Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)
5. What Could He Do?
Then, there was no shouting. Then, everything was subordinated to one thing only: winning the war.
By this time, early in 1938, bloody violence had been erupting in Palestine in waves for close to two years, and Ben-Gurion was working with Haganah commanders on plans for defending the Yishuv while at the same time imposing upon them a policy of restraint (havlaga, in Hebrew) that dictated no indiscriminate retaliation even for acts of wanton terrorism perpetrated against Jews.
Violence had broken out again in April 1936, in what the Arabs dubbed their Revolt against the British. But it was aimed equally at the Jews, whose Yishuv was growing by leaps and bounds. Refugees streamed in from Germany and from central European countries threatened by Nazi Germany’s territorial ambitions. Between 1930 and 1936 the Yishuv doubled in size, from 200,000 to 400,000. Aliyah in 1935 alone was more than 66,000. The Arab violence was directed above all at getting the British to stop or drastically slow down this torrent of Jewish refugees. It worked. By mid-1936 British officials were once again contemplating a temporary halt to immigration, this despite weeks of intensive lobbying efforts in London by Weizmann and Ben-Gurion to rally support in government and political circles for the Zionist cause.
Compounding his suspicions of British appeasement of the Arabs, Ben-Gurion was horrified to learn that Weizmann, in a secret conversation with the prime minister of Iraq, had indicated that he could countenance restrictions on aliyah. Weizmann made matters worse when the colonial secretary, William Ormsby-Gore, asked the two of them about the idea of a temporary suspension of immigration during the visit to Palestine of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Palestine Problem, which the British now proposed to set up. Weizmann answered equivocally. Ben-Gurion left that meeting “broken, dejected, and depressed as I have never been before.” As far as he was concerned, Weizmann could no longer be trusted to advocate the Zionist position.
Weizmann made matters even worse, in Ben-Gurion’s view, by equivocating again on the question of aliyah in his in camera testimony before this British commission, which was headed by Lord Peel and took evidence in Palestine in November 1936. In public, Weizmann spoke forcefully of the Jewish people’s ever-more-urgent need to keep Palestine open to aliyah. “I spoke of six million Jews,” he writes in his memoirs,
(a bitter and unconscious prophecy of the number exterminated not long after by Hitler) pent up in places where they are not wanted and for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places which they may not enter … There should be one place in the world, in God’s wide world, where we could live and express ourselves in accordance with our own character and make our contributions to civilization in our own way and through our own channels.
Ben-Gurion was full of praise for him. But in camera, as Ben-Gurion learned unofficially, Weizmann spoke very differently—of a maximum of one million Jews who would come to Palestine over a period of “twenty-five or thirty years.” Ben-Gurion resigned as chairman of the Jewish Agency shortly thereafter. “After long and bitter reflection,” he wrote to Weizmann, “it has become clear to me that in questions of Zionist policy, my ideas do not coincide with yours.”
The resignation was quickly rescinded as, under pressure from all sides, the two leaders agreed to bury the hatchet and try again to work together. But there was never much love lost between them, even though Ben-Gurion wrote to Weizmann later in 1937, “All my life I have loved you … I have loved you with all my heart and soul.” Weizmann was to mention Ben-Gurion precisely twice in his six-hundred-page autobiography,* the first time in his recounting of events that took place in 1947. Before then, in Weizmann’s book, Ben-Gurion did not exist.
Ben-Gurion really did have profound respect and even admiration for Weizmann. He never made light of Weizmann’s abilities or his international standing. But he came to differ with him deeply on the fundamentals of Zionist diplomacy. In Ben-Gurion’s view, Weizmann was too dependent on Britain. That was why he had difficulty adopting an independent policy for the Zionist movement that would mean resisting Britain and cutting loose from Whitehall. In many other ways too they were opposites, for whom collaboration did not come naturally. They were neither personal friends nor ideological comrades. Weizmann’s Eurocentric world and his political outlook were very different from Ben-Gurion’s socialist worldview. And this was, of course, a very ideological era; everything was grounded in ideology. Their personalities were incompatible too. Weizmann was not a compulsive, almost obsessive Hebraist like Ben-Gurion. He knew Hebrew, of course, but his main language was Yiddish, followed by English, and only then by Hebrew.
But very soon after the crisis between them, they were fighting shoulder to shoulder in favor of a proposal, first broached by the Peel Commission, that now tore the World Zionist Organization apart: the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Both leaders, despite their differences, saw this proposal for what it clearly proved to be with the passage of time: an opportunity, however imperfect, to realize the Zionist dream, however partially. Above all, they knew it was their only chance to save Europe’s Jews from the gathering cataclysm. “The opponents of partition are living in a fool’s paradise,” Ben-Gurion wrote to Moshe Sharett.* He told his party he was “moved to the depths of my heart … by the great and wonderful redeeming vision of a Jewish state.”
