

Weizmann observed Mapai’s growing strength on the world Zionist stage and acknowledged its basic sympathy with his own moderate policies, as opposed to Jabotinsky’s stridency and radicalism. He tried to woo Ben-Gurion into an alliance with his General Zionist Party, sending him secretly from the congress on a mission to meet with Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Together with the historian Lewis Namier, a high official of the Zionist Executive, Ben-Gurion flew to London and met with MacDonald at the British prime minister’s country residence, Chequers.

Ben-Gurion came away impressed with MacDonald’s support for Zionist goals. This was the message he brought back with him to Basel, but it did not suffice to stanch the tide of hostile opinion against Weizmann. In a majority vote, he was replaced as president by the distinguished Hebrew author and longtime Zionist activist Nahum Sokolov. This, even though the congress resolved by majority to support Weizmann’s policies and reject those advocated by Jabotinsky. Mapai, with two of the five seats on the Zionist Executive, emerged as the most powerful group in the movement. The Revisionists were discomfited and began plotting their eventual secession.

Ben-Gurion realized now that the World Zionist Organization itself was within his reach. From an almost marginal group, he had led the Palestine Labor movement, flanked by its sister parties abroad, to a position of prominence and a prospect of dominance on the world Zionist stage.

Back home in Tel Aviv, he began markedly moderating his dogmatic leftist rhetoric, seeking to position himself as a more centrist, national leader rather than solely a socialist or unionist one. Some of his less agile comrades were taken aback when he urged his party to develop a policy “not only for pioneers, but for all sections of the population, including private capital.” He explained to colleagues, patiently and repeatedly, that Mapai needed now to set its sights higher and wider than its traditional constituency. It needed to see itself, and persuade others to see it, as the central political force leading the Yishuv and the Zionist movement.

The evolution of Ben-Gurion’s political and diplomatic persona at this time—from worker, pioneer, and union boss to national leader and statesman—was in sync with the ongoing development of his unique Zionist–social democratic weltanschauung. While he drew encouragement from the international socialist fellowship, Ben-Gurion was always loath to use the word socialist to describe his own ideology and his own party. One reason for this was his intense loathing of dictatorship; socialist carried with it associations with Marxist dictatorships for much of the twentieth century.

Beyond that, Ben-Gurion believed that Labor Zionism was an original movement with an original, profoundly Jewish philosophy. His point of departure was the Bible. He felt that centuries of Diaspora life had seriously eroded the pristine Jewish values embodied in the texts of the great biblical prophets. For him, Isaiah’s “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares” represented the quintessential Jewish political message. And Amos encapsulated Judaism’s clarion call to humanity for social justice and compassion with his “Thus saith the Lord: Shall I turn away punishment for the three and the four crimes of Israel? Because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes.” Why, he would say, do we need Marx or Lenin or Léon Blum, or even the British Labor Party (which he deeply admired), when we have our own glorious heritage of social justice from thousands of years ago?

In Ben-Gurion’s view—the view of a Jew who lived history and was conscious of making history—the re-creation of national independence after a two-thousand-year hiatus ought to restore the Jewish people to the period when their prophets were their ideologues. It should enable them to transcend their long and sterile years of Diaspora, with all its social and spiritual ills, and leap back in time to that golden age. We do not need to ape revolutionary socialism, Ben-Gurion taught, and we do not need to ape evolutionary socialism. Instead, we must strive to relive and reapply our own authentic teachings, which were originally conceived on this ancient land.

The renaissance of Jewish culture and of the Hebrew language were inseparable parts of Ben-Gurion’s Zionist and socialist worldview:

Whereas the Jewish worker in the Diaspora, in his spiritual poverty, turned his back on all the cultural treasures that his people had created over the centuries and instead made Yiddishism his intellectual ideal, the new Hebrew worker in Eretz Yisrael has made himself the heir, the true owner, of all the cultural assets of his people. Prime among these is the vessel that holds all the treasures within it—the language.

