Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)
13. Tomb of the Patriarch
His essential worldview never changed. He always held that not pursuing peace was immoral, and that ruling over another nation was immoral. He believed this from his very first day in Eretz Yisrael.
After the 1967 war, Ben-Gurion urged extensive Jewish settlement in Jerusalem and in Hebron too, where the Tomb of the Patriarchs (for Muslims, the Ibrahimi Mosque) is a site second only to the Western Wall in its historic holiness for Jews. “We must not move from Jerusalem,” he was quoted as saying. He was against restoring the West Bank to King Hussein, but he warned against annexing it, with its one million Palestinian Arab inhabitants. “That would be a serious danger for Israel,” he said. The same applied to the Palestinian refugees living in the Gaza Strip.
“As for the Sinai Peninsula,” he said, “in my view we should demand direct negotiations with Nasser, and if he agrees to peace with us and to free navigation in the Straits of Tiran and in the Suez Canal, then we should evacuate Sinai.” This is in fact what happened, in stages, after the Yom Kippur War: first in 1975 in the Israel-Egypt interim accord, and then in 1979 in the full peace treaty, signed by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Ben-Gurion was opposed, during the Six-Day War, to extending the fighting to the Syrian front, but once the Golan Heights were taken, he was clearly loath to envisage their return to Syria.
Essentially, the end of the war brought the country back to questions Ben-Gurion had wrestled with in the days before partition, when the Zionist factions debated how much of the historical Land of Israel they were willing to sacrifice in exchange for statehood. Some say that he foresaw the dangerous consequences of occupation and that therefore, after 1967, he urged withdrawal from everywhere apart from Jerusalem and the Golan. It is important to stress that his condition for returning the territories was full peace. His essential worldview never changed. He always held that not pursuing peace was immoral, and that ruling over another nation was immoral. He believed this from his very first day in Eretz Yisrael. When we went to war, it was because we had to. We had no choice. Whenever the chance arises, we must pursue peace. That was his permanent position.
After the war in 1967, he asked me to arrange for him to see Musa Alami again. They met in London. He came back disappointed. But why did he want to go? To see if it was possible to make peace with the Palestinians. According to Alami’s account, Ben-Gurion said at that first meeting in 1967 that he himself would favor returning all the conquered territories in return for Palestinian recognition. At a second meeting, a year later, he proposed that Israel retain Jerusalem and the Golan. At a third meeting, in 1969, according to Alami, he seemed prepared to revert to his original position.
After 1967 he kept up his fight, increasingly alone, over the Lavon Affair. When he had insisted that “truth is above all else,” he spoke as a prophet, no longer just as a statesman. He moved at a certain point from the role of prime minister to that of prophet, of oracle. His deepest belief, constantly repeated, was that Israel’s destiny depended on two things: its strength and its moral fiber. And he feared that the morality would be eroded by compromising, by too much flexibility over principle. That was his fight. He believed that to understand Jewish history—and to ensure Jewish existence going forward—we must factor in above all the moral imperative.
Dayan’s joining the Eshkol government in 1967 (which became a unity government with the participation of Begin’s party) led in time to the breakup of Rafi, the party Ben-Gurion had created in 1965 to protest Mapai’s exoneration of Lavon without a judicial review. Most of Rafi’s members now voted to join Mapai and Ahdut HaAvoda in the Labor Alignment, and that’s how the tripartite bloc ran in the 1969 election, under Golda Meir (Eshkol had died the year before), winning a whopping fifty-six seats. Ben-Gurion and a handful of hard-core supporters—among them, ironically, Isser Harel—refused to go back to Mapai and ran separately as the State List, winning four seats.
Ben-Gurion resigned from the Knesset the following year and retired to Sdeh Boker. There he spent his time writing and reading and receiving an unending stream of guests from Israel and around the world who still sought to pay him homage. Longtime acquaintances found him mellowed and more at peace with himself during those sunset years. One of his last public appearances was at a Zionist congress, held in Jerusalem in 1972, where he surveyed the history of Zionism. He began with Hovevei Zion in the 1880s and covered Herzl and the First and Second Aliyot, but then pointedly passed over the World Zionist Organization’s decades of political activism (mostly under Weizmann), picking up the saga again with the foundation of the state. It was his way of confirming one of the central messages of his life: Zionism, for Ben-Gurion, meant leaving the Diaspora and coming to live one’s life in Zion.
Granted, this message did not directly influence all Jews everywhere. But it set a direction and a benchmark. Some did pick up and make aliyah from countries where life was comfortable for Jews and there was no pressure to leave. By the same token, his calls to come to Sdeh Boker were largely ignored. But he remained there, and he set an example that affected people in many different ways.
Looking back across the decades at Ben-Gurion’s monumental contribution, I distinguish between the nation’s needs when creating a state and its needs when maintaining a state. Today half of the world’s Jews live in Israel. The proportions are unfathomably different from the early days of the Yishuv, when it was an open question whether the state could come into being at all, whether it had enough people to sustain itself, enough money, enough arms. It’s easy to look at the end of Ben-Gurion’s career—when he had grown disillusioned by the Lavon Affair, a scandal that’s hard today even for many Israelis to fathom; when he had bolted the very party he had created; and when he lived in seeming isolation in a Negev kibbutz whose culture of asceticism and sacrifice was at odds with the shifting tenor of the growing country—it’s easy to look at him in these circumstances and fail to grasp his centrality.
But we need to grasp it. What Ben-Gurion did, he did in a heroic epoch, an epoch of great decisions. And yet Ben-Gurion himself was the first to stress that history is built not on repetition but on mutation, on change, and that the changing nature of Israel requires leaders who embody, in their own way, the same grand vision, the same large devotion to Jewish peoplehood and universal justice, the same blend of modern pragmatism and biblical consciousness, that Ben-Gurion exemplified. In an age of ongoing existential threats to the State of Israel, we need that heroic vision as much as ever.
A great lasting image for me of Ben-Gurion, one that captures an aspect of his emblematic importance for Israelis and for Jews everywhere, was in January 1965 when, though out of office, he represented Israel alongside President Zalman Shazar at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. Millions watched on that cold, sad January day in London as Ben-Gurion, instantly recognizable by his mane of white hair, walked from the Savoy Hotel (it was the Sabbath) along the thronged but silent Strand to take his place among the world’s leaders at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Those steps were part of an extraordinary journey. It had begun in Poland in 1886 when Israel, and even Mandatory Palestine, did not yet exist. That a young man from that dream world of Jewish exile should now be a representative of the Jewish state, among the de Gaulles and the Eisenhowers of the world, is a testament to Ben-Gurion’s own force of will and to the tenacity and imaginative resilience of the Jewish people. It seems proof of Ben-Gurion’s famous observation that in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.
The world had changed since Ben-Gurion arrived in Turkish-ruled Palestine in 1906, in ways almost impossible to comprehend. Empires had fallen. The European, Yiddish-speaking world that had defined Jewish existence for more than a thousand years had been destroyed, and the Jews of Europe along with it. The Zionists, who seemed a quixotic minority among Jews at the end of the nineteenth century, had, halfway through the twentieth, created a modern nation on the soil of an ancient Jewish civilization. The British Empire, which Ben-Gurion had fought with and against, was gone. It was the pro-Zionist Churchill who, as colonial secretary, had nevertheless sliced off 76 percent of the original Palestine Mandate for Emir Abdullah in 1922. But though the white paper of that year sought to modify Chaim Weizmann’s formulation that the Jewish home in Palestine would be “as Jewish as England is English,” there was Ben-Gurion in 1965, walking in the funeral procession because it was the Sabbath, consciously embodying the Jewishness of the young national home. Ben-Gurion understood the primacy of biblical consciousness not merely in the creation of modern Israel but in the life of the West.
Churchill has rightly been called “the last lion,” and the connections between the two men are worth contemplating. Churchill summoned up a vision of past British glory and valor in order to rescue modern Britain and the West from fascism. The British lion, the sense of England as a sacred place, nourished itself on biblical dreams. Ben-Gurion, who drew on an ancient idea of Jewish civilization to build a modern Jewish nation, understood the power of Jewish metaphors for inspiring the world. He also understood that the days of being only a metaphor were over.
In a letter to Churchill, Ben-Gurion had expressed gratitude for Churchill’s fortitude during World War II. The language he used, a fusion of the particular and the universal, the biblical and the modern, might well be applied to his own ideal of the Jewish state: “I saw you then not only as the symbol of your people and its greatness, but as the voice of the invincible and uncompromising conscience of the human race at a time of danger to the dignity of man, created in the image of God. It was not only the liberties and the honor of your own people that you saved.”
For me, that somber day in London brought together the three greatest leaders of the last two hundred years: Churchill, de Gaulle, and Ben-Gurion. Despite the differences, there was a certain deep similarity, I felt, in their experiences as leaders of their nations in war and peace. I also thought of Ben-Gurion as a latter-day Moses. A great shepherd to his people, he was also their prophet, fighting against all conventions and, like Moses, never fully satisfied. He led them across the desert toward the promised land. In the end he felt he had reached the land but had not yet achieved the promise in its profound moral and noble sense. He died still fighting for the fulfillment of the promise.
As if in acknowledgment of this, he was buried in Sdeh Boker, in a spot of his own choosing, looking out toward the wilderness of Zin, where the Israelites had wandered more than three thousand years before. It is of course more than a reminder of the long biblical journey toward the Land of Israel, offering a breathtaking panorama of the Negev mountains he so loved, whose colors change with the hours of the day.
Paula had died in January 1968 and was laid to rest there. Ben-Gurion survived to suffer, with the rest of his country, the great trauma of the surprise attack on October 6, 1973, which became the Yom Kippur War. He collapsed a few weeks later with a brain hemorrhage and died on December 1. His body lay in state at the Knesset in Jerusalem and was then flown by helicopter to Sdeh Boker.
At Ben-Gurion’s request, there were no eulogies, and in its austerity his funeral was the opposite of Churchillian pomp. But the symbolism was just as rich. The entire country stopped at the sounding of a siren. Psalms and Kaddish were recited at the grave, and the cantor who sang El Maalei Rachamim, the traditional prayer asking God to gather up the soul of the departed, referred to the deceased as “David Ben-Gurion, son of Avigdor, first prime minister of the State, who effected the redemption of the people of Israel in their land.”
That redemption is certainly not yet complete, but it was Ben-Gurion’s genius to embrace the pragmatic acceptance of the possible, essential for nation building, without ever abandoning the prophetic yearning for moral perfection. And every year, on the anniversary of his death, the members of the government of the day, whatever its political stripe, together with other civilian dignitaries and military officers, make the pilgrimage to his grave and eulogize the man to whose wisdom and courage they all now agree they owe their country.