The borders envisaged by the Peel Commission were tiny and cramped: less than one quarter of western Palestine was to be in Jewish hands, with the Arabs taking most of the rest for their state and the British retaining certain sensitive swaths under their “protectorate.” The Jewish state would comprise the Galilee, the Jezreel Valley, and the coastal plain.
In a letter to his son, Amos, Ben-Gurion confided that he did not necessarily see this as the last word:
A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning … We shall bring into the state all the Jews it is possible to bring … and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means. Our ability to penetrate the country will increase if there is a state. Our strength vis-à-vis the Arabs will increase. I am not in favor of war. [But if] the Arabs say “Better the Negev remain barren than the Jews settle there,” we shall have to speak to them in a different language.
At the Twentieth Zionist Congress, which was held in Zurich in August 1937, the pro-partition camp was assailed from both sides: from the right wing and the religious, joining together with the American delegation and the socialist Greater Israel stalwarts; and from the far-left labor movements that favored a single, binational Jewish-Arab state. “I know that God promised Palestine to the children of Israel,” Weizmann argued with a group of Orthodox friends.
I believe the boundaries were wider than the ones now proposed … If God will keep His promise to His people in His own time, our business as poor humans, who live in a difficult age, is to save as much as we can of the remnants of Israel. By adopting this project we can save more of them than by continuing the Mandatory policy.
The upshot of a hard-fought and emotional battle was a compromise. The congress rejected the Peel Commission’s specific partition plan as “unacceptable.” But it empowered the executive “to enter into negotiations with a view to ascertaining the precise terms of His Majesty’s Government for the proposed establishment of a Jewish state.” The executive was not empowered, however, to accept such terms—only to bring them before a newly elected congress to decide.
Whether because of the Zionists’ hesitations or because of the Arab leaders’ flat rejection of the plan,* the British now backed away from their own partition idea and moved instead to impose drastic restrictions on immigration. The monthly quota was cut to one thousand. Ben-Gurion spoke of preparing the Yishuv to revolt. But he agreed, without expectations and without illusions, to take part, alongside Weizmann, as heads of a Jewish delegation to what might be called in today’s jargon a “proximity peace conference,” convened by the British government at St. James’s Palace in London. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and members of his government hosted the Jews and the Arabs (there were highranking Arab representatives from Palestine and from the neighboring countries) separately at a formal opening session on February 7, 1939. They did not encounter each other then or at the subsequent sessions of the conference. The British shuttled between the two delegations. The negotiations led nowhere. The Chamberlain government, Weizmann wrote later, “was determined to placate the Arabs just as they were placating Hitler.” At a small, unofficial session that the British arranged between top Jewish and Arab delegates early in March, Weizmann once again began to backslide on aliyah, but Ben-Gurion and Sharett intervened forcefully and made it clear that they, not he, spoke for the Jewish Agency on this matter and that they were not prepared to agree to slow down the pace of immigration.
The British response was to impose a truly draconian showdown, in the form of a new white paper. Britain’s “perfidious plan,” as Ben-Gurion called it, provided for just 75,000 Jewish immigrants to enter Palestine over the next five years. Immigration after that would be contingent on Arab consent. Jews would be forbidden to purchase land in some 95 percent of the country. Within ten years Palestine would become an independent country, possibly with separate cantons for Jews and with the Jews’ minority rights guaranteed. The Jewish delegation to the conference rejected the white paper unanimously.
Back in Palestine, Ben-Gurion drew up plans for a countrywide campaign of civil disobedience. He ordered the Haganah to create “special action squads” of well-trained fighters whose job would be to harass the British military authorities, as well as to carry out targeted reprisals against the Arabs and to punish Jewish informers. Separately, he put into place plans to assist large-scale illegal immigration, using force of arms if necessary to bring people ashore. Not all his militant thinking was supported by his own close party colleagues, but the principle was accepted: The Jews of Palestine, now close to half a million strong, were going to fight the British Empire for their right to retain the national home that Britain had promised and then reneged on.
The Twenty-first Zionist Congress was held in August 1939 in Geneva. Weizmann wrote that they convened “under the shadow of the White Paper, which threatened the destruction of the National Home, and under the shadow of a war, which threatened the destruction of all human liberties, perhaps of humanity itself.” Ben-Gurion spoke, in the Labor Zionist caucus, of the need for armed struggle against Great Britain. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed on August 22, and the pall of disaster that hung over the congress became almost palpable. As Ben-Gurion made his way home, Germany invaded Poland. He immediately ordered the Haganah to call off military action against the British forces and to disband the special action squads. He coined the slogan that has entered the annals of Jewish history: “We must help the British in their war as though there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as though there were no war.”
