Ben-Gurion repeatedly faced down crises by fearlessly rejecting retreat and useless compromise. Obama would do well to follow his model.
Now an international airport and a university, as well as any number of boulevards in Israeli cities and towns, David Ben-Gurion—the man—was born in Płońsk, the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1886. When he read Israel’s declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, thereby inaugurating the first government of the first Jewish state in two millennia, he was already 62. In the years since, some 150 new states have been established. Most of these were the gift of colonial powers that handed them over to their new rulers as complete packages with everything ready from internationally recognized borders to a ministry of finance and a prison service. That was true of the post-Soviet states as well, except for the democratic bits, which their rulers mostly ignore anyway.
It was entirely different for Ben-Gurion. The state he led from its birth until 1963, with a fateful gap in 1954 and 1955, had to be created from the ground up, and he had to do much of the creating. The British left abruptly without any organized handover, evacuating their camps and abandoning their offices after taking away all removable equipment. To find clerks and office furniture was nowhere near as hard as finding weapons for an army, air force, and navy—and double-quick because Arab armies were already advancing. Stringent British and U.S. embargoes in the name of peace (with the already equipped Arab armies, including the British-officered Arab Legion left unmentioned) were meant to ensure the expected outcome. But even that near-insurmountable challenge was overcome under Ben-Gurion’s leadership by a variegated cast of unlikely characters that briefly included Josef Stalin (to hurt the British), the irrepressible Hank Greenspun of Las Vegas, the frighteningly smart secret agent Ehud Avriel, a British gentile RAF pilot who could fly any transport any distance, and others worthy of full-scale biographies.
Yet the greatest obstacle to the creation of the Jewish state were the Jews, or rather the Zionist leaders themselves. For all their talents, many were so conditioned by deeply rooted mental habits of dependence that they simply did not understand the absolute imperative of possessing state power. Some, including the religious, could not bring themselves to accept its inevitable military aspect. Guns were for Cossacks, not Jews—an attitude, or mere pose, that long lingered and indeed lingers still in benighted recesses, such as the editorial office of the New York Review of Books.
As late as the Zionist Congress of 1946, held in Basel in the immediate aftermath of the most terrible demonstration of the ultimate survival risk of statelessness, Ben-Gurion met strong resistance when he pressed for a maximum effort to secure an independent state in Palestine. He was the leading Labor party politician, head of the World Zionist Organization, and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which actually built settlements and funded most Jewish institutions, including the Haganah militia. But in Basel, where everything had to be done democratically, the immensely prestigious Chaim Weizmann, who valued his easy access to the halls of the mighty in Britain as elsewhere, preferred continued British control, even as the British continued to block Jewish immigration into Palestine (nobody was impeding the many Arab migrants). As for the very strong Marxist contingent, newly reinforced by the reflected glory of the victorious Red Army, with its powerful kibbutz movement, and the coolest youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, ennobled by leading the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it wanted an indefinite U.N. mandate over the whole of Palestine to pursue the binationalism that some still long for. Then there were the non-socialist Zionists, many of whom much preferred caution to action. Outside the Congress, Menachem Begin’s Revisionists were very eager for a state, but only over the whole of Palestine, a non-starter.
Shimon Peres’ new Nextbook Press biography of Ben-Gurion earns its price in its very first pages by describing what happened next in Basel. Though there are much fuller accounts, Peres was actually there as head of the Labor party’s youth wing and as Ben-Gurion’s aide, and he saw it all at closest range. For Ben-Gurion, there was but one way of reconciling his utter certainty that the Jews needed a state with the widespread opposition he was encountering at the Congress.
Peres recounts that Ben-Gurion’s formidable wife Paula suddenly rushed down into the basement where the Labor caucus was meeting to tell a startled delegate that her husband had gone mad (“meshugge gevoren”). Instead of settling for a weasel-worded resolution, Ben-Gurion announced he was packing his bags and leaving Basel to start forming a new Zionist organization that would pursue independent statehood unhesitatingly. Faced with that, his many opponents among the Basel delegates dropped their objections and started working to make it happen.
For a true leader in a great crisis, the whole world is but a very narrow bridge, and the only important thing is not to be afraid, to reject ignominious retreat and useless face-saving compromises alike. When Ben-Gurion came to the narrow bridge at Basel, it was only his supremely courageous resolve to abandon the Congress and start all over again that won the day.
Ronald Reagan came to his narrow bridge at the very outset of his presidency. European leaders, his own secretary of State, academia, and the quality press were all telling him that in the nuclear age there was no alternative to coexistence with the USSR, hence it was imperative to resume talks leading to a summit meeting with Brezhnev. Having campaigned against détente, Reagan was being told to resume it—and quickly. Ignoring the establishment, Reagan flatly refused, embarking instead on a tenacious campaign to delegitimize the Soviet Union. His “evil empire” speech that must now be judged prophetic was universally ridiculed at the time.
Egypt captured Israeli-American Ilan Grapel to generate popular support among the volatile anti-Western middle class at home