Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)
3. Union Boss
Ben-Gurion never wrote a petek.*
Jamal Pasha turned out to be more prescient than his two deportees, who now joined thousands of other Jewish exiles from Palestine waiting out the war in Alexandria. They did change their opinions eventually, returning to Eretz Yisrael in the uniform of the British Army. But that was years away, after the two of them would spend time in America, to which they sailed from Alexandria in April 1915. Once they reached New York, they quickly got rid of their tarbooshes and Turkish-style mustaches and set about the grueling and often thankless work of winning hearts and minds for the movement.
“No one can yet determine what the outcome of the World War will be,” they conceded in Circular No. 18 of the Poalei Zion Central Committee, New York, which was published in Yiddish and English in June 1915. It was a first, tentative admission that perhaps the Turks would not win after all, and that the Zionist movement might best serve its own interests by aligning itself elsewhere.
[P]ossibly the result will not be favorable, but we dare not under any circumstances refuse to proclaim and demand the minimal rights which will guarantee us freedom of immigration, colonization, cultural development and participation in all the political and public institutions in the land.
Now we need fresh forces and new people, a new army of workers who can move quickly into Eretz Yisrael as soon as the war comes to an end. This army must now be mobilized so that it is ready to travel to and work in Eretz Yisrael at a moment’s notice. The first example must be shown by our own comrades, especially those who have already given thought to their personal lives by tying them to Eretz Yisrael.
Though he wrote of an “army,” Ben-Gurion did not support, at this stage, the calls for a Jewish fighting force to be raised as part of the Allied war effort. The land, he believed, must be conquered by the toil and sweat of Jewish pioneers, not by force of arms. But here too, as with the Ottomanization in which he had invested such time and effort, Ben-Gurion was not hidebound in his thinking, but sensible and pragmatic. After the Balfour Declaration* in November 1917, he too favored the creation of the Jewish Legion. And six months later he joined it, going up to Canada to swear allegiance to the British Crown and begin his military training.
By this time Ben-Gurion was a married man. He had tried, without much conviction, to persuade Rachel Nelkin by mail to leave her husband and children in Palestine and join him in America, but unsurprisingly, he was turned down. Sometime later, in 1916, he met a nurse named Paulina Munbaz, known as Paula. Russian-born and Yiddish-speaking like himself, she was by some accounts a member of Poalei Zion, but by her own account was not a particularly ardent Zionist. Nevertheless they married in December 1917 in a civil ceremony, with a view to making their lives in Eretz Yisrael after the war.
As a young man in Ben-Gurion’s bureau, I was once privy to the couple’s reminiscing about their life together in America. Like everything else about them, it was unique. During his time as prime minister, Ben-Gurion sometimes vacationed with Paula in Tiberias, and sometimes I would have to go up there to see him on defense ministry business. He would always receive me kindly. One time he, Paula, and I were having lunch at his hotel, the Galei Kinneret. As usual, his mind was miles away from the food in front of him and the small talk around him.
PAULA: Look how he eats.
PERES: Paula, you married him. What are you complaining about?
PAULA: Ma yesh? [What’s your problem?]
PERES: Ma yesh? Who’d have married you apart from him!
PAULA: Chanfan! [Flatterer!] You’re pandering to him.
PERES: Why am I a chanfan? Was anyone else courting you?
PAULA: Tippesh! [Idiot!]
PERES: So who was?
Ben-Gurion remained completely oblivious throughout this tart exchange. After the meal we walked a little in the garden, and I asked him if there really had been something serious between Trotsky and Paula.
BEN-GURION: Ma pitom! [No way!]
PERES: So what was she saying?
BEN-GURION: Trotsky came to New York to give a lecture, and Paula said, Let’s go and hear him. He doesn’t interest me, I said, you go yourself. When she returned, I asked her, How was Trotsky? And she said, I think he’s fallen for me. What leads you to that conclusion? I asked. He never took his eyes off me throughout the lecture, she said. Where did you sit? I asked. In the middle of the front row, she said.