An early incident was far from auspicious. The British police raided a Haganah commanders’ course, and the army surrounded one group of forty-three participants, trying to make its getaway on foot, and arrested them. They were tried and, on October 30, 1939, sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.* When Ben-Gurion tried to intercede with the British military commander, General Evelyn Barker, the general suggested sourly that instead of being called Haganah (“defense” in Hebrew), the Yishuv’s no-longer-secret military force should more aptly be named “attack.”
In February 1940 the British government announced that the recommendations of the white paper on land purchase were now going into effect. “We are no longer citizens with equal rights in our own country,” Ben-Gurion declared the next day. “We have been deprived of the right to the soil of our homeland.” As chairman of the Zionist Executive and in the absence of its president (Weizmann, who was in Britain), Ben-Gurion had to represent the Yishuv before the British authorities. He could no longer do so, he said, and was resigning forthwith. This took his colleagues by surprise. They were divided over his demand for an activist response: a countrywide strike and militant demonstrations planned and led by the Haganah. But they gave him his way, and a wave of Jewish unrest swept the country. Two Jewish demonstrators, in Jerusalem and Haifa, were beaten to death by police truncheons. Their funerals provoked further violence.
The divisions within the leadership now deepened. Ben-Gurion’s militancy ran into broad opposition both in the Zionist Executive and within his own party. On April 18, 1940, at a meeting of the Zionist Actions Committee (a body within the Zionist Organization, broader than the Executive), Ben-Gurion insisted that there was “only one hope left now for Zionism—if it becomes fighting Zionism. A Zionism of mere words is pointless.” But he stood almost alone. Berl Katznelson gave him hesitant support; most of the others voiced outright opposition. Some argued that violent action against the British simply strengthened Hitler. Tel Aviv’s civic leaders warned that draconian measures by the police could leave hundreds dead and wounded in the town. Ben-Gurion promptly announced his resignation again, and although a large majority of the Actions Committee rejected it, he left it hanging in the air and embarked, by seaplane, for what was to be a ten-month trip to Britain and America.
He took his case to Weizmann and the rest of the Zionist leadership in London, and predictably, they rebuffed him too. But now he witnessed from close up the dramatic events during the spring and summer of 1940 as the “phony war” gave way to a series of desperate reverses, first in Norway, then in the Low Countries, and finally in France itself, where the Nazi blitzkrieg swept all before it. Zionist activism against the beleaguered British Empire could no longer be a serious option, as Ben-Gurion himself now admitted.
Winston Churchill, a lifelong friend of Zionism, took office as prime minister in May 1940. But Ben-Gurion never believed the white paper policy would be abrogated during the war: Britain had too much to lose by angering the Arabs. Unlike the Jews, as Ben-Gurion once pointed out, the Arabs had the option of siding with Germany against the Allies, as some Arab leaders openly threatened to do. The mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, spent the war years in Germany as an enthusiastic and welcome ally of Hitler.
Ben-Gurion’s experiences alongside ordinary Londoners during the Battle of Britain served as a profound lesson for him in what a united nation, determinedly led, could withstand and achieve. He was to apply it at the Yishuv’s moment of decision, in May 1948. And he wrote about it later on: “I recalled the men and women of London during the blitz. And I told myself, ‘I have seen what a people is capable of achieving in the hour of supreme trial. I have seen their spirit touched by nobility … This is what the Jewish people can do.’ We did it.” He wrote of Churchill’s
unique combination of qualities—magnetic leadership, powerful eloquence, contagious courage … a deep sense of history and an unshakeable faith in the destiny of his people. I think … that if not for Churchill, England would have gone down … History would have been quite different if there had been no Churchill.
He would never have written or said that of himself, of course. But I say it without reservation: Our own history would have been quite different had there been no Ben-Gurion. I have never met a man with such inner strength and determination. I truly believe that without Ben-Gurion the State of Israel would not have come into being. I cannot think of anyone else who could have done what he did. As with Churchill, all the other details of his life and long career shrink into insignificance alongside the decisions he made at crucial junctures in Israel’s history. His decision to accept the fundamental concept of two states for two nations despite all the opposition and hesitations on our own side—that was a historic choice and a critical act of leadership.
And the truth is that the people around him understood the irreplaceable value of his leadership for the Zionist cause. Many of them didn’t like him. Some were afraid of him. But they were more afraid of being left without him. That’s why, time and again, he would resign! Whenever he resigned, they voted for him to come back—even his opponents did so. They said he was an autocrat, but they voted for him. They left to him all the fateful decision making, and he never shrank from making the decisions.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Ben-Gurion left Britain for the United States in the fall of 1940 in a somber mood. A long sojourn in New York did little to relieve his sense of isolation. The American Zionist leadership, like their confreres in Jerusalem and London, were against a policy of active militancy against Great Britain at its time of heroic struggle, almost alone, against Hitler. “Does the fate of millions of their kin in Europe concern Jewry in America less than the fate of England affects the people of America?” Ben-Gurion wrote bitterly as he made his way back to Palestine early in 1941. Because of the Battle of the Atlantic he had to take the long way round: a Clipper seaplane from San Francisco via Honolulu to Australia, then on to Indonesia, Singapore, Siam, India, Iraq, and finally Palestine. It took a month.