In his cultural outlook Ben-Gurion was deeply at one with Berl Katznelson, whom he admired and loved dearly. Katznelson was revered throughout the movement as an intellectual and moral compass. “Throughout the generations we were persecuted and exiled,” Katznelson wrote, admonishing the young pioneers against nationalistic hubris. “We learned not only the pain of exile and subjugation, but also contempt for tyranny. Was that only a case of sour grapes? Are we now nurturing the dream of slaves who wish to reign?”

Katznelson was, in a ritual sense, more religious than Ben-Gurion; he fasted on Yom Kippur and on Tisha B’Av, for example, and would not eat pork, or eat bread on Passover. But Katznelson, like Ben-Gurion, did not approve of the institution of the rabbinate. He regarded it as an alien, hierarchical structure. Both of them saw Judaism as a faith but not as a dat, which is the modern Hebrew word for “religion” but originally meant “verdict” or “rule.” For them, Judaism was not a clerical establishment or hierarchical church. Their Judaism comprised the Promised Land, the Hebrew language, the vision of the biblical prophets, the belief in the one God, the concept of tikkun olam, and the concept of am olam, which was the special responsibility of the Jewish people.*

Tikkun olam meant for Ben-Gurion social responsibility. He spoke not of equality but rather of solidarity. People are not born equal, he would say; therefore pretending they are isn’t true, and Ben-Gurion valued truth above all else. However, the strong in society must help the weak. One of the meanings of am olam for Ben-Gurion—and in this he was inspired by the great Greek philosophers as well as the biblical prophets—was that above politics there has to be a philosophy, a moral criterion that governs a nation’s behavior.

To drum up support for the Labor Zionists at the next Zionist congress, Ben-Gurion set out in March 1933 on a months-long whistle-stop tour of Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe. He knew full well that his rival Jabotinsky was a popular and moving orator, a master of many languages with a maximalist message that appealed to many people as the tides of political extremism began to sweep through Europe. The Revisionist youth movement, Betar, took on the mien and paraphernalia of other far-right groups. This instilled pride and won popularity among some Jewish circles. Ben-Gurion did not mince his words, directly comparing his rival’s concepts to fascism and referring to Jabotinsky himself as “Il Duce.” Both leaders needed burly guards to protect them at public meetings and to keep hecklers from the other side from physically assaulting them.

In Warsaw the Revisionists threw two stink bombs into the theater where Ben-Gurion was scheduled to speak, and as he wrote to Paula in April, “we needed two hours to clean the air.” Still, he started his speech on time and spoke for an hour amid respectful silence until he touched on “the incitement against the workers in the Polish Jewish press.” As he described it to Paula,

I said, “Directing this incitement is a man who seeks to be the Zionist dictator.” Something very heavy landed next to me and I was covered in yellow stuff. Pandemonium broke out. Everyone thought it was a bomb. It turned out that a Betar girl student had thrown a bottle full of sand from the gallery. If it had landed on my head I’d have been settled good and proper. She was arrested and I carried on talking. Afterwards the Betarim attacked the halutzim [labor pioneers]. The communists joined in on the side of the Revisionists and a free-for-all ensued. But our boys are strong in Warsaw and the Betarim got what was coming to them.

This overheated political atmosphere came very close to exploding into serious internecine violence, if not outright civil strife, within the Yishuv following the murder on June 16, 1933, of Haim Arlosoroff, the young and promising chairman of the Jewish Agency’s political department and a rising luminary in Mapai ranks. He was shot dead while walking along the Tel Aviv beachfront, having just returned from Europe, where he negotiated an agreement with the new Nazi regime in Germany for the transfer of the assets of German Jews immigrating to Palestine. Rightist commentators had excoriated him for this deal, and the immediate suspicion on the left was that the right had assassinated him. Three known rightists were arrested on suspicion of planning and perpetrating the murder. They were all eventually acquitted for lack of evidence.* “I can’t agree with what you wrote me,” Ben-Gurion wrote to Geula, then fifteen, from Warsaw,

that you can’t believe the Revisionists are capable of murder. I’m afraid they absolutely are capable. They’re not only capable, they did it. Obviously not every Revisionist would do such a thing. The great majority would leave the party if they knew the full truth. But … the leaders, Jabotinsky, Abba Ahimeir, and others, educate their youth to kill.