From his British Army boot camp in Canada, the unlikely thirty-two-year-old Private Ben-Gurion inundated his new bride with passionate letters of longing and love. Longing and love for her but also for Eretz Yisrael, which seemed nearer now that the British Army, under General Edmund Allenby, was moving up from Egypt to take Palestine from the Turks. Allenby effectively accomplished it thanks largely to the collapse of the defending Turkish forces, before Ben-Gurion and his comrades-in-arms actually reached the front.
Ben-Gurion’s unit of the Jewish Legion eventually marched into Palestine from Egypt in December 1918, after the war was officially over. Unable, therefore, to distinguish himself in military prowess, Ben-Gurion, by now a corporal, plunged straight back into his foremost field of distinction—Zionist affairs. This unmartial activism set him on collision course with his commanding officer, and he was finally deprived of his corporal’s stripes. It was a demotion he suffered willingly, in the national interest. His aim, right from the outset, was to bring about a merger of the two main workers’ parties, his own Poalei Zion and the less radical Hapoal Hatzair.
While still in Cairo, he had thrashed this out with Berl Katznelson, a fellow member of the Jewish Legion who was growing into the role of principal ideologue of the Labor Zionist movement. Katznelson, one year younger than Ben-Gurion, became his closest friend and mentor. Katznelson agreed to the merger, but back in Tel Aviv the Hapoal Hatzair leader, Yosef Sprinzak, did not. Nevertheless, after much arcane and ultimately unsuccessful negotiation, Ben-Gurion and Katznelson convened what they called a “general congress of workers.” With the enthusiastic acclaim of the eighty-one delegates (who did not, however, include representatives of Hapoal Hatzair), they announced the creation of Ahdut HaAvoda, the United Labor Party. It would take another decade before Sprinzak’s resistance finally gave way to Ben-Gurion’s single-minded determination and a truly united Labor movement, called Mapai, came into being in Eretz Yisrael. But as near-hegemonic as it became in the political and economic life of the Yishuv, it would be plagued, as we shall see, by dissension and defections.
When Ben-Gurion went to war, he left Paula in America, pregnant with their first child. It was a girl, whom they named Geula. “In spite of the fact that she looks like you, she is so pretty,” Paula informed him. Ben-Gurion was hugely excited, but Paula was worried about how they were going to get by. “I will supply eggs and milk,” he wrote, “not only for drinking but for bathing our baby … I promise you, my Paula, that Geula will have all the comforts that exist in Brooklyn and the Bronx, at least until she wants to go to the Metropolitan Opera.” When they were at last reunited in Eretz Yisrael, in November 1919, Ben-Gurion determined that “without any father’s prejudices, she is one of the nicest, most attractive, charming, beautiful, and bright little girls I have ever seen.”
But they were soon off again. In the spring of 1920 Ahdut HaAvoda sent Ben-Gurion to London, to run the office of the World Poalei Zion organization and to forge links between the Yishuv’s fledgling labor movement and the increasingly important British Labor Party. The little family set up home in a small apartment in Maida Vale, a suburb not far from the lively West End and the city center. And the summer of that year marked the arrival of a son, Amos. Ben-Gurion went to work each day on the Underground. He did not much enjoy life as a Zionist functionary in the Diaspora. Nor did he enjoy the London weather. “You always live in cold, monotonous fog,” he wrote to Rachel Yannait. “I’ve got to be here at least a year,” he wrote to his father in October, apparently without enthusiasm.