He returned with a clear vision of what the Zionist movement must strive for in the context of the convulsion that now gripped most of the globe:
It is essential to make the maximum effort during the war and immediately after it to find a full and fundamental solution to the Jewish problem by transferring millions of Jews to Palestine and establishing it as a Jewish Commonwealth, an equal member of the family of nations that will be established after the war.
An important adjunct to this vision was the creation by the Allies of a Jewish division to fight the Nazis, preferably in the Middle Eastern theater. Weizmann had pursued this idea since the outbreak of the war, thus far with scant success. Churchill and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had given assurances, but other elements in the British government and armed forces had effectively blocked it. Ben-Gurion also put it to his colleagues in Palestine: The age of British dominance in world affairs was now perforce over. Britain, even victorious, would emerge from the war much weakened. America would become—was already becoming—the preeminent focus of power. By the same token, the disaster that had overtaken European Jewry meant that the major center of Jewish influence would henceforth be in America. The Zionist movement must adjust its sights accordingly.
He set off in June 1941 for another visit to America, again by way of London. He joined Weizmann in his efforts to move the British government on the Jewish division, but they were once again spurned. This further stiffened Ben-Gurion’s resolve to campaign vigorously and unequivocally in the United States, among the Jews and in policy-making circles, against the continuation of the British Mandate after the war and in favor of the immediate establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. If this meant a break with Weizmann, then so be it.
Weizmann, for his part, published an article in the January 1941 issue of Foreign Affairs calling for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine after the war. Their dispute was not over the goal but over the means to achieve it. Weizmann was in no way prepared to throw over decades of patient collaboration with Britain. His lifelong belief was in the gradual, dogged progress of Zionism toward its goal. He had no faith in instant solutions—whether they were the chimerical “charter” for Palestine that Herzl had promised to deliver from the Great Powers forty years earlier, or Ben-Gurion’s push toward a rupture with Great Britain.
Ben-Gurion diligently lobbied for his view among American Zionists. In May 1942 a national Zionist conference was held in the old Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan. Given the enforced wartime suspension of Zionist congresses, this was to be an important gathering. Weizmann made a powerful opening speech, but the Biltmore Conference was Ben-Gurion’s moment. He had been working on his proposals for months. The conference, he urged, must reiterate the original significance of the Balfour Declaration as President Wilson had interpreted it back in 1919: Palestine was to be a Jewish commonwealth. The conference must insist too on the right of the Jewish Agency to administer aliyah and land purchase. Ben-Gurion dwelt at length on the need to ensure equal rights for all in the envisioned commonwealth: “autonomy for all the communities, Jews and Arabs, in their internal affairs—education, religion, and so forth.” He went on to say, “Whether Eretz Yisrael will remain a separate political entity or will be joined to a wider unit, such a Middle Eastern federation, the British Commonwealth, an Anglo-American union, or some other union—that will depend on circumstances and conditions that we will not determine and that are unpredictable now … We will all be part of a new world and a new world order which, we hope, will arise after our victory in this war.”
The Biltmore Program,* passed unanimously the next day with only the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair delegate abstaining,† closely followed Ben-Gurion’s main points. For Ben-Gurion, it was a historic turning point in the annals of Zionism. The program, subsequently adopted by the Zionist Actions Committee in Jerusalem as the movement’s official policy, meant for him the prospect of breaking away from British tutelage after the war and striking out—if necessary, in active defiance of Britain—to achieve the immediate immigration of up to two million European refugees and the declaration of Jewish statehood. He did not know, he reported ominously to the Actions Committee, if there would in fact be millions of Jews left in Europe after the war. But it was important that the Zionist movement present now to the world, and especially to America, a comprehensive plan for the solution of the Jewish question. “The Great Powers are not going to quarrel with anyone over little plans for bringing in 20,000 immigrants over ten years … They might argue with the Arabs if we put before them a plan that solves the problem of millions of Jewish survivors, if, that is, Hitler has not killed them.”
The boundaries of the putative state were shrouded in deliberate vagueness. The words used in the program, “Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth,” could certainly be taken to mean all of Palestine, not Palestine partitioned. This made it possible for those opposed to partition to support it. At the same time, the words “the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration” implied that statehood would not come immediately, leaving it possible for moderates and Weizmannists to support it too.
Weizmann, however, was disdainful. Such a “fuss” had been made of Biltmore, he wrote. In fact it was
just a resolution, like the hundred and one resolutions usually passed at great meetings … It embodies … the chief points as laid down in my article in Foreign Affairs. But B.-G. [conveys] the idea that it is a triumph of his policy, as against my moderate formulation of the same aims, and he injected into it all his own extreme views.
