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David Ben-Gurion, One Woke Dude

Israel’s Founding Father chastised his colleagues for using language he perceived as disrespectful to women. In 1953.

Liel Leibovitz
August 03, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
David Ben-Gurion and Eleanor Roosevelt in Israel, February 1962Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
David Ben-Gurion and Eleanor Roosevelt in Israel, February 1962Wikimedia Commons

In May of 1953, five years after Israel declared itself into independence and fought a bitter war for its survival, the nation’s leadership was finally ready to address the real burning issue of the day: tax deductions. Policies were considered, bills drafted, and when the Ministry of Finance was finally content, it submitted its proposals to the boss, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Founding Father.

Ben-Gurion, however, wasn’t interested in the tax code. It was the bill’s language the captured his attention. It used deeply gendered terminology that the Old Man felt belittled women. And he would have none of that.

“Section Four,” Ben-Gurion wrote his colleagues in a memo that recently resurfaced and is being widely shared on social media in Israel, “says ‘husband/wife,’ and in my opinion it should say ‘my man/my woman.”

That, Ben-Gurion explained, is because the Hebrew word for husband, Ba’al, also means master or owner, and as such suggests slavery as well as evokes the Pagan God of the same name, frequently mentioned in the Bible. “The word Ba’al,” Ben-Gurion wrote, “connotes imperiousness and idolatry, neither of which are befitting of the honor of women, who are completely equal in their rights to men.” Instead of the offensive terms, Ben-Gurion suggested, the government ought to take a page out of the prophet Hosea’s book: “And it shall be at that day, saith the Lord,” Ben-Gurion quoted Chapter 2, Verse 16, “that thou shalt call me Ishi“—meaning, literally, my man—”and shalt call me no more Baali.”

And because Ben-Gurion, master coalition-builder, knew how to be an ally, he CC’ed Knesset member Ada Maimon—a descendant of Maimonides who was an early feminist pioneer in Israeli politics and the founder of an innovative women’s only agricultural school—on his memo.

His proposal was sadly ignored, but its spirit lives on. Here’s Ben-Gurion’s woke memo:

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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