Ben-Gurion’s plans changed peremptorily with the outbreak of widespread Arab rioting in Palestine in May 1921—the first violent insurrection against the Balfour Declaration and the Zionist enterprise. The riots left forty-seven Jews dead and scores more injured. Among the fatalities was the writer Yosef Haim Brenner, who was murdered near his solitary house between Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
Brenner was one of the most famous writers in Palestine at the time and probably the most influential too. He was consciously attempting to forge a new Hebrew literature to go with the new politics that Labor Zionists like Ben-Gurion were laboring to create. A Second Aliyah figure like Ben-Gurion, he had remained in Palestine during the First World War, though he was expelled from Tel Aviv to the countryside with thousands of others as the Turks sought to assert their flagging rule over the war-torn country. Brenner’s vision was far darker than the pragmatic optimism of Ben-Gurion. His masterpiece, the novel Breakdown and Bereavement, was the book Franz Kafka chose to read in a futile attempt to learn Hebrew. The manner of his death—he had refused to be evacuated because there was no room in the rescue car for his companions—made him a Zionist martyr. From a widely admired writer in life he became an iconic, prophetlike figure in death, especially venerated within the socialist youth movements.
Herbert Samuel, the Jewish and pro-Zionist former home secretary whom the British government (which had been awarded a mandate over the former Ottoman territories of Palestine and Iraq by the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference in Italy in 1920) had appointed high commissioner of Palestine, suspended immigration in the wake of the violence in May 1921. When it was resumed a year later, it was under the terms of a white paper issued by the colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, which limited the future rate of immigration to the “economic absorptive capacity” of the country. The same white paper sheared off Transjordan from western Palestine and made it a Hashemite emirate under Emir Abdullah. The British were juggling the various and contradictory promises they had spread around the Middle East region during the war. Their behavior introduced a note of disillusionment and suspicion into the Zionists’ dealings with them. Some, especially in America, went so far as to accuse the British openly of betraying the Balfour Declaration.
For Ben-Gurion and his comrades, all this merely underscored the need for patient, diligent building and settlement of the homeland. “The terrible crisis now affecting the Zionist movement,” he wrote to Avigdor from a meeting of the Zionist Actions Committee in Prague in July 1921, “is opening the eyes of both the leaders and the rank-and-file to see what we [the workers in Eretz Yisrael] realized long ago: That without steady, vigorous work in many different economic areas in Eretz Yisrael there is no solid basis for all our diplomatic successes.”
Ben-Gurion had taken his young family to Plonsk in March 1921 to visit with his father. He planned for them to spend the summer there while he worked in Tel Aviv. He had booked a cheap ride home aboard a ship chartered to carry young immigrants from Trieste to Palestine. When news of the riots reached him, he left immediately for Vienna, en route, as he hoped, to Palestine. But once there he learned that the charter vessel was stuck in Trieste because of the high commissioner’s clampdown on immigration. He had no money to buy a regular ticket, so he remained in Europe until the Prague meeting in July.
Writing to his father from the Zionist Actions Committee meeting, Ben-Gurion described in detail the kind of prosaic project that he believed was vital for the diligent, bottom-up growth of the Yishuv.
The Jews in Palestine have at their disposal some 11,000 building plots in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Tiberias. The minimum sum required to build a house of two rooms, a kitchen and a hall is 200 pounds … A mortgage bank is being founded now which will lend home-purchasers sixty percent of the money. They want to start on five hundred homes immediately … The success of this conference lies in the fact that the Zionists have finally shaken off their kowtowing to the rich men … the illusion that the millionaires will build the homeland.
Ben-Gurion eventually reached Palestine in August and immediately threw himself into the creation of a new, supraparty workers’ organization—the Histadrut. From the very start, the new organization was envisaged both as a federation of trade unions and as the owner and operator, on behalf of the workers, of agricultural, industrial, and commercial concerns. The Histadrut would also apply to the government to receive and distribute among its members public works projects. Initially, Ben-Gurion saw the Histadrut as even more all-embracing than this: “an egalitarian commune of all the workers of Palestine under military discipline … taking over all the farms and urban cooperatives, the wholesale supplies of the entire working community.” But key colleagues, including Ben-Zvi and Katznelson, shot down these “Bolshevik” excesses.