There now followed a period of open and ugly sparring between the two men. Ben-Gurion, still in America, accused Weizmann of acting “entirely on your own” and insisted that he was “not empowered to do so.” At a leadership meeting called to sort out the dispute, he flung these allegations in Weizmann’s face in front of the others. “Dr. Weizmann can render invaluable service in concerted action; he can do incalculable harm when he acts alone … He wants to seem reasonable to an Englishman.” The Zionist Executive had always attached someone else to Weizmann when he went into diplomatic meetings, Ben-Gurion hurtfully disclosed. “This system worked more or less until the war.”
Weizmann replied in fury that it was up to the leadership to decide if he needed “a kashrut supervisor.” What Ben-Gurion was doing to him was “reminiscent of purges … an act of political assassination … I shall act as I did,” he pledged. “I shall not swerve, because I think that is the right way. I shall be collegial. If in most cases I choose to see people alone, or sometimes go with another, that must be left to my discretion … Ben-Gurion’s presence here [in the United States] has been an irritant and a source of disruption almost from the day of his arrival eight months ago.”
Most of those present were embarrassed by the ruthlessness of Ben-Gurion’s attack on the grand old man of Zionism, and they were relieved when Ben-Gurion returned to Palestine shortly thereafter. But the feud continued by cable and mail. In Palestine, despite the near-unanimous endorsement of the Biltmore Program by the Actions Committee and despite the broad agreement with Ben-Gurion’s vision, many key leaders were also uncomfortable with the attempt to sideline Weizmann. In June 1943 Weizmann was back in London, meeting with members of the British government on his own again. Ben-Gurion fumed. The leadership in Jerusalem repeatedly invited Weizmann to come to Palestine for policy discussions. He refused. Ben-Gurion resigned. Once again Berl Katznelson and the others had to work on him to rescind his resignation, while at the same time bringing pressure to bear on Weizmann in London to ease the tensions betweem the two men.
Significantly too, despite the effort to blur the wording of the Biltmore Program on the crucial issue of borders (and despite the near-unanimous adoption of the program), the antipartition Siah Bet dissenters inside Ben-Gurion’s Mapai read it—rightly—as implying partition, and they began, belatedly, to balk. Led by the hard-line Yitzhak Tabenkin, they seceded from Mapai in May 1944 to form their own separate party. They chose the name of the original Ben-Gurion-Tabenkin-Katznelson alliance from the early 1920s—Ahdut HaAvoda.
These various political and personal struggles over what was to happen once the war ended took place against the backdrop of the raging global conflict and the horror felt by both Palestinian and Diaspora Jews as the details of Hitler’s destruction of European Jewry began to trickle out. After the British defeat of the German army in North Africa at the Battle of El Alamein in the fall of 1942, the threat of Nazi invasion that had been hanging over the Yishuv was effectively lifted. But at the same time news reports of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews in occupied Europe began to appear.
Sixteen women with British-Palestinian citizenship who had been trapped in Poland at the outbreak of the war now returned home, exchanged for German POWs. They told of ghettoes and mass killings, death camps and rumors of a “final solution.” In America, a small group of activists led by Peter Bergson, a Palestinian Revisionist whose real name was Hillel Kook, campaigned relentlessly for the Jewish leadership, and especially the Zionists, to focus their efforts on immediate rescue prospects rather than on postwar plans for Palestine. In subsequent decades this tragic controversy continued to reverberate both in Israel and in the Diaspora, among historians and also among politicians. It haunts us even today, and it is fitting that the first of the verbatim exchanges between David Landau and me is on this vexed subject. To debate the issue is to ask what price Israel paid for its single-minded drive to statehood, what Israel owes Diaspora Jewry, what the tiny pre-state collective was actually capable of accomplishing, and how the complex legacy of guilt, responsibility, heroism, and sacrifice continues to shape the country today.
DAVID LANDAU: Ben-Gurion was accused of not doing enough, even of not caring enough about the carnage being wrought in Nazi-occupied Europe. Some even accused him of cynically exploiting the Holocaust in his single-minded pursuit of the Zionist goal of independence.
SHIMON PERES: That is all arrant nonsense. Ben-Gurion, like Jabotinsky, had made his political career in Poland hardly less than in Eretz Yisrael. They both lived it. They knew it intimately. It’s absurd to say he didn’t care. During the war we didn’t know the facts. We knew only that the Germans were persecuting the Jews. There wasn’t a full picture of concentration camps and gas chambers. We didn’t know the scope. The reports were partial. We knew a little about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But everything was unclear. For instance, I didn’t know what had happened to my family. Until after the war we didn’t have a full conception of the scope of the catastrophe.
DAVID LANDAU: How do you relate to the subsequent controversy—it’s not about you, of course, you were too young to be held responsible—but about Ben-Gurion and the other leaders?
