In September 1940, David Ben-Gurion undertook a hazardous voyage across the Atlantic on board the requisitioned Cunard cruiseliner, the Scythia, arriving in New York just before Yom Kippur. He had been in London since early May and observed first-hand the fall of France, the Battle of Britain and death and destruction during the Blitz.
He was extremely pained to hear that German jackboots were marching just across the Channel and to view the famous photograph of Hitler by the Eiffel Tower.
Yet he stood in awe at the sight of small ships evacuating Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.
In August he attended a reception at the Anglo-Palestinian Club in London’s Windmill Street for those members of the Palestinian Company of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps who had escaped Hitler’s forces.
Above all, he was astounded at the resilience of the British at this time of national peril and, if necessary, to stand alone against the Nazi plague.
He wrote to his long suffering wife, Paula: “I am dumbfounded by the levelheadedness and inner confidence of this wonderful nation. It is as if nothing can shock it and nothing undermines its faith and confidence that victory will come in the end.” Simultaneously he raged against the terrible reality that the Jews were powerless both in the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Palestine) and in the diaspora to stop the conquering Nazi armies.
Ben-Gurion was living in the home of Arthur Lourie, a future Israeli ambassador to the UK, in Warrington Crescent in Maida Vale. He refused to take heed of the air-raid sirens that the Luftwaffe were coming and would not enter the bomb shelter.
In his excellent new biography of Ben-Gurion, A State at Any Cost, the Israeli writer, Tom Segev, says that the 54-year-old’s stubbornness was little more than “the insolence of a teenage boy defying death”.
Ben-Gurion saw his trip as an act of solidarity with London, whose citizens were dying in their tens of thousands. It was also an act of resistance. He wrote: “I saw consummate heroism, physical and moral, not of individuals, not of pioneers. but of a nation, of millions of workers, merchants, shopkeepers, office workers… I know of no more majestic and sublime sight in all of history.”
He included the Jews of Whitechapel in that tribute. In Ben-Gurion’s eyes, London became sanctified and he felt “holiness in that place”.
Ben-Gurion was also deeply impressed by the resolve of a determined political leadership to fight on.
When he arrived in Palestine in September 1906, he regarded himself as representing the Zionist wing of the Russian revolutionary movement. Back in Płonsk, he had stored arms in his father’s house, organised opponents and deserted from the Tsar’s army.
However, the Balfour Declaration and the October revolution occurred within days of each other. One represented particularism and the desire for a state of the Jews, the other universalism and the imperative to repair the world. Both could be located within Jewish tradition.
These two seminal events in 1917 indicated different pathways for the 20th century Jew. Ben-Gurion chose the path of Zionism and opposed the Communists who preached assimilation for the Jews. Yet he was a great admirer of Lenin and was fascinated by the figure of Leon Trotsky, the son of a Jewish farmer.
Ben-Gurion regarded Lenin as setting the template for the Zionist revolutionary, “a man of iron will who will neither spare human life nor the blood of innocent babes for the sake of the revolution.”
Admirers of Ben-Gurion such as Shimon Peres and Arik Sharon later depicted him as someone who clearly understood the reality of a Hebrew republic in a hostile neighbourhood, someone who did not fear changing his stand at a moment’s notice — this was the legacy of Leninist expediency.
When Lenin died in 1924, Ben-Gurion gave a public eulogy for him. When Mapai, the forerunner of the Israeli Labour party, was formed in 1930, Ben-Gurion and its founders sang the Internationale.
He was ruthless, idiosyncratic and driven. In her recent biography of Ben-Gurion, the Israeli historian, Anita Shapira, regarded him as a latter-day Jacobin, a disciple of the French revolutionary tradition. Isser Harel, the first head of both the Shin Bet and the Mossad, described Ben-Gurion and the founding generation as non-Communist Bolsheviks.
For Ben-Gurion, socialism was not only an end, “but also the means through which Zionism will be realised”.
In 1948, the Zionist left formed the pro-Soviet Mapam party which lauded Stalin and translated his selective writings into Hebrew. In the first Israeli government in 1949, Ben-Gurion significantly preferred to go into coalition with the anti-Zionist Charedi party, Agudat Yisrael, than with Mapam.
Ben-Gurion throughout his life provoked admiration and antagonism. Both Tom Segev and Anita Shapira have suggested that he was not particularly liked by his colleagues. One offended friend described him as a Jewish Savonarola — a puritan prophet and demagogue. He fell out with many, including Moshe Sharett and Chaim Weizmann.
Yet when he met his ideological opponent, Vladimir Jabotinsky, at secret meetings in Hodford Road in Golders Green in 1934, he liked him and even came to an agreement with him.
Even so, Ben-Gurion was not averse to later describing Jabotinsky’s followers as “a Jewish Nazi party”.
When the British executed Shlomo Ben-Yosef, one of Jabotinsky’s followers, in 1938, he commented: “I am not shocked by the hanging of a Jew in the Land of Israel. I am ashamed of the act that led to the hanging.”
He ordered the removal of the black flag flying on top of the Histadrut building. Yet he spoke at a memorial meeting for Jabotinsky in the Finchley Road in August 1940.
Ben-Gurion often went to Speakers’ Corner at the height of the Blitz to hear different opinions — some advocating appeasement of Hitler — and marvelled at this display of democracy as the bombs were falling and when invasion was no idle threat. Moreover, there was no prorogation of Parliament.
Churchill the arch-capitalist, like Lenin the Bolshevik, was lauded by Ben-Gurion. He listened to Churchill’s inspiring rhetoric and even went to the extent of copying parts of his speeches into his diary. Ben-Gurion compared the singlemindedness of the British to the unity of family loyalty. For Ben-Gurion, Churchill was “in the eyes of the English nation, not just a leader, but the family’s father, beloved and venerated”.
Churchill’s leadership in 1940 was the exemplar for Ben-Gurion’s conduct during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
In re-establishing a Jewish commonwealth, Ben-Gurion regarded his political direction as being one and the same as the national interest. The nation came before the individual — and he personified the nation. As Israel grew to maturity, such an identification weakened. In 1969, on the eve of his retirement, Ben-Gurion was left with a rump of only four Knesset members -– loyal to the end.
Ben-Gurion was a man of his times whom fate called upon to bring the downtrodden and discriminated Jewish people in from the margins to the centre. As Segev astutely remarks: “Every citizen was a soldier in the service of history and Ben-Gurion was history’s commander.”
Jewish Chronicle 3 October 2019