Some 4,400 workers joined up at first—not a large number, even in the context of the 65,000-odd Jews who lived in Palestine at that time. Ben-Gurion’s membership card was number three. But soon enough, as secretary-general, he became the number one man in the new organization. Under his leadership, the Histadrut grew to become a major force in the life of the Yishuv and the Zionist movement. His co-secretary-general, David Zakkai, who left in 1925 to edit the Histadrut-owned newspaper Davar, recalled later, “After Ben-Gurion joined the secretariat, the organization took on a new lease of life. More activism, visits to workplaces, resolution of labor disputes on the basis of avodah Ivrit [Jews employing Jews], resolution of wage problems. He was good to work with. He worked hard and for long hours and he encouraged those around him to work that way, too.”
At first the work was grueling and the secretary-general’s pay pitifully low. Ben-Gurion sent most of it to Plonsk, to Paula and his father. Paula’s visit to Plonsk, extended due to the riots and their aftermath, was not a success. David’s American wife got on badly with Avigdor’s second wife and apparently with Avigdor too. She found living conditions in the little Polish town too unsophisticated, and they in turn found her spoiled and demanding. Nevertheless, Paula and the children stayed in Plonsk for more than a year before Ben-Gurion brought them back to Palestine.
Ben-Gurion’s own relations with Avigdor and the rest of the family deteriorated around this time, in part because of his stolid refusal to help them come on aliyah. Avigdor, now eager to make the move, seems to have expected his up-and-coming son to facilitate his immigration. But Ben-Gurion was distinctly unforthcoming. It was only years later, in July 1924, that he put his concerns down on paper, in a letter explaining how strict and stern he felt he must be with himself and his loved ones, how firmly he had to distance himself from pulling strings or, as it was known in the Yishuv, using protektzia.
I know, my dear father, that you relate to me by now with some suspicion [in the matter of the family’s aliyah]. But I assure you again most faithfully that my hope and my longing to see you settled in the Land have in no way diminished. Not for a single day. It will be the greatest festival-day for me when I can welcome you to our country. If I were employed in the private sector and were not connected to a public movement weighed down by responsibilities and cares, I could have facilitated your coming to Eretz Yisrael long ago. I would have exerted my every effort to make it happen. But the burden that I bear exhausts all my thoughts and all my efforts, and denies me all my personal freedom. I have neither the ability nor the authority to do what I want to do, how I want to do it. I can do only what is required of me for the benefit of the Movement. At this time, I cannot properly fulfill my obligations to my wife and children, nor to you, Father. And that is the reason—the one and only reason—that has delayed me until now in acting to bring about your aliyah.
Ben-Gurion went on to suggest that Avigdor sell his house. This would bring in some three or four hundred pounds, he estimated, which would enable him to live in Palestine for a year at least. During that time, he hoped that Avigdor would find work
and perhaps build a house, together with [David’s sister] Rivka … I hope you will find work to suit your abilities and your knowledge. I need to take this opportunity to explain to you a paradoxical situation so that you understand things aright. My position in the country is such that every public institution, both of the Histadrut and of the Zionist Organization, is open to me and would gladly respond to my request to provide employment for anyone I ask. But that is precisely the inhibition that prevents me from using my influence for anyone close to me. I fight constantly in Eretz Yisrael against the accepted system of protektzia, both in our own movement and in the Zionist movement in general. And I have an almost physical aversion towards making use of it myself, even when it would be entirely legitimate to do so. What I can do for a total stranger, I can’t do for my own kith and kin. I don’t want people to look at someone dear to me and think to themselves that he got his job thanks to my influence.
As far as Rivka was concerned, Ben-Gurion wrote, “If she can somehow pull together the sum of five or six hundred pounds she can come on aliyah and will be able to settle successfully. I’ll send her the requisite papers as soon as she tells me she’s ready to leave.” As regards Avraham (his brother) coming,
I remain opposed to it, as I explained in my previous letter. My advice is that he send Yisraelchik [Avraham’s son, who did make aliyah in 1925] and if Sheindele [Avraham’s daughter] knows Hebrew well, then her, too. She should learn to type, and if possible bookkeeping as well. Then she’ll be able to find work. When his two children are settled, and not before that, it will be possible to consider Avraham’s own aliyah.*
Avigdor made aliyah about a year after receiving this letter and settled in Haifa, where he worked as an accountant in the Histadrut-owned construction company, Solel Boneh.