SHIMON PERES: They didn’t know. There was no clear picture. The Jews abroad, the World Jewish Congress and others, didn’t know much either. The mass killing didn’t begin until 1942. Only toward the end did more complete information begin to seep through.
DAVID LANDAU: The accusation is that they didn’t want to know.
SHIMON PERES: That’s rubbish. Rubbish!! But let’s go down to earth: What could they have done?
DAVID LANDAU: You’ve told me of your weekly Sunday-evening conversations with Berl Katznelson toward the end of his life.* You said how privileged you felt as a youngster to spend that quality time with him. Anita Shapira, in her biography of Berl,† writes that he was tortured inside himself regarding the policy of the leadership on the Holocaust. And regarding the youth of Palestine. He accused himself, and Ben-Gurion too, of raising a generation—you were one of the brightest stars of that generation—that was alienated from its Jewish roots, incapable of expressing or even feeling solidarity with the victims of the Holocaust. Did this come through in those Sunday-evening meetings you had with him?
SHIMON PERES: I remember Shapira’s book, of course. I didn’t entirely agree with the way she depicted the early Berl. That wasn’t how it was.
DAVID LANDAU: That part of his life was before your time.
SHIMON PERES: But I looked at it and I saw … Ce n’est pas serieux.
DAVID LANDAU: Let me read some quotes from the later part of the book. “Berl saw with what apathy the Yishuv received the reports of the Holocaust and how easily it moved on to other things … ‘This indifference to our agony—it’s frightening,’ he wrote. ‘The youth in Palestine had grown up detached from the Jewish people and from its suffering … A new tribe of Jews had grown up in Eretz Yisrael, with qualities of its own but without roots in the history of its people, alien to the instinctive Jewish feeling that all Jews are responsible for one another.’ ”
Berl blamed himself as much as anyone else, Shapira says. He felt toward the end of his life that the classic Zionist doctrine of shlilat hagolah [deprecating the Diaspora], which originally meant negating the old-style modes of the Jewish life in the Diaspora, had come to mean, among some of the teachers and their pupils in Palestine, a negation of the Jewish people who lived in the Diaspora.
SHIMON PERES: Yes, I heard that sort of thing from Berl. But Berl was very critical; he educated by means of criticism. Berl was a teacher, whereas Ben-Gurion was a leader. You can’t compare the two.
DAVID LANDAU: But wasn’t he being critical of Ben-Gurion? Reading Shapira, the impression is that Berl felt Ben-Gurion and the whole leadership echelon were repressing, in the psychological sense, what was happening in Europe. There’s the famous scene that she describes, when they’re taking leave of the parachutists,* and each one defines the mission as he sees it. Eliahu Golomb† says, “Teach the Jews to fight.” Ben-Gurion says, “Teach the Jews that Eretz Yisrael is their country and their fortress.” Berl says, “Save Jews. All the rest is for later. If there are no Jews left, Eretz Yisrael and the Zionist homeland will not survive, either.”
SHIMON PERES: That doesn’t surprise me. But it doesn’t contradict the other things I’ve said. Berl’s most important article was Bizchut Hamevucha Uvignut Hatiyach [In Support of Confusion and Against Cover-up]. He preferred complexity to synthesis. He believed in constructive criticism. He wasn’t criticizing the youth in the quotes you read; he was criticizing their ignorance. He held a famous monthlong seminar at Ben-Shemen in 1940 for selected youngsters from around the country and another in Haifa in 1944, shortly before his death. He wanted to educate them. Ben-Gurion supported that. But both of them opposed the Golah and galutiyut—the Diaspora as a condition and Diasporic behavior as a mind-set. Shlilat hagolah didn’t mean, for Ben-Gurion, turning his back on the Jews of the Diaspora. He wanted to save the Jews. He didn’t hate the Golah; he hated galutiyut. He saw galutiyut as a proclivity to compromise, to bend with the winds of fate. He felt the Golah had eroded the values of the Jewish people, that they’d become too supple and supine. He hated concepts like Hashem yerachem and Dina demalchuta dina.‡
DAVID LANDAU: In a book of conversations with you* that came out more than a decade ago, you make an incredibly arresting—if not shocking—statement about the victims of the Holocaust: “We disagreed with the way they were living, so we disagreed with the way they were dying.”
SHIMON PERES: I regret that choice of words. What I really wanted to express was how deeply I resented the way they were murdered—because we didn’t have a state to save them. The image of Jews being taken like sheep to the slaughter has haunted me all my life. The words I used didn’t bring out the depth and the starkness of what I wanted to say. But let’s go back to my question: What could Ben-Gurion do?
DAVID LANDAU: You say “do,” and I say “speak.”