The backlash of horror and outrage that swept through Palestine and the Jewish world doubtless increased Labor’s margin of victory over the Revisionists in the mid-July election for the Zionist Congress: Labor won nearly 45 percent, its rival barely 16. When Ben-Gurion, now age forty-eight, mounted the rostrum at the Eighteenth Zionist Congress in Prague, he was greeted with prolonged applause. He was voted onto the Zionist Executive, although he insisted that it be for only two years and that he retain his role as secretary-general of the Histadrut. The two years extended to fifteen, at which time he left to head the newly formed government of the newly formed State of Israel. He kept his position at the Histadrut until 1935, when he was elected chairman of the Zionist Executive and of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Palestine and had to devote all his energies to those demanding positions.

It was at this Eighteenth Zionist Congress that the Revisionists finally seceded, setting up a rival Zionist organization that never really gained much traction. Before that, because of the continuing tension and the violence in the Yishuv between Laborites and Revisionists, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky made a sustained but secret effort to resolve their conflict. The intermediary who brought them together, in London, was Pinhas Rutenberg. He had been a senior figure in the pre-Communist Kerensky government in Russia. Now he was head of the Palestine Electric Corporation and one of the most original and dynamic figures in the Yishuv’s economic infrastructure. A close friend of Jabotinsky, he was also an admirer of Ben-Gurion.

By Ben-Gurion’s own account, their first conversation surprised both leaders by its frankness and civility, and by the remarkable degree of agreement that seemed to exist between them on many key issues. Ben-Gurion later described Jabotinsky, “greatly aroused,” as suggesting that if they did reach an agreement, they should mark it with some “grandiose project.” Ben-Gurion suggested a settlement project. Jabotinsky said he wasn’t opposed to a settlement, but that it was not something in which all the people could take part. In Ben-Gurion’s account, Jabotinsky proposed “ ‘a giant mass project with every Jew taking part.’ ‘What kind of project?’ I asked. And he said, ‘A petition … You do not comprehend the value of a demonstration and a formulation. The word, the formula, they possess enormous strength.’ I sensed that, here, we had come to the fundamental conflict.”

But the talks continued for a month, with both men maintaining complete secrecy. On their last night of negotiation they stayed up till dawn, drafting and signing two agreements, one ending the violence between the activists of the two camps in Eretz Yisrael and the other regulating relations between the Histadrut and the Revisionists’ rival trade union. What remained to be achieved was a third, “great agreement,” providing for cooperation between their two political parties within the World Zionist Organization. For that they both needed the consent of their respective memberships, to whom they now proposed to report. Before departing from London, they wrote to each other, promising that even if things didn’t work out and the agreements fell through, they would remain friends. “Whatever happens, I grasp your hand in esteem,” Ben-Gurion wrote. “I am moved to the depths of my being,” Jabotinsky replied. “I grasp your hand in genuine friendship.”

Ben-Gurion returned to a storm of protest and dissent within his camp. His senior colleagues and many grassroots Laborites protested vehemently, as did much of the Yishuv’s press. Unfazed, Ben-Gurion went back for more secret talks with Jabotinsky on the third agreement. This time the party intervened in advance, strictly instructing him not to sign anything without the prior approval of Mapai’s central committee. The draft agreement he submitted was voted down. Ben-Gurion’s argument that he had negotiated not as representative of Mapai but as a member of the Zionist Executive was given short shrift. He was flatly overruled, though there was no move, nor even any thought, of ousting him as leader. The two men renewed their written pledges of personal friendship. But as relations between their two movements began again to deteriorate, their friendship too faded, and soon they were back hurling insults at one another in speeches and in print.

Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in the United States in 1940 and was buried in a cemetery in New York. In his will he wrote that he wanted to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, but only by order of a sovereign Jewish government. But as prime minister, Ben-Gurion refused to give that order. “I don’t see any need or purpose in bringing ‘bones’ on aliyah,” Ben-Gurion wrote in 1959 “as a friend” to his old comrade Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who was then president of Israel. “We urgently need living Jews, not dead ones.” He had made two exceptions, he said, for Herzl and Baron Edmond de Rothschild. But there were “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of great men who had died abroad. Are we going to bring all their bones to the homeland?” He didn’t know if the purported will was authentic, but in any case, he was against anyone posthumously “ordering” the government to take any action. He then entered into a long and detailed argument about Jabotinsky’s historical role over the years. Eshkol, when he became prime minister in 1963, brushed all this aside and ordered Jabotinsky’s reinterment in Eretz Yisrael. It took place at the national cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem in 1964 with full honors.

Throughout his life Ben-Gurion thought the Jewish people lacked statesmen, and that this was a key reason for our long history of disasters. We are a nation, he often said, with a wealth of prophets but a dearth of statesmen. He saw himself as a national leader from very early on, when he was still in his twenties. But he probably never articulated that thinking in words, even to himself. He didn’t think in terms of titles. In his heart, yes, he felt he was destined to lead. I once asked him when he had realized this. “When I looked around and found that I had no one to ask,” he replied. But he never referred to himself as a “leader”—unlike Jabotinsky, who positively reveled in the title. Ben-Gurion never shrank from making difficult political decisions; he had the courage and the will not to defer. But he didn’t think about what title he would receive as a result of having made them.

By the same token, the first-person singular rarely appeared in his speeches or writings—especially when things were going well. He used I only when talking about something that had failed. When something succeeded, it was we or Israel. As he described it, “I” retreated from the Sinai desert after the 1956 Kadesh campaign, but “the IDF”* won the war. His title was unimportant to him; he was focused on the substance of what needed to be done. I remember when he appointed Moshe Dayan chief of staff of the IDF, in 1953. I was in the room, and Ben-Gurion said he had a personal request to put to the new chief of staff. He wanted to join the paratroopers. In other words, he wanted do the required series of jumps from airplanes. Dayan said, “You want to be a paratrooper? So, I’m your commander. I command you to be something else: be prime minister!”

As for Jabotinsky, despite their written professions of mutual regard, Ben-Gurion’s opinion of him in later years was dismissive, almost contemptuous. Jabotinsky’s standing in many people’s minds has been enhanced by the widely held image of him as a prophet of doom in the pre–World War II years, warning Jewish communities and the Zionist establishment that the clouds of destruction were gathering. This image has been reinforced by accusations in some political and academic circles that the Zionist establishment—both in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora—did not foresee the horrors that were to come and did not warn of their advent. The record shows, however, that while Ben-Gurion warned in 1934, with uncanny accuracy, that the entire Jewish people was in danger, Jabotinsky poured scorn on Hitler’s simplistic writings. In a speech to the Histadrut in January of that year, Ben-Gurion said:

The tragedy that has struck the Jews of Germany has not struck them alone. Hitler’s regime endangers Jews everywhere … because he regards them as the bearers of the ideals of justice, peace, and freedom, and therefore an obstacle to his plan to make the German race rulers of the world. Hitler’s regime cannot exist for very long before embarking on a war of revenge against France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and other neighboring countries where Germans live, or against vast Soviet Russia. Germany will not go to war today because she is not prepared. However, she is preparing. I don’t want to be a prophet, but it does appear that the danger of war today is as great as it was in 1914 … What will be our [the Yishuv’s] strength and importance here [in Palestine] when disaster strikes the world? This terrible day may be only four or five years away. In the meantime, we must double our numbers. The size of the Yishuv may determine its fate.

