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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

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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