SHIMON PERES: Ben-Gurion’s most famous aphorism was “It’s not important what the goyim say; what’s important is what the Jews do.” Declarations for their own sake seemed pointless to him. For Ben-Gurion, words were for arguments, for debating. Most of his speeches were polemical, to persuade people. But Ben-Gurion knew there is a limit to the effectiveness of words. They have power, as weapons of confrontation, but not as a substitute for policy. Words are not policy. His entire story was a story of action, what was later called, half mockingly, “another goat and another dunam.” Goats and dunams, not words and phrases.
DAVID LANDAU: The speech he gave in 1934, laying out the terrible future like a prophecy—
SHIMON PERES: He laid out all of it.
DAVID LANDAU: And yet from then on, he virtually fell silent.
SHIMON PERES: What could he have done?
DAVID LANDAU: He could have raised the heavens. Shouted. The Zionist movement, with all its weakness, was the most united and best-organized group in the American Jewish community. Ben-Gurion spent many months in America during the war. But instead of channeling this strength into getting the U.S. government and the Allies to rescue Jews, he focused entirely on Zionist diplomacy.
SHIMON PERES: The Americans entered the war relatively late. Roosevelt’s actively pro-British policy—Lend-Lease, etc.—was not all that popular. There was strong isolationist opinion. The Jews couldn’t come out against Roosevelt because the priority was to smash Hitler. The situation was full of contradictions.
DAVID LANDAU: The critics’ contention is that the entire focus of the Zionist movement, even after 1942, after the facts were known, was to promote the Jewish state—
SHIMON PERES: No, also to promote the war effort. The effort was to defeat Hitler. Don’t forget that. Roosevelt needed support. The Jews wanted him to help Britain finish off Hitler. The way to overcome Hitler was to defeat him, and so to save the Jews. Defeating Hitler was the aim, and everyone was mobilized for this effort. This was the supreme policy.
DAVID LANDAU: There were Jews in America, albeit not accepted by the Jewish or Zionist establishment, who believed that it was possible both to support the war effort and to urge the administration and the Congress to invest in rescue.
SHIMON PERES: The Bergsonites. What did they achieve? Nothing. Getting a Jewish state was by no means to be taken for granted.
DAVID LANDAU: But it wasn’t the immediate goal—
SHIMON PERES: That was our only chance of saving Jews.
DAVID LANDAU: That’s the nub of the argument.
SHIMON PERES: I don’t think so. And I repeat: We did not have the full picture. The gas chambers, the extent of the murder.
DAVID LANDAU: You didn’t have the full picture. But Ben-Gurion knew very well, in detail, what was happening.
SHIMON PERES: When?
DAVID LANDAU: From November 1942. The U.S. State Department withheld the information during the summer of 1942, until it all burst forth. There was even a day of national mourning in the Yishuv.
SHIMON PERES: Yes, but nevertheless there was still no real conception of what was happening. There were fragmentary items of information, not clear, not collated. The extent of the disaster became clear to us only after the war ended. Our minds were not conditioned to comprehend such a thing. It was unprecedented. There was nothing to compare it to. We were not capable psychologically or intellectually of imagining such a thing. What Hitler imagined, we could not imagine. That is why we did not comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust. That’s my opinion.
DAVID LANDAU: The critics would say that you too were the victim of the deliberate policy of the Jewish Agency, headed by Ben-Gurion, to lower the profile of the available information.
SHIMON PERES: Why would he do that?
DAVID LANDAU: I don’t know.
SHIMON PERES: It doesn’t make sense. A number of refugees arrived during the war and told their accounts, and we were shocked to the depths of our being. We had no idea.
DAVID LANDAU: Yes. You had no idea. But Ben-Gurion and Sharett did have. When you learned years later about Rudolf Kastner,* didn’t you think the leadership of the Yishuv could have acted with more energy and a greater sense of urgency to stir public opinion in the United States? In effect, there was collaboration between the Yishuv and the British to close the gates to Hungarian Jewry. The British incarcerated Joel Brand* and suppressed the information—
SHIMON PERES: Don’t forget there was heavy censorship. They wouldn’t even permit publication of Churchill’s illness. Nothing. There was no atmosphere of free protest. And don’t forget that until Alamein there was a real danger that Rommel would sweep through the entire Middle East, Palestine included. Everything was subordinated to defeating Hitler. And there was no room for any other voice. Anyway I don’t much believe in voices. If you would have raised your voice, what would you have had the Americans do?