Jabotinsky, on the other hand, assured people in 1933 that he had “read Mein Kampf, and my impression is that it is simple stuff, without talent … simplistic, prosaic ideas. But Hitler’s no fool. He knows how to bring examples from life, from history.”

Ben-Gurion was not especially impressed by Jabotinsky’s mind, despite his obvious intellectual gifts. He viewed Jabotinsky as a strange phenomenon: a man of hollow rhetoric who was in love with making speeches. (Years later he adopted the same critical attitude toward Menachem Begin.) For Jabotinsky, it seemed to Ben-Gurion, the medium was the total message. He was greatly under the influence of Josef Pilsudski.* The Revisionists revered Pilsudski, and they were equally impressed by the uniforms and the pomp and circumstance surrounding him. They thought well of Mussolini too, going so far as to send a naval unit to be trained in Italy. Shlomo Erel, later commander of the Israeli Navy, was trained there.

Still, Ben-Gurion sometimes mentioned that he thought it was a mistake that the party hadn’t endorsed the agreement he reached with Jabotinsky. He thought he could do business with him. Despite their designations as leaders of the “left” and “right,” they were not in fact all that far apart on social issues. Jabotinsky’s socioeconomic thinking was not capitalist in the doctrinaire sense. In fact, he believed it was the duty of the state to provide all its citizens, free of charge, with five fundamental services: housing, food, clothing, health care, and education.

Ben-Gurion, like Jabotinsky, was intimately involved in Diaspora life. But the difference was that Ben-Gurion involved himself exclusively with Jews, while Jabotinsky sought to become a part of the general sociopolitical culture of that era, the period of nationalist renaissance.

One of the most important things to understand about Ben-Gurion—something that isn’t really known about him today—is his insistence on the return of the Jewish people to the sources of Jewishness. Jabotinsky, like Herzl, wanted us to be like the other nations of the world. Ben-Gurion wanted us to be as we were before the Diaspora spoiled us. He lived the Bible. Jabotinsky and Herzl were steeped in foreign languages. Ben-Gurion knew other languages, but they weren’t his language. He took his Zionism from the Bible; other political philosophies were foreign and alien.

I don’t want to create the impression that Ben-Gurion was in favor of cutting the Jewish people off from the rest of the world. But he believed the core values of am olam and tikkun olam needed to originate from within us and were not to be acquired by copying others. That was the difference between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky/Herzl. He was constantly going back to Jewish sources, while they were entranced by the world around them. They wanted the Jews to have a state of their own like the rest of the world, which at that time was not a global, interdependent community of nations but a world of xenophobic nation-states.

Ben-Gurion remained intimately connected to the Bible and retained his faith in its primacy for his entire life. Long after the establishment of the state, in the 1960s, I was in Paris with Ben-Gurion at a dinner hosted by Georges Pompidou, who was Charles de Gaulle’s prime minister at the time. I was doing the social rounds when I was summoned by a uniformed and bemedaled official to a “secret meeting” in a side room. I went in and saw the entire French cabinet, including Maurice Couve de Murville, the foreign minister, sitting there with Ben-Gurion and with Walter Eytan, our ambassador.

In France most of the Catholics had little knowledge of the Jewish people, while the Protestants were steeped in the Bible. Couve was a Protestant. He had also been ambassador to Egypt. “Monsieur le President du Conseil,” he said to Ben-Gurion, “could you please explain to us your theory about the Exodus.” I thought I’d fall through the floor. Ben-Gurion lit up like a bonfire. He started lecturing about the meaning of the Hebrew word ribbo, which is generally translated as “ten thousand.” But he insisted that it could also mean “family.” So there weren’t necessarily sixty times ten thousand Israelites leaving Egypt in the Exodus, but just sixty families. He went on to analyze the word elef, which means “a thousand” in Hebrew but also “a family,” and the word alma, which means “a girl.” Is it the same as betula, “a virgin”? Couve says yes; Ben-Gurion says no.

It’s the word family here that feels significant. This wasn’t a mere linguistic exercise for him; the exchange captures his sense of the Bible as a living document about a family—his family.

Ben-Gurion’s gradual assumption of the role of Zionist statesman and policy maker prompted him to seek direct dialogue with authentic and authoritative Arab spokesmen. In 1934 he embarked on a series of meetings with Musa Alami, a prominent, Cambridge-educated Palestinian politician who served for a time as an attorney in the Mandatory administration.

With great charm but total frankness, Alami spurned Ben-Gurion’s talk of the benefits that the Zionist enterprise had brought to Palestinian Arabs. “I prefer the country to be poor and desolate, even for a hundred years,” he said, “until we Arabs are capable, alone, of developing it and making it flourish.” Nevertheless, Alami was prepared to listen to Ben-Gurion’s vision of a federative framework embracing Palestine, Iraq, and other Arab states. “Even if the Arabs of Palestine constitute a minority,” Ben-Gurion suggested, “they will not have a minority status because they will be linked to millions of Arabs in the neighboring countries.”

At first Ben-Gurion spoke of incorporating Transjordan into the putative Jewish state, but in subsequent discussions with Alami he indicated that this was not his final position. Despite Alami’s opening statement, Ben-Gurion continued to dwell on the beneficial contribution that the Zionist project could bring to Palestine and to the region as a whole. The talks were important beyond the specific schemes discussed because they enabled Ben-Gurion to reassure Alami, and through him the Palestinian Arab community, that the Jews had no designs on the Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which has been a Muslim holy precinct since the seventh century. Alami reported all this back to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem and foremost Palestinian nationalist leader at the time.

Ben-Gurion had thought long and hard about the “Arab problem.” He understood how central it would be in the realization of Zionism’s goals. As early as 1921 he had warned against the illusion prevalent among some Zionists that “Eretz Yisrael is an empty country and we can do whatever we wish without taking into account its inhabitants.” During his Bolshevik period, Ben-Gurion spoke a good deal about the common class interest of the Jewish and the Arab worker and suggested that this might somehow enable them to transcend their national differences. The 1929 riots put an end to such fanciful thinking. It was becoming ever more clear that demography—the question of which side was the majority—would be critical in determining the ultimate outcome of the conflict. “Herein lies the true conflict, the political conflict between us and the Arabs,” he said late in 1929. “Both we and they want to be the majority.”

Ben-Gurion’s attempt to persuade Alami that neither nation need rule over the other, regardless of which was larger, was no improvised polemic. He had been wrestling with that dialectic for years. Back in 1924 he asserted at an Ahdut HaAvoda conference that the only real meaning of the Zionist idea was statehood.

Zionism is the desire for a Jewish state, the desire for a country, and the desire to rule over that country. But when we say rule over a country, we do not, of course, mean rule over others. We have no intention, no desire, and no need to rule over others. When we say a state we mean two things: That others shall not rule over us, and that anarchy shall not rule over us. We want to rule over ourselves.

The Arabs of Palestine had the same right of self-determination as the Jews, Ben-Gurion maintained. “We do not dream of denying them that right or diminishing it,” he continued.

We demand the same national autonomy for the Arabs as we demand for ourselves. But we do not accept their right to rule over the land, to the extent that the land has not been built up by them and it awaits its builders. They do not have the right to forbid it being built, to forbid the resurrection of its ruins, the development of its resources, the expansion of its cultivated areas, the advancement of its culture, the increase of its laboring settlements.

There were many other meetings with Arab interlocutors during the 1930s and after, in Palestine, in Geneva, and in London. Ben-Gurion was later to incorporate his records of them in a book entitled My Talks with Arab Leaders,*one of the many he published. It makes for fascinating but sad reading. In a meeting in 1937 with Fuad Bey Hamza, an important adviser to King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, the “demographic issue” was set squarely on the table. “The question of aliyah was the key political issue for the Arabs of Palestine, and not merely an economic issue,” Fuad said. (The report of this conversation published in Ben-Gurion’s book was written up at the time by Eliahu Eilat, a senior Jewish Agency diplomat who accompanied Ben-Gurion and took notes.)

The Jews aspire to be the majority. So what benefit will accrue to the Arabs from the economic prosperity that the aliyah brings on its train if, at the end of the day, they become a minority and lose control of Palestine? Whoever heard of a nation that voluntarily forgoes its control, by dint of its majority status, over its own territory? Mr. Ben-Gurion’s contention that a political system can be established in which neither side rules over the other, regardless of the demographic balance between them, is impractical. Today, when the Jews are in the minority, they propose this. But when they become a majority, and today’s leaders are replaced by other leaders, it will be entirely natural for them to act in light of the demographic situation that then prevails and to cast off the commitments they gave previously, when the Jewish Yishuv was in the minority.

Ben-Gurion argued that Palestinian Arabs’ rights would be ensured not only by their agreement with the Jews but by the fact that they were surrounded by, and closely linked to, the Arab states neighboring Palestine. “Here Fuad observed,” Ben-Gurion wrote,

that for the time being the Arab world was divided into several states and there was no knowing when a confederation would come into being that would dismantle the walls that divide between the Arabs of Syria, of Iraq, of Saudi Arabia and of Palestine … And as for the historic rights of the Jews to Palestine, Fuad remarked, on that basis one could make a case for the rights of the Arabs to Spain.

Ben-Gurion replied that Spain had been conquered by the Arabs; it was not the birthplace of the Arabs’ culture and their national identity. Palestine, by contrast, was “the birthplace of the Jewish nation and the cradle of its culture.” Ben-Gurion went on to recall at length how at the turn of the century, the Russian Zionists had rejected the Uganda Plan and insisted that the restored homeland be in Palestine, even though their community was oppressed and needed a place of refuge. Subsequently, he pointed out, the Zionists had appeared together with the Emir Feisal at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference “as friends and partners, not as adversaries. The Jewish people,” he continued, “were an important force in the world, and they could be of assistance to the Arab people in many areas … The Arabs ought not to scorn such assistance.”

A year later, at a meeting in London with Musa Husseini, a prominent Palestinian Arab, Ben-Gurion was warned categorically that if the Jews set up a sovereign state, the Arabs would make war on it. A Jewish state wedged into the Middle East, said Husseini, would be seen as an imperialist pawn and an impediment to Arab unity. There was definitely no room for the six million Jewish immigrants that Weizmann had talked about. The only way forward, therefore, was to agree on a demographic ceiling: no more than one-third of the population of Palestine could be Jews. Some Arab states might be prepared to take in some Jewish refugees who could not be absorbed in Palestine, Husseini suggested. But that could happen only after all foreign rule ended and Palestine became a sovereign Arab state, one of a federation of states that would extend to North Africa. What was there to ensure that the Arabs would protect the rights of the Jewish minority? The answer, said Husseini, lay in history: No Arab country had persecuted its Jews. The violence that had erupted in Palestine was a case of self-defense. If there was an agreement, it would cease.


* Tikkun olam means literally “repairing of the world,” or living according to the universal values of social justice. Am olam means literally “the people of the world” or “the people of eternity.” There is a wordplay here: the word olam has both spatial and temporal connotations; it means “universal” but also “eternal.”

* A judicial commission of inquiry set up almost fifty years later by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky’s political heir, posthumously cleared the suspected perpetrators.

* The IDF is the Israel Defense Forces, i.e., the Israeli armed forces.

* Marshal Josef Pilsudski led Poland to independence in 1918, commanded Polish forces in the war against Soviet Russia (1919–23), and led the country again from 1926 to 1935.

* Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1967 (Hebrew).

 See the Appendix for an overview of the complex web of Jewish organizations, unions, and political parties that somehow morphed into the functioning apparatus of a state.

 In Hebrew he called these the five mems: ma’on (housing), mazon (food), malbush (clothing), marpeh (health care), and moreh (teacher, meaning education).