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October 17, 1986 - Image 76

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-10-17

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Oct. 16 marked
the centennial
of the birth of
Israel's first
prime minister,


Staff Writer

Reflections On A Gibor

hen David Ben-
Gurion proclaimed
the independence of
the State of Israel on
May 14, 1948, he
had already been leader of the
Yishuv, the Jewish .community in
Palestine, for 13 years; had headed
the Labor Zionist movement in
Palestine for 18 years; and repre-
sented the community's trade union
movement for 28 years. At age 61,
Ben-Gurion did not step into the
office of prime minister of the pro-
visional government of Israel from a
vacuum. Ben-Gurion was the boss.
He was born David Green on
Oct. 16, 1886 in the Russian-Polish
town of Plonsk. He was the son of- a
legal adviser, Hebraist and ardent
Zionist. Young David came to Pales-
tine — then a neglected backwater
province of the Ottoman Empire
in 1906, where he changed his name
to "Ben-Gurion," son of a lion.
Ben-Gurion was a gibor. The
word means "hero," but connotes
someone who overcomes obstacles or
odds. Ben-Gurion overcame both in
his drive to create and mold the
Jewish state.

He became secretary-general of
the Histadrut, the General Federa-
tion of Labor, in 1920. He was a
founder of the Jewish Agency and
became chairman of its executive in
1935. He was instrumental in estab-
lishing Mapai, the Worker's Party of,
Eretz Yisrael, now the Labor Party.
Prime minister for all but two of the
state's first fifteen years, Ben-Gurion
established the primacy of a haw-
kish defense ministry over the
foreign office, relegating that
portfolio, and diplomacy in general
to doves like Moshe Sharett and
Abba Eban.

Indeed, Ben-Gurion's successes
are Israel's great achievements; his
failures plague the Jewish state and
its society to this day. Interestingly,
his party and his successors are
blamed for his mistakes, not he.
A man of deep ideological be-
liefs, Ben-Gurion shaped Israel with
pragmatic hands. "Stateism" became
his credo after 1948, allowing the
needs of the state and people of Is-
rael to supercede the needs of party,
class or world Jewish considerations.
This pragmatism led him to
perpetuate Israel's religious status

quo, which grants disproportionate
political influence to Israel's Or
thodox minority. Pragmatism also
led to the creation of Israel Bonds
and other fund-raising apparatus,
which provided the state with badly
needed funds, but also in-
stitutionalized "Checkbook Zionism"
as a way for Diaspora Jews to sup-
port Israel without actually having
to participate in the heavy work of
Zionism by living in Israel. Aliyah
was surely closer to his heart. One
story has B-G asking an American
Jewish macher:
"So, when are you making
"I .
I have to stay in
America," the flustered American
answered, to work on behalf of Is-
"I would prefer," the prime
minister responded, that instead,
you move to Israel and work on be-
half of America."
Ben-Gurion's appearance was
distinctive: his short, round body
was capped by a bald pate, fringed
by that shock of white hair, standing
on its end as if charged with static


s ' •
' V



The man himself seemed pos-
sessed by a particular kind of
energy. A voracious reader, he was a
self-taught scholar with a fondness
for Buddhist philosophy, who
learned Spanish in order to read
Cervantes and ancient Greek in
order to read the Greek classics.
On one occasion he was frus-
trated to find that his Athens cab
driver did not understand the
classical Greek Ben-Gurion was
speaking, while at the east end of
the Mediterranean a whole nation
was speaking the language of the
Ben-Gurion was a prodigious
note taker. His journals reveal min-
utes of meetings taken in painful de-
tail. In them, Ben-Gurion always re-
fers to himself in the third person.
When meeting with someone,
Ben-Gurion would immediately
begin to take notes. One found him-
self speaking to the top of Ben-
Gurion's head. When B-G stopped
writing, you knew the audience was
The sabra, the native-born Is-
raeli, was created in Ben-Gurion's

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