DAVID LANDAU: If the United States had set up the War Refugee Board† at an earlier stage, perhaps they could have—
SHIMON PERES: Yes, but again, their whole mind-set was given over to their two wars: against Japan and against Germany and Italy. In peacetime it’s hard to imagine and hard to judge what it was like in wartime. Today you can shout. Then, there was no shouting. Then, everything was subordinated to one thing only: winning the war. The censorship would not permit anything else. True, Ben-Gurion spent a long time in America. He wanted us to emerge at least with a state from this thing. In Washington they were against a Jewish state—in particular, James Forrestal and Dean Acheson.‡
DAVID LANDAU: But why are you preoccupied with the Jewish state in 1944 and 1945, while the potential citizens of this Jewish state are being slaughtered? Neutral states around the Reich could have been pressured—
SHIMON PERES: Forget about the neutrals. They were totally cynical. Ben-Gurion didn’t give up hope of rescue; he just didn’t see how it would be possible to save these people. Shouting wouldn’t have helped. I still think, today, that shouting would not have helped.
DAVID LANDAU: Even regarding Hungarian Jewry in 1944? Half a million Hungarian Jews were killed.
SHIMON PERES: I know. But I say to you again, during the war there was only one consideration—and that was Churchill’s directive—to win! All other considerations were subordinate. They didn’t even want to bomb the rail line to Auschwitz—
DAVID LANDAU: On the grounds that anything that diverts from the war effort—
SHIMON PERES: Yes.
DAVID LANDAU: You are not supposed to accept that.
SHIMON PERES: So I don’t accept it! So what? The fact that I don’t accept it doesn’t change the reality!! I’m not the supreme commander of the Allied forces. They were guided solely by what was required by the war effort; no other consideration.
DAVID LANDAU: But you had the power to influence them.
SHIMON PERES: At that time we didn’t have the power to influence anyone. And if we did, our power of influence was to hit Hitler, time and time again. To destroy him. Our power, such as it was, was to strengthen the coalition to defeat Hitler. That would have saved the Jews more than everything else. If Hitler had been defeated earlier, many lives would have been saved. That was the focus.
DAVID LANDAU: That would be an overwhelming argument were it not for the fact that Ben-Gurion devoted so much effort to persuading the U.S. Congress to endorse, in effect, the Biltmore Program. Why was he, why was the Zionist Organization, devoting their time and effort to getting the Congress to adopt the goal of setting up a Jewish state after the war? For that they had power and influence?
SHIMON PERES: No, not for that, either! It was touch-and-go right to the end. Truman decided at the last moment. He wasn’t in favor of a Jewish state until the last moment. We had to try to ensure that it came about. I do not accept this allegation against Ben-Gurion of cynicism, not in the slightest degree. The man was not cynical. He felt that these were the priorities, and they were immutable at the time, and that was that.
* Trial and Error (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949).
* Moshe Sharett (originally Shertok, 1894-1965) was head of the Jewish Agency’s political department (1933-48), Israel’s foreign minister (1948-56), and prime minister between Ben-Gurion’s two terms in office (1953-55).
* Emir Abdullah of Transjordan was the only Arab leader who welcomed the plan.
* These terms were commuted later, and the whole group was released in February 1941. Among them was Moshe Dayan.
* For the text, see the footnote on this page.
* Katznelson died in August 1944.
* Twenty-six young Jewish Palestinians, all of European origin, volunteered to parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe to help Jews there. The British selected them from a pool of 250 volunteers assembled by the Yishuv. Trained during 1943, they were eventually dropped into Hungary and other occupied countries. Fourteen of them managed to link up with local partisans; twelve were captured, and seven of those twelve were executed, among them the young poet Hannah Senesh.
* Shimon Peres and Robert Little, For the Future of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
* Kastner was a Zionist leader in Hungary during the war who worked out a deal to rescue 1,684 Jews who would otherwise have been deported to Auschwitz. He was later accused of having collaborated with the Nazis. An Israeli judge, in a libel action brought by the Israeli government and Kastner in 1955, excoriated him for “selling his soul to the devil.” Kastner was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957. He was vindicated posthumously in an appeal to the Supreme Court in 1958.
* Brand was an aide to Kastner, sent by the Nazis from occupied Hungary to offer the Allies a “blood for trucks” deal.
† The left-wing Hashomer Hatzair favored a binational Jewish-Arab state.
† Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist: Berl Katznelson, 1887-1944 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
† Golomb was the head of the Haganah. He died in 1945, at the age of fifty-two.
† Established by President Roosevelt in January 1944, this U.S. government agency was designed to aid civilian victims of the Nazis. It was created largely through the efforts of Roosevelt’s treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Roosevelt stressed that it was urgent “that action be taken at once to forestall the plan of the Nazis to exterminate all the Jews and other persecuted minorities in Europe.”
‡ Hashem yerachem means literally “God will have mercy.” It was the quintessence of Diasporic Jewish fatalism, in Ben-Gurion’s view. Dina demalchuta dina means literally “The law of the land is the law,” signifying, in Ben-Gurion’s view, a spineless readiness to accede to Gentile demands.
‡ Forrestal served as secretary of the navy (1944-47) and secretary of defense (1947-49). Acheson served as assistant secretary of state under Roosevelt and secretary of state under Truman.