I can confirm from my own personal experience that Ben-Gurion never wrote a petek to recommend employment or some other benefit for anyone. Political critics accused him of fostering a regime in which such notes held sway. But there was a great deal of tendentious exaggeration in this. There was a certain air of intimacy, almost familylike, in the main institutions of government and business before the state was established and in the state’s early years. But that did not mean, and it is inaccurate to say, that the people in power deliberately froze out people who were not members of the dominant political party and instead handed out jobs only to their own people. That is a bobbe mayseh, an old wives’ tale. I do not believe that people were given positions of authority on the basis of their political affiliation. Ben-Gurion himself appointed people who weren’t members of his political party. And on occasion, he threw out people who were.
As secretary of the fledgling Histadrut, Ben-Gurion lived a life of penury in a rented room in Jerusalem. He had moved the nascent trade union federation to the holy city for “national reasons.” Even on his austere budget, he often had to borrow money to make ends meet. He also began indulging himself, despite his financial straits, in a new and costly pastime—buying books. By March 1922 he listed 775 volumes in his collection: 340 in English, 219 in German, 140 in Hebrew, 29 in French, 13 in Arabic, 7 in Russian, 7 in Latin, 2 in Greek, 2 in Turkish, and 15 assorted dictionaries. He was trying to learn Spanish too, in order to read Cervantes in the original.
Throughout his life Ben-Gurion read widely and deeply in whatever field he was engaged at the time. Thus, as Histadrut chief, he read Marxist literature and books on mass psychology. He told me he had read all forty volumes of Lenin’s writings! Later, as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, he would focus his reading on Jewish history and the history and geography of Palestine. He himself, together with Ben-Zvi, had written a book in Yiddish on the history and geography of Palestine while they were in America. When the clouds of war gathered over Eretz Yisrael, he switched to military histories and biographies. He particularly admired Thucydides. He claimed he’d read through The History of the Peloponnesian War sixteen times, and he made us all read it too. As statehood approached, he turned to the ancient Greek political philosophers—in the original Greek—because he felt that they best understood the concept that he called mamlachtiyut,* and also because he believed passionately that statesmen should be intellectuals, imbibing and imparting the noblest human values.
Ben-Gurion’s Bolshevist leanings were forever laid to rest during a lengthy visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1923, as the Palestinian representative to an agricultural fair in Moscow. “We discovered Russia,” he wrote in his diary on the voyage home. “Russia, floundering in the fire of rebellion and revolutionary tyranny. The land of deep conflicts and contradictions, which calls for worldwide civil war to give power to the proletariat and denies its own workers all rights as men, citizens or class.”
Russia’s deep contradictions affected Ben-Gurion’s own attitudes and policies. On the one hand, he wanted to foster close ties between the Histadrut and the Soviet state. On the other hand, he viscerally hated dictatorship and was painfully conscious of the murderous inhumanity of the Soviet system and the inherent anti-Semitism still prevalent in Russia. This sojourn in the Soviet Union and his experience almost two decades later in London during the blitz were perhaps the two most formative experiences in his life on foreign soil. In the one he saw close up the depredations of dictatorship upon the human spirit. In the other he witnessed a mature and deep-rooted parliamentary democracy survive intact during the most grievous tribulations.
Compounding the contradictions, Ben-Gurion saw Lenin as a great man. He admired him above all for his single-mindedness and his clear-eyed view of history. “There is integrity in his soul, he disdains any inhibitions, he is faithful to his aim, he knows neither concessions nor leniency, he will crawl through the mire to obtain his objective.” On his return to Palestine, he took to wearing Lenin-like neomilitary clothes, an apparent expression of his bewitchment. His deep reverence for Lenin did not carry over to Stalin, however, to whom he would refer privately in later years as “just a hot-blooded Georgian.” Trotsky too emerged shrunken in his eyes from any comparison to the great Lenin. This I learned, unforgettably, in my own first meeting with him. I was at the time a young activist in Ha’noar Ha’oved, and I had the chutzpah to ask the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive for a lift in his car from Tel Aviv to Haifa. Breathlessly, I prepared the sparkling questions with which I was going to pepper our leader en route, demonstrating my cleverness. In actual fact, Ben-Gurion sat in silence all the way up the coastal road, and I didn’t dare open my mouth. As we approached the outskirts of Haifa, he suddenly said, “You know, Trotsky was no statesman.”
