'Modern Leaders Are 'Killed' Before They Can Emerge'

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David Ben-Gurion speaking at the Knesset, 1957Credit: National Photo Archive/Wikimedia Commons

Talking to: Anita Shapira, 75, emerita professor of Jewish history, Tel Aviv University. Known for: Her book “Israel: A History” and other works; 2008 Israel Prize for Jewish history. Wants to promote: The new Hebrew version of “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” (English version: Yale University Press, 2014). Where: Her home in Tel Aviv. When: Tuesday, noon

How would you describe David Ben-Gurion’s leadership?

Shapira. 'Ben-Gurion had a need to preserve a façade of self-confidence. He believed that’s what a leader should project. That’s the reason he never admitted to making a mistake.' Credit: Gali Eytan

Above all, he had a vision – the Jewish state – and he moved toward it step by step, with much frustration but never backtracking. Second, he had a tremendous ability to get things done. He would set a goal, decide which tools could achieve it, and then pursue it with all his might.

I read about how he almost obsessively collected information. He claimed he couldn’t understand the big picture without first knowing all the small details.

He was constantly engaged with data. In the 1930s he talked about solutions with the Arabs, but also recorded in his diary, secretly, statistics comparing the number of draft-age men among the Jews and the Arabs: how many more we needed to be able to cope with them.

When he concluded, already in 1945, that there would be a war as a result of the state’s establishment, he realized that it would involve not only the Arabs in Israel but all the Arab states. It’s astonishing that he grasped this, because the Arab states hadn’t yet considered it. The British were still here and weren’t thinking of leaving, but Ben-Gurion familiarized himself with the capabilities of the Haganah [pre-state militia]. He read reports about the number of pistols and rounds of ammunition that were available. He didn’t make decisions on the basis of whim. He imposed his will on reality through the agency of reality.

It’s interesting to consider how he would be judged today: a person who takes a radical idea and pursues it to the end. Maybe he’d be considered a megalomaniac. Indeed, what distinguishes between vision and megalomania?

I interviewed a great many people from the Haganah command and the Palmach [the Haganah’s strike force]. All of them said they had no idea when the state would come into being, and in fact didn’t think it would be in their time. They saw it as a distant ideal. Only Ben-Gurion believed. He was certain the moment had arrived, and yet that insight did not derive from knowledge per se.

Rather, from intuition. Actually, the most dramatic decision in our history was an intuitive one.

Yes, it was amazing. Ze’ev Scharf, the first cabinet secretary – who was not an admirer of Ben-Gurion – told me, “Between 1948 and 1953, he did not make one mistake.”

The gamble succeeded, but it could have just as easily failed.

Just three years after the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion gambled on the fate of the 650,000 Jews here, on the hope of the Jewish people. Even though the military told him the odds were 50-50, and even though the Americans told him not to do it. It was the first time since the Bar-Kokhba era [the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 132 C.E.] that a Jewish leader made a decision whose significance was that thousands of Jewish young people would die. We don’t realize how dramatic it was: to fly in the face of everyone’s feelings and desires.

If we look at it out of context, maybe he was dangerous?

There are some who say that. In his diaries, Moshe Sharett [Israel’s first foreign minister] quotes his wife, Zippora, as saying to her brother Shaul Avigur, “He’s a dangerous person, so why do you want him to return to the government?”

As a historian, can you refute that allegation?

In history, we always know the end of the story, so it’s hard for me to say. But there’s no doubt that it was a gamble. Ben-Gurion always said, “I don’t do what the nation wants, I do what I think the nation needs.”

Courage and confrontation

Let’s talk about the present-day leadership crisis.

It’s not just in Israel. Look at the whole Western world. Where is there a leader who both enjoys mass support and is also an impressive individual in terms of ability? The only one is [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel. President Barack Obama is excellent in American domestic policy, but no big deal in foreign policy. There’s no genuine leader in England, still less in France, and then we arrive at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

How do you understand this crisis?

Ben-Gurion always said that history is created by the masses, but in a critical period a leader appears. If he appears, he can make the difference. The question is whether a larger-than-life leader can appear in a period that is not one of crisis. Especially today, with the invasive media, which almost instantly will turn him into a laughingstock and shatter the aura of leadership.

So the problem of leadership lies in the media?

Yes. The situation today is that a leader cannot spring up, because they’re ‘killed’ while they’re young. Leadership requires a certain distance, and that’s nonexistent today. A whole gallery of leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle and Stalin, with all his flaws – sprang up during the emergency of World War II. It’s possible that the current leadership crisis is actually the crisis of the democracies’ coping with their built-in tendency to make leaders implode.

Who was Israel’s last real leader?

Yitzhak Rabin.

And since his assassination, there hasn’t been a true leader in Israel?

That’s right. Prime Minister Ehud Barak had qualities, but also a very problematic personality. Benjamin Netanyahu has qualities, but he doesn’t bring them fully into play. That drives me crazy. He could really make a huge difference, he has the inner strength. But he is not showing the way.

In fact, no meaningful decision has been made here since Barak pulled the army out of Lebanon, and Ariel Sharon implemented the Gaza disengagement.

We’re wallowing in our own mud and hoping that things will work out. Ben-Gurion’s greatness lay precisely in his willingness to make decisions and take calculated risks. You can’t be a statesman without taking calculated risks

Which means being courageous.

