Ben Gurion Uncensored: The 'Old Man' We Never Knew

50 years his retirement Israel's first Prime Minister, it is worth returning to the Encyclopaedia Hebraica's entry on Ben-Gurion, written by Yeshayahu Leibowitz - especially to the parts that were originally censored about the Dimona nuclear reactor, his style of leadership and questions of Jewish identity.

Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn

Fifty years ago today David Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister and defense minister, and freed the state he established from the yoke of its founding father.

His resignation surprised his fellow cabinet members and the public, and the historians are divided to this day on his reasons: political infighting at the top echelons of Mapai (Workers' Party of the Land of Israel), American pressure against the Dimona nuclear reactor, or simply because the "Old Man" was tired and fed up with fighting.

The State Archives recently released a series of documents on the dramatic stepping down from the stage of the premier actor. The most surprising document is a letter from Ben-Gurion's successor as prime minister, Levi Eshkol, to his love Dalia Carmel, in which he confesses his fears of taking power, complains of the security guards and aides surrounding him, and regrets his late wife Elisheva could not share this moment with him.

Only very few today remember Ben-Gurion as an active and controversial politician. As the years passed, his public image as the greatest leader of his generation and the father of the country has been set in stone. His legacy has become accepted by all, and the criticism of Ben-Gurion has blurred, until it disappeared entirely. So it is interesting to return to the things written about him close to the time of his resignation, and especially in the bible of non-religious Israel: the Encyclopaedia Hebraica.

The prophet of doom sums up Ben-Gurion

The entry on "Ben-Gurion, David" (in Hebrew) in the volume of addenda - that updated the original volumes that had already been published - was written by the encyclopedia's editor in chief at that time, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. This volume appeared in 1966, before the Six-Day War and the occupation, and Leibowitz's revelation as the prophet of doom and greatest copywriter of the Israeli left. In those days, before "Judeo-Nazism and "Disco-Kotel," Zvi Elgat described Leibowitz in an interview in Maariv as "dynamite in an academic cloak. A protruding chin, very short mustache, silver hair, brown eyes underneath thick eyebrows and the willingness to express his opinions without any embellishment."

Leibowitz wrote the entry on Ben-Gurion in "two evenings," in his own words; and took advantage of the forum at his call to fiercely criticize the leader who he described as almost a dictator: "Up until the outbreak of the '[Lavon] Affair,' at the beginning of the 1960s, he ruled his party and the political life in Israel with total control, that even those among his friends who hesitated over his path and methods subjugated their will to his will and accepted his almost sole authority to decide and prevail on matters of defense, and as a result also in foreign affairs; among a broad swath of groups in the nation he won popularity that bordered on veneration," wrote Leibowitz.

Leibowitz presented the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona as political ruses by Ben-Gurion and his "aides" (Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, though Leibowitz never referred to them by name) in order to deceive the politicians and the wider public. "Even though he declared in the Knesset that he had rejected the idea of a preemptive war against Egypt, he conspired, as English and French sources later revealed ... to prepare such a war," wrote Leibowitz.

"In the wake of the military victory and the conquest of the Sinai Peninsula Ben-Gurion changed his defensive justification, which he gave to the Sinai Campaign at its beginning, and announced in the Knesset the cancellation of the Armistice Agreement with Egypt – and along with it the cancellation of the armistice lines ... while raising historical memories. Ben-Gurion announced the expansion of the borders of the State of Israel ("The Third Kingdom of Israel") until the island of Tiran [near Sharm al Sheikh]," he wrote. Twenty four hours later, under American and Soviet pressure, Ben-Gurion reversed himself and pulled back to the old border.

Leibowitz was a fierce opponent of Israel's nuclear program, and headed, along with journalist and politician Eliezer Livneh, The Committee for Denuclearization of the Middle East which they founded at the end of 1960 after the United States revealed the establishment of the Dimona nuclear reactor.

In the encyclopedia entry, Leibowitz focused his criticism regarding the reactor on Ben-Gurion having embarked on the project "without the knowledge of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee or the [Knesset] Finance Committee. These institutions were only told about the project later, after large sums of money were already invested in it. Also, Ben-Gurion and his aides tried to hide the matter from the Israeli public by silencing the press, even after the matters were known overseas and were also published in the newspapers." In describing the factors leading to Ben-Gurion's resignation, Leibowitz also mentioned the increased American pressure "concerning the work in the Dimona reactor."

Today it is hard to imagine criticism in such a mainstream channel - such as the Encyclopaedia Hebraica at its time - on an enterprise such as the "Negev Nuclear Research Center, the Dimona reactor, which was thought of in Israeli public opinion as a "holy temple." It turns out that in the 1960s Israel was more tolerant of opposition views on defense matters than it is in 2013.

The censor takes offense

The powers that be loved the criticism of the angry professor from Jerusalem less, and the military censor intervened in the writing of the encyclopedia entry and made changes in it. It would be interesting to read Leibowitz's original draft to discover what they tried to hide then.  

In an interview with Maariv in March 1967, Leibowitz told of a big argument he conducted with the censor on three entries in the volume of addenda, including his threats to petition the High Court of Justice on the matter. "The censor wanted to delay publication of things that had already been published. The things were published in the newspapers, abroad, in articles, in research studies and in other magazines. I saw that as political censorship and I was ready to [fight] to the end. The censor gave in. We, on our part, agreed to minor changes in the wording," said Leibowitz.

"And there was another thing, much more serious, in which the censor tried to influence us to change the spirit of things. This was of course clear political censorship - the attempt to change events that were not pleasant for the authorities, the state - and maybe for us. But it was clear that it was impossible to ignore them. The censor wanted the author to write his material as if the trustworthiness of the facts was in doubt. I did not agree to that. No censor can set historical facts," said Leibowitz.

The Chief Military Censor in those days, Col. Avner Bar-On (Walter Braun), published a fascinating book of memoires in 1981, "The Stories that Weren't Told - The Diary of the Chief Censor," but he did not mention the censorship of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, in his book. That's a shame.

The vain successes of Israeli politicians are as old as the state

In his description of Ben-Gurion's travels to meetings with Western leaders after the Sinai Campaign, Leibowitz presents the discrepancies between the prime minister's optimistic descriptions of his diplomatic achievements and the accounts and denials of his hosts. It turns out that the vain descriptions of Israeli politicians of their magnificent successes abroad are a long standing tradition, as long as the state has existed.

The most interesting sections that Leibowitz wrote about Ben-Gurion touch on the appreciation of the political philosophy and historical consciousness of the "Old Man." Leibowitz, the man of belief, attacked Ben-Gurion harshly on his denial of religion and its central place in Jewish history.

Ben-Gurion saw the "Reborn State of Israel" as the continuation of the historic Kingdom of Judea and ignored the two thousand years of Jewish existence outside of the Land of Israel. "In his eyes, the significance and the values of the history of the Jewish people derive from the period when they resided in their land and when they achieved political independence, and he connects the War of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel to the war fought by the last soldiers of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period, while minimizing the identity of everything between them: That means the majority of the history of the people of Israel, of its spiritual significance and its religious content and the exilic creativity," he wrote.

Made a mumbo-jumbo of the Bible

The Bible, "which he espouses fervently, and in which he spends a lot of time on and even interprets it in his own way" Ben-Gurion "empties from the foundation the faith and the worship of God, of Torah and the commandments, and its main principle is nothing but the history of the wars of Israel that are in the books of the First Prophets, and the simplistic humanistic universalistic ideas from the words of the Later Prophets." The result was a mumbo-jumbo that sounds good, but lacks true content. "The slogans he liked the most relating to Judaism are the 'prophetic vision' and the 'messianic mission' of the Jewish people – for his country to be 'a light unto to the nations,' without giving any illustration of these terms," wrote Leibowitz.

"Ben-Gurion does not see value or significance, from a Jewish perspective, in Judaism that is not [part of] the reality of the Israeli state," he wrote. "At a relatively advanced age he studied Greek so as to read the writings of Plato in the original; in his old age he started to become interested in Indian culture and Buddhism. On the other hand, we do not know of interest in, or delving into, on his part, the spiritual world of historical Judaism and of its traditional culture."

The ideological and personal criticism of Ben-Gurion entangled Leibowitz much more than his comments on the Sinai Campaign or the Dimona nuclear reactor. The publishers of the Encyclopaedia forced him to erase a number of sentences, and as Zvi Elgat wrote in Maariv: "It turns out that despite that the brilliant professor is not among those willing to accept censorship, he gave in this time to the request of the encyclopedia's management and made 'cosmetic treatments' to some 300 lines of the entry."

What was considered in 1966 to be illegitimate criticism of the founder of the state? Sentences such as "Those character traits that became apparent in him is his old age in a growing fashion: His view of himself as personifying the trends and values of the people and the country." They left Leibowitz such sentences as "Ben-Gurion preserved [his] physical vigorousness and spiritual and mental alertness in an extraordinary fashion in his old age and maturity." They even allowed him to write: "The excessive self-confidence that Ben-Gurion felt for himself brought on a number of incautious actions." But they erased the phrase: "boastful speeches."

In another section that was censored, Leibowitz wrote: "Ben-Gurion's relationship to Judaism in practice, in its historical embodiment in the lifestyle of Torah and [fulfilling the] commandments is a relationship of foreignness that borders on hostility..." The publishers allowed him to write: "His appeal to Jews around the world is nothing but the demand for Aliyah to Israel, and it has no directing toward a Jewish consciousness, to the Jewish experience and Jewish content of life in Israel; and there is no need to say – of the reality of the Galut(Diaspora)."

But these sentences they purged: "In that manner Ben-Gurion is close –without being aware of it himself – to the 'Canaanite' ideology of certain movements in the Israeli public. Therefore, Ben-Gurion did not succeed in contributing to bringing the hearts of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and the hearts of the Jewish people in the State of Israel closer together," wrote Leibowitz.
This draft went through three versions that "went through corrections and refinements," until the fourth version was agreed upon and printed in the Encyclopaedia Hebraica.

An undisputed leader

Upon reading this with the perspective of time, it seems that Leibowitz hit the bull's eye in his diagnosis. The problems he described have continued to be a part of the public debate in Israel since the days of Ben-Gurion and right up until today: Are we Jews or are we Israelis? Must the defense establishment and its budgets remain outside the public discourse? Does religion have a place in the "national" experience? And what is the connection between the Jews of America and the Jews in Israel? Ignoring religion and tradition and their central place in Jewish life, as Leibowitz noted, seems in retrospect to be short-sighted.

But even with all his criticism, Leibowitz gave Ben-Gurion the credit he deserved for his leadership. "The zealousness for his ideas and the daring with which he went about realizing them were characteristic of his entire political way, and in doing so he reached his greatest achievements: The declaration of the state in the face of opposition from some of the superpowers and even that of many of his colleagues; the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces as a unified national army while eliminating the sectoral militias; canceling the [political] party tracks in the education system; declaring Jerusalem as the capital [of Israel]; the push he gave to developing the Negev, and more," wrote Leibowitz. The stubbornness and the bravery, these are the characteristics that made Ben-Gurion into the father of the state, and are so lacking in the person who today sits in his place in the Prime Minister's Office.

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who declared the establishment of the state in a secret ceremony at 16 Rothschild Blvd. Credit: Fritz Cohen

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