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David Ben-Gurion: prophet in the wilderness

A 1955 archive profile of the founder and first prime minister of Israel, shortly after his return to power. 

"Trees shall grow here": Ben-Gurion, pictured in December 1953, after he first stepped down as Israeli prime minister and moved to a settlement in the desert

 

This unsigned article was first published in the New Statesman and Nation of 10 December 1955.

When David Ben-Gurion abdicated the premiership of Israel to retire to a hermitage in the biblical wilderness of the Negev, the people who saw him drive off into the desert were in tears.

“Do not weep!” he commanded. “Follow!”

Some said that his gesture in 1953 was just showmanship; others said that it was intended to make the conflicting elements within his cabinet realise that he was indispensable; others, that it was his disgust at having to sacrifice so many of his Socialist principles to win the dollars of American Jewry; others, that it was his never-ending quarrels with the Orthodox Jews; it was also said that his retirement was a reproach to the rich “squatters” who preferred the easier life of the cities to the hard work of building Zion; or to the kibbutzim, which had become selfish in success; and to the youth of Israel in danger of becoming “Levantinised”.

All of them, in a measure, were right. It was a gesture of disgust and challenge. That it was only a gesture has been shown by his return to power, to head a government in which the elements of dissension still remain. But in that gesture is a clue to the character of Ben-Gurion—the hard-boiled mystic, the modern Maccabean.

Typically, he chose Sde Boker—“The Field of the Cattlemen” in the bad lands of the Negev, where marauders ferrying between Egypt and Jordan across the dusty desert set life at hazard. It was a non-political, non-religious kibbutz of young people, dedicated to recovering the desert by modern means. There, he and Paula, his wife, had their hut, indistinguishable from the other ply-board huts, except that it had an addition—a room for his books. The books provided another clue to this contradictory man—a man who lived within gunshot of Israel’s enemies and who built himself a sanctuary behind books; books of the ancient philosophers, Greek, Roman and Hebrew; books which had drawn him from Israel, even in its perilous days, so that he might browse, incognito, in the Charing Cross Road bookshops of London; books which were certainly not the nursery books of an infant state.

Ben-Gurion was born David Green, 69 years ago, son of Avigdor Green, unlicensed lawyer in the Polish town of Plonsk. An eleven-year-old boy, Chaim Weizmann, was then living in Pinsk, 200 miles away. Historians may argue, with less acrimony than Jewry now does, which of those two children of the Pale created Israel; they may decide that, while Weizmann was the architect, Ben-Gurion was the builder. At 19 David migrated to Palestine, a zealot for Zionism, trade unionism and Socialism.

He became a farm-labourer and, immediately, a leader of the Workers-of-Zion. He was a Socialist, fighting the charity-subsidised Jewish farmers who preferred to employ cheap Arab labour rather than the zealots of their own faith. The scars of the experience permanently affected the character of the later Ben-Gurion. He never lost his resentment of the “rich squatters” (as he has called them) who want to make Israel a middle-class Zion. Like the settlers at Sde Boker today, the colonists of Sejera, where the young David worked at the plough, kept their guns within reach among the hostile Arabs. For 50 years, Ben-Gurion has lived as the resented intruder.

His is a turbulent story. First the ploughman who went to Constantinople to study Turkish law, that he might outwit the pashas and the effendis and win a foothold in Zion from the Turks. Then the corporal in the British army in the first world war, fighting for the promises Weizmann had won in the Balfour Declaration. Then the builder of Histraduth, the trade union movement of Israel, which he not only made the backbone of a political party (now the Mapai) but turned into a contracting co-operative to build and run factories and compete with private employers who resisted trade unionism. Then as a reluctant conscript to the councils of world Jewry—reluctant because he felt his place was in Palestine and because he resented the attitude of those Jews of the Diaspora, who, only part-assimilated, seemed to regard Zionism as a movement to send others to Palestine.