It’s a problem. Barak, for example, had courage.

You write about one of Ben-Gurion’s most dramatic decisions, the Altalena episode in June 1948, when the army was ordered to sink a weapons ship belonging to the pre-state Irgun underground, off the Tel Aviv coast. In a certain sense, the state was confronting lawbreakers. Can that be compared to the state’s confrontation with the settlers today?

You mean lack of confrontation. I see that as the root of the evil, dating back to the first Rabin government, in the mid-1970s, when the settlers in the illegal outpost of Kadum refused to leave. It was a very chaotic situation, and in the end Rabin gave in and allowed them to stay under cover of a military base. That was the beginning, and today the settlers possess immense political power.

As a scholar of Zionism, what is your position on the issue of “who is a Zionist?”

Zionism today is patriotism of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion said in the 1950s that anyone who does not immigrate to Israel is not a Zionist. What, then, is the meaning of Zionism after the state’s establishment? Zionism is the aspiration to a Jewish state. I think that every Jew who lives in this country is a Zionist. Everyone who remains here, despite all the problems and risks, is a Zionist.

Are the settlers Zionists? Are they more Zionist than we are?

They are not more Zionist than we are, they are Zionists according to their definition. Note that we are constantly talking about the State of Israel, not the Land of Israel. I think that for them the land is more important than the people, and that is a serious problem. Reverence for every high hill and tall tree is, in a certain sense, idol worship. It’s a pity, because there are many idealists there, and if we could free ourselves of that insanity, they could make a large contribution to improving the society and building the country.

You wrote a comprehensive book about the history of Zionism. Did you encounter an aspiration to specifically settle certain places?

No. Zionism always dealt with two elements: territory and self-government. Both elements were new for the Jewish people. There was talk of territory, but never about the size of the territory, and there was talk of self-government, which we have. What more, then, as the song goes, will you ask of us, homeland, before we can say that Zionism has been fulfilled?

‘The facts are there’

Reading your new book, I felt you were cautious about taking a stand. That was especially obvious in regard to the controversy over the expulsion of the Palestinians in the 1948 war. Was an expulsion order issued or not?

That has been rehashed so much, and the book does not engage in moralizing.

Even so

[Do you mean] other than asserting, as I did, that the case of Lydda [Lod] was the only one in which there was a direct order by Ben-Gurion about expulsion? It’s interesting that when both Yigal Allon [then Palmach commander and Yitzhak Rabin faced that decision they felt obliged to ask Ben-Gurion – in other words, there was no all-inclusive expulsion order. It sprang from below. Some generals engaged in more intensive expulsions, others less. I was not evasive. The facts are there. Everyone can decide what he thinks about the subject.

The observation that Ben-Gurion was not a “people person,” that he had little understanding of people, is a recurrent motif in the book.

Ben-Gurion opened up to only a few people. After reading the book, Amos Oz told me, “Anita, I never imagined how lonely he was.” His only close friend was Berl Katznelson [the Labor Zionism ideologue and leader]. He was a closed person, there was no intimacy in relations with him. He didn’t know how to create intimacy and he found it difficult to open up to others. I would say that he thought displaying emotion in public was a manifestation of weakness. He might be shattered inwardly, but outwardly he displayed only confidence, because that’s how he thought a leader should comport himself.

He always projected a business-as-usual approach. Interesting – Netanyahu does the opposite.

I don’t justify Netanyahu, I think his fear-mongering policy is way out of line. But you have to remember that in Ben-Gurion’s time, the new arrivals in the immigrants’ settlements along the border were fleeing to the center of the country, and the whole Israeli frontier was gripped by fear because of attacks by infiltrators. Ben-Gurion felt a need to reinforce the nation’s self-confidence.

The communities around the Gaza Strip also live in fear, and I don’t see anyone reinforcing their self-confidence.

I think Netanyahu has no empathy for the kibbutzim in the Gaza area. It’s not his top priority. The fear-mongering is also aimed at the international community – to show the world how wretched and victimized we are. Ben-Gurion had a need to preserve a façade of self-confidence. He believed that’s what a leader should project. And by the way, that’s the reason he never admitted to making a mistake. A leader doesn’t make mistakes.

Did his conception of leadership shape his behavior, or was that his personality structure? For example, one can’t help but wonder, when reading about his relations with family members, whether nowadays he would be diagnosed as having a problem of communication.

His grandson told me the family was divided on the subject, between those who felt that he was warm, good and open, and those who thought the exact opposite. Even in the family there was no unanimity of opinion about his character. He had a certain insensitivity regarding the feelings of people around him. The emotional dimension truly frightened him. There’s the well-known story that people said he didn’t know how to make small talk, and when he heard that he invited the person who made the comment, sat him down in his office, and said, “Chatter, chatter” ...

“He wasn’t condescending. He was folksy to his last day. Think of a prime minister standing on his head on the Herzliya beach with the whole Israeli nation taking his picture all around. I read his correspondence – he took the trouble to reply in handwriting to every letter, to every request from a youngster who wanted to meet him.

You yourself wrote him a letter and met him.

Yes. I was a master’s student and he was a former prime minister, the founder of the country. I wrote requesting to talk to him about Gdud Ha’avoