Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)
10. A Nation Among Nations
For him the Zionist tenet that Israel was the state of all the Jewish people was a meaningful and practical precept.
The first major international challenge that Ben-Gurion faced after the war was a move by the international community in late 1949 to revert to the internationalization of Jerusalem, as prescribed in the original Partition Plan. A counterproposal by Ben-Gurion to leave the city divided between the two neighboring states, Israel and Jordan, but to internationalize the Holy Places received no support. The UN General Assembly passed an internationalization resolution on December 9, 1949. The next day Ben-Gurion proposed to the cabinet that Israel declare Jerusalem its capital and move the seat of government there without further delay. Until then the Knesset and the ministries had functioned, temporarily, in Tel Aviv. Sharett cabled his resignation from New York, but Ben-Gurion rejected it and neglected to inform the other ministers of it. The ministries, apart from the defense ministry and the foreign ministry, loaded their files and desks on trucks and made their way up the hills of Jerusalem to the capital.
The move triggered an uproar in foreign chanceries, but Ben-Gurion ignored it, confident that he was effectively representing both claimants to the divided city. Secret negotiations were proceeding at this time between his emissaries and King Abdullah, with a view to concluding a full peace treaty with Jordan. Sadly, though, that was not to be: The king was assassinated on the steps of the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem on July 20, 1951. A pro-peace Lebanese statesman, Riad Sulh, was also assassinated at around this time. With Syria endemically unstable and the Egyptian monarchy weakening (it was to fall within a year), peace prospects faded.
Ben-Gurion, searching for a patron among the Great Powers with whom to ally, conducted a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with the British, with a view to Israel possibly joining the British Commonwealth. Overtures to President Dwight Eisenhower’s new Republican administration were cold-shouldered too. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made it clear that his sights were set primarily on strengthening America’s ties with the Arab world.
On the financial front, where a crisis loomed even more imminently, Ben-Gurion scored a notable triumph in launching Israel Bonds at a mass rally in New York, at Madison Square Garden, in May 1951. In addition to the traditional forms of philanthropy, Jews throughout the Diaspora would be able to support the Jewish state by investing in its sovereign debt. But the amounts raised were nowhere near enough to cover the costs of defense and immigrant absorption. Nor were the austerity measures that the government implemented sufficient to raise income and save hard currency. Ben-Gurion now began a discreet dialogue with the government of the newly established Federal Republic of Germany, with a view to obtaining massive cash restitution for the economic devastation visited on the Jewish people by the Nazis. The State of Israel, he held, could legitimately claim to be the heir of the murdered millions. “The reason lay in the final injunction of the inarticulate six million, the victims of Nazism, whose very murder was a ringing cry for Israel to arise, to be strong and prosperous, to safeguard her peace and security, and to prevent such a disaster from ever again overwhelming the Jewish people.”
Whatever the cogency of this logic, many Israelis could not bear the thought of taking the tainted “blood money.” The negotiation with West Germany triggered sustained and sometimes violent political protests. They were led by Begin and the right, but they expressed the anguish and bitter opposition felt by some of the survivors and their families across the entire political spectrum. At the end of 1951 Nahum Goldmann procured from the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, a commitment to accept an Israeli claim for $1 billion as the basis for the negotiation.
On January 7, 1952, Ben-Gurion addressed the Knesset. “A crime of such enormity can have no material compensation,” he declared.
Any compensation, of whatever size, is no compensation for the loss of human life or expiation for the sufferings and agonies of men, women, and children, old people and infants. However … the government of Israel considers itself bound to demand of the German people restitution for the stolen Jewish property. Let not the murderers of our people also be the beneficiaries of its property.
As Ben-Gurion spoke in the Knesset, Begin addressed a rally in a city square nearby: “When you fired at us with a cannon, I gave the order: No! Today I shall give the order, Yes! This will be a battle of life and death.” Begin insisted that “every German is a Nazi,” and that the proposed restitution was a moral abomination. He led a raucous crowd toward the Knesset building, where they clashed with police and threw stones through the windows. He mounted the rostrum in the chamber, but pandemonium erupted, and the Speaker tried to silence him. “If I do not speak, none shall speak,” the leader of the opposition vowed.