On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel came into being. At midnight, the Mandate was to come to an end but at dusk it would be the Sabbath and Ben-Gurion could not wait. At five o’clock in the morning, while he was broadcasting from what, the day before, had been an illegal broadcasting station, Egyptian Spitfires bombed Tel Aviv and the new state was at war. That it survived that war, with a circle of enemies around it and dissensions within it, was due to the man who was its self-appointed leader who, with battles raging round him, had to learn the elements of war. He was himself Israel’s GHQ; by artifice and the strength of his personality he directed Israel’s forces. They included Haganah, the more or less disciplined force, Palmach, the shock troops of the left-wing faction, Irgun, the extremists and the Stern Gang. In what seemed a miraculous triumph, Old Testament Israel was reborn.

During the United Nations’ truce, Ben-Gurion showed his relentless strength. Irgun tried to bring in a munitions ship, the Altalena, in defiance of the truce conditions. Ben-Gurion reasoned with them and they defied his authority. When the ship appeared off Tel Aviv, it ignored the signals of the Haganah batteries, which obeyed Ben-Gurion’s instructions and fired. The ship burst into flames. In those flames were destroyed, according to Irgun, four million rounds of ammunition, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 grenades, 300 Bren guns, 400 aerial bombs, nine tanks and 50 anti-tank guns—munitions desperately needed for the war that was to be resumed. But Ben-Gurion kept the truce, and he suppressed Irgun—except in Jerusalem, where it was to strike again and defile the infant state with the assassination of Count Bernadotte, the UN mediator.

When the war was resumed, and ended, Ben-Gurion was head of a state, which the powers had to recognise and the United Nations had to accept in membership. It was not the state which the United Nations had proposed in its plans for partition and which many Israelis have since realised would have been more manageable. If it had not been for Ben-Gurion’s obsession with the Negev, the Jewish armies might have cleared the hills of Samaria and removed that bulge which nearly divides Israel. Instead he insisted on pushing his columns south across the empty desert to the Gulf of Akaba, to conquer a desert which never figured in pre-Israel maps of Palestine.

Ben-Gurion believes that that desert contains mineral wealth for Israel and that it can be made to “blossom as the rose”. To prove that he is right, money has been poured into the Negev, which some say would have been better spent elsewhere. When, standing in the empty desolation around Sde Boker, he stamps his foot in the thirsty dust and, like an Old Testament prophet, proclaims, “Trees shall grow here,” he means it.

Such a man can be intolerant and hard in his relations with others. His relations with Chaim Weizmann were never generous. They could not understand each other. Weizmann, patiently wrestling with statesmen, believing in gradualness and diplomacy, was ready to accept the National Home under tutelage of the British Empire; Ben-Gurion, the man who had ploughed with his rifle by his side, was ready to grasp the independent state in defiance not only of the Arabs, but of the whole world. When Weizmann, acknowledged successor to Theodor Herzl as leader of world Zionism, was made president of the new state, Ben-Gurion insisted: “All honour but no power.” Ben-Gurion avoided a written constitution to prevent the spelling out of the religious sanctions of Orthodoxy. The first president bitterly resented the by-passing of his authority and the reconciliation came only when he was dying.

Ben-Gurion, with his life in danger from thrombosis, is back in power at a perilous moment in the brief history of the state of Israel. He is the man of destiny. Once again he is beset by threat of war by the Arab states. This country now contains a million more Jews than when it was attacked before. They have been brought from the four corners of the earth: Oriental Jews now outnumber the Occidental Jews. He wanted to fill the country, but he hoped that the existence of the state of Israel would attract the great men of Jewry—administrators, scientists and the like—but he has been disappointed. Even Einstein, whom he admired above all living Jews, rejected his invitation to become Weizmann’s successor as president, and lesser great men have given him and his state their blessings but not their services.

This unbalance, which Ben-Gurion had not foreseen, is a critical factor. Before he has assimilated these Jews, with 47 different languages, before he has adequately trained and merged the young, there is danger of war. But, he knows that there are also dangers of peace. It is the continuing threat to the infant state which makes world Jewry dip deeply and keeps the very different elements of Jewry together. And it keeps them from becoming “Levantinised”, which is Ben-Gurion’s word for his nightmare—his people becoming like their neighbours. 

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.