Almost struck dumb with self-consciousness, I muttered, “Why is that?”
“Because of his concept of no war–no peace,” Ben-Gurion replied. “That’s not statesmanship. That’s some sort of Jewish invention. A statesman must decide, one way or the other: to go for peace and pay the price, or to make war, knowing what the risks and dangers are. Lenin was Trotsky’s inferior in terms of intellect, but he became the leader of Russia because he was decisive. He decided on peace and paid the heavy price that peace required.” I knew vaguely then, and much more clearly soon after, that Ben-Gurion was mulling in his mind his own imminent, unavoidable confrontation with history. Would he seize the moment, le’altar, Lenin-like, to create the Jewish state? Or would he allow himself to be persuaded by his “Trotskyite” colleagues to defer the decision for more propitious times?
Shalom Geula, shalom Amos, from Abba in Moscow,” Ben-Gurion wrote home in September 1923. “Speak to Ima only in Ivrit. I will buy you nice toys.” He was not much more effusive to Paula: “Please tell Zakkai to send me The Manchester Guardian. I know nothing of what’s going on in the world outside Russia. I kiss you and the children.” A month later, still in Moscow, he wrote,
My visit to Russia has been more successful, on the whole, than I could have expected. I know you have suffered a bit, but believe me, my dear, that it was not in vain. I shall have to stay here another fortnight, and I hope during that time to receive the exit visa for [Paula’s sister] Fanya. I haven’t been able to visit Minsk and see the rest of your family. But at least I’ll bring one of your sisters. Be healthy and happy.
That same week he wrote again: “I’ve sent home five parcels with sixty books, most of them about trade union issues in Russia and the revolutionary movement.” And a month later: “I’m very happy to inform you that Fanya’s got her entry visa to Palestine … I’ve bought you a nice samovar and I hope you’ll like it. Fanya will bring it. I paid three pounds for it. In a few days I’ll get an entry visa to Germany. My visit here has been very satisfactory in all respects. I long to embrace you and kiss the dear children.”
Ben-Gurion tried, but the fact is he did not give much time to family life. He spent long periods traveling abroad, alone. And even at home he was busy around the clock with his work. He devoted hours to writing in his diary, meticulously recording the events of his day that he regarded as significant. “We grew up at home as though we had no father,” Geula recalled as an adult. But Ben-Gurion was a man of one idea, to create a state. Everything else was secondary. He was like a rock, and he never moved from his fixed purpose. When he rose in the morning, what he saw before him was—a state. Creating a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. And when he went to bed at night—the same. Even after he had created the state, he never saw it as created but as in the ongoing process of creation. And he continued to be wholly preoccupied with it. It was his destiny.
Paula was different. For Paula, the family came first. Her children were the greatest children ever. Amos was the best son, and she couldn’t bear other people troubling him. But she did always behave nicely toward me. And she liked my wife, Sonia. She would often invite her over.
The mid-1920s saw a surge in aliyah, but also a marked change in the kind of Jews who were coming. The Polish government had imposed on its people severe economic restrictions that particularly affected Jews. As a result, thousands sought to leave. With the gates of the United States now closed to mass immigration, Eretz Yisrael became a destination not only for idealists and youngsters but also for middle-class people who sought to transfer their bourgeois, urban lifestyles to Tel Aviv and Haifa. About 35,000 immigrants had come from Russia and Eastern Europe during the years 1919–23, most of them young people and many of them members of Zionist youth movements. An additional 65,000 arrived between 1924 and 1927, but these were mainly older people, tradesmen and professionals, most of them not natural supporters of Ahdut HaAvoda or of the Histadrut.
Ben-Gurion’s initial reaction, and that of his close colleagues, was one of classic class struggle: socialists against capitalists, overlaid with a layer of Zionist passion.
We have fought and shall continue to fight against those who fall into the delusion that this great and difficult task—the realization of Zionism—can be accomplished solely by a profit-making joint stock company … If there is a fantasy that lacks foundation, it is the empty notion that by means of the pursuit of profit, it will be possible to accomplish this unprofitable undertaking—assembling a dispersed people with no roots in labor, and getting it absorbed into a desolate, impoverished land.
Exacerbating the intense rivalry that now developed between the left and the right in Eretz Yisrael and within the Zionist movement was the fact that the right now had a very attractive and resonant spokesman in the person of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
The Fourth Aliyah, as this latest wave of newcomers was called, spurred a new rush of building, manufacturing, trade, and business. Fashionably dressed men and women, coffee shops, and tea dances straight out of the salons and main streets of Warsaw and Bucharest began to appear on the sun-drenched boulevards of Tel Aviv—much to the disgust of the khaki-clad worker-pioneers for whom Ben-Gurion was a hero. And they indulged in a vindictive display of self-righteousness when the prosperity proved to be just a brief bubble that gave way to a sustained period of recession. Many of the newcomers gave up and left. “The middle class came—and failed,” Ben-Gurion wrote. “It had to fail because it wanted to continue in Palestine using the same means by which Jews gained their livelihood in the Diaspora; it did not understand that Palestine is not like Poland.”
Meanwhile, on the international organizational front, Ben-Gurion put into effect long-held plans to create a Zionist organization consisting exclusively of socialists, which would compete directly with the World Zionist Organization. He had spent years doggedly persuading his dubious and reluctant colleagues that this was the way forward. Eventually, he won them over, only to lose interest almost immediately as a new, much more ambitious, and much more relevant goal swung into view: domination by the Labor Zionists of the World Zionist Organization itself.
The catalyst that made this possible—and that thrust Ben-Gurion onto the world stage—was a double crisis that erupted in 1929: between the Jews of Palestine and their Arab neighbors, and between the Zionist movement and its British patrons. In August 1929 Arab violence broke out in Jerusalem and quickly spread to other cities. There had been tension and clashes at the Western Wall dating from 1928, when temporary partitions between male and female worshippers erected for Yom Kippur were deemed “new construction” by Arab religious leaders. The British sent in riot police and tensions simmered through August 1929, when the mufti of Jerusalem spread rumors that Jews intended to occupy the al-Aqsa Mosque.
On Tisha B’Av,* which fell that year on August 15, Jewish followers of Jabotinsky marched to the wall, proclaiming Jewish sovereignty. Several days before, in Zurich, Jabotinsky had given a fiery, maximalist speech at the Sixteenth Zionist Congress, demanding exclusive Jewish sovereignty over the whole of original Palestine—that is, the land on both sides of the Jordan River. Though Jabotinsky represented a minority and his policies were never adopted, the congress did adopt Weizmann’s plan for a dramatic broadening of the Jewish Agency for Palestine to embrace non-Zionist Jewish organizations, which were mainly in the United States. To the Arabs it seemed that the Jewish star was in the ascendant.
On August 16 a young Jew was stabbed to death in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem. His funeral became a political demonstration that further inflamed passions. On August 22 three Jews and three Arabs were killed in rioting in Jerusalem after Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount. The next day the tiny, centuries-old Jewish community in Hebron was decimated by jihadist murderers. Sixty-seven Jews were killed there; the rest, 435 souls, fled the city.
In all, more than 130 Jews were killed across the country before British troops were able to bring the situation under control. Again, the British reaction was to clamp down on the growth of the Yishuv. A commission of inquiry set up by the colonial secretary, Lord Passfield, recommended restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases. In October 1930 Passfield published a white paper adopting these recommendations. British policy was clearly veering away from the original meaning and intent of the Balfour Declaration. The Passfield White Paper interpreted the Mandate as imposing upon Britain equal obligations to the Jews and the Arabs of Palestine.
Weizmann resigned the presidency of the World Zionist Organization in protest and anguish at the British betrayal. Within the movement and in world Jewry as a whole, there was bitterness against the British, but there were loud recriminations against Weizmann too. He was seen as too close to the Whitehall mandarins, too trusting of them, and—by some—too obsequious.
Ben-Gurion, in a paroxysm of rage, called for rebellion against Great Britain. The greatest rocks, he asserted at a Mapai conference, crumbled before a small quantity of explosives. The Yishuv had within it that explosive energy needed to “destroy this bloody empire.” If the British were seeking to appease the Muslims in India at the expense of the Jews in Palestine, they would “quickly learn what Jewish youth are capable of … Fear for yourself, mighty British Empire!”
Soon, however, under the withering criticism of his colleagues, Ben-Gurion regained his sagacity and agreed the next day that it might be wiser to prune from the protocol some of his more intemperate phrases. He began thinking about an intensive political campaign, directed principally at sympathetic sentiment within the British Labor Party, which might bring about a change of policy. Still, he warned, if the British Empire persisted “in deploying all its might to prevent us from coming to the Land and working in it” then no one should expect young Jewish people to stand by “with their arms folded.”
Ben-Gurion now brought to fruition his plans for a separate, socialist Zionist movement, convening in Berlin in September 1930 the First World Congress for Labor Palestine. Nearly a quarter of a million membership cards for the new organization were purchased in America, Europe, and Palestine—better than the organizers had hoped. The congress attracted a strong showing of eminent socialists from all over the world, alongside 196 Labor Zionist delegates from nineteen countries. Ben-Gurion, the keynote speaker, set out the movement’s vision: “A Jewish state, a laboring society, Jewish-Arab cooperation.” Ben-Gurion reported to his father after the congress that “the foundations have been laid for a world-wide movement focused around the Palestine labor movement.”
In practice, however, these ambitions were quickly overtaken by the unfolding Zionist drama. In February 1931 the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, effectively abrogated the Passfield White Paper. Writing to Weizmann (who had, meanwhile, resumed the presidency of the World Zionist Organization) in response to the massive Jewish outcry, he stressed his government’s abiding commitment to the Mandate and reversed the limitations on immigration and land purchase. Immigration, he pledged, would be based on an objectively economic, and not political, interpretation of the country’s “economic absorptive capacity.” A new high commissioner, Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, was appointed soon afterward, and he was to prove sympathetic to the Zionist cause. Weizmann’s own standing in the movement, however, was not wholly restored. The party with which he was associated, the General Zionists, declined in strength in advance of the Seventeenth Zionist Congress, held in Basel in July 1931. The two strongest forces now were Ben-Gurion’s Mapai, with 29 percent of the delegates, and Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, with 21.
* A petek is an “old-boy-network” note. To write a petek is to use one’s influence to obtain a favor for someone.
* The British government issued the Balfour Declaration over the signature of the foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, after much lobbying by Weizmann and his colleagues in the Zionist movement. The text read as follows: “Dear Lord Rothschild, I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet. ‘His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation. Yours sincerely, Arthur James Balfour.”
* Another sister, Feigele (Zippora), lost her husband in a shooting, and Ben-Gurion helped her and her two children make aliyah. He also helped another son of Avraham, Binyamin, with his aliyah. And he sent money to help pay for Sheindele’s studies. She was his favorite niece, but alone among all his nieces and nephews, she remained in Poland and perished in the Holocaust.
* Mamlachtiyut is often translated, inadequately, as “raison d’état.” A better definition, closer to Ben-Gurion’s intention, would be “unity despite difference.” Mamlachtiyut seeks to draw the line where party and political differences should give way to the overriding needs of the national agenda.
* The ninth day of the month of Av was the day on which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and then by the Romans in 70 C.E.