The next day Ben-Gurion broadcast to the nation. He said he took Begin’s threat of civil war seriously but assured the public that “the State possesses sufficient forces and means to protect Israel’s sovereignty and freedom and to prevent thugs and political assassins from taking control.”
In the Knesset the debate raged for two full days. In the end the government won the vote by a majority of nine. One month later the reparations agreement with Germany was signed, providing Israel with more than $700 million worth of goods and services over a twelve-year period. And the German government paid an additional $100 million to Jewish organizations.*
Coupled with what might be called his policy of single-minded pragmatism focused unswervingly on the State of Israel’s needs, Ben-Gurion conducted a foreign policy that was consciously and consistently Jewish and designed to save or assist Jews wherever in the world they were. For him the Zionist tenet that Israel was the state of all the Jewish people was a meaningful and practical precept. It required, he believed, that the foreign policy of the State of Israel be a Jewish foreign policy.
For instance, he feared for Soviet Jews, who were in danger of spiritual destruction. To assist them, he founded Netiv, also known as Lishkat Hakesher, a discreet agency under his trusted aide Shaul Avigur that forged links with Soviet Jews suffering under Stalin’s persecutions. Its purpose was to save every Jew from the claws of Communism, and to try to maintain Jewish education and Jewish culture within the Soviet Union through myriad underground contacts. Compounding the challenge was the fact that the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret police organization, was full of Jews. Some were still believing Communists, right up to the end. They were ready to turn in their own parents and their friends. The same was true at the top. What kind of a Jew was Stalin’s close Politburo colleague Lazar Kaganovitch? He was a Jew against Jews. It is said that Vyacheslav Molotov’s Jewish wife, in prison for “treason,” wept at the news of the death of Stalin. It’s incredible. These people were drugged.
In the spring of 1953 Ben-Gurion was driving through the Negev on his way back from Eilat when he chanced on a group of young people working in the sun. They explained to him that they had served in the area during the war and had decided they wanted to set up a kibbutz there. It was to be called Sdeh Boker. Ben-Gurion did not, as far as is known, ask on the spot whether he could join. But very soon afterward he informed his wife, his colleagues, and his future kibbutz comrades that he had decided to quit his job and make his home at Sdeh Boker, working alongside these pioneers on what he believed needed to be the next great challenge for Israel: making the desert bloom in the most literal sense. In November 1953 he submitted his formal resignation to President Ben-Zvi, and one month later he and Paula set out on their new life in the far south. Soon the local and world press published photographs of him shearing sheep and earnestly engaging in other agricultural toil.
“I feel here like I felt the first time I set foot in Eretz Yisrael,” he wrote from Sdeh Boker to the girl who was his first love and who now, forty-seven years later, saluted his latter-day act of pioneering. “You can’t imagine how happy I was to receive your letter,” he wrote to Rachel Nelkin, now Rachel Beit-Halachmi. “It took me back to years even earlier [than our aliyah], to the years of our youth in Plonsk.” The two of them stayed in touch after that. In 1959, with Ben-Gurion back in office, she asked him for “half an hour” to show him a memorial book on Plonsk that she was preparing. He replied that he would gladly grant her much more than half an hour and would arrange a meeting in his Tel Aviv office so that she needn’t trouble to come up to Jerusalem. When he finally stepped down in 1963, engulfed in controversy, she wrote to console him, and he replied reassuring her, “I’m not overwhelmed when I hear praise and adulation, and I’m not stricken when I read attacks and calumnies.”
“I admire you and have always admired you, and feel close to your family,” she wrote to him in 1968. “The whole world knows that David brought us our state, our independence.”
“I don’t have to tell you what your letter means to me,” he replied, inviting her to Sdeh Boker. He visited her and her two daughters at her home in Givatayim, near Tel Aviv. They talked over old times and evidently both enjoyed it; later on she went to visit him “at your oasis in the desert.”
* This was in addition to personal reparations paid out to survivors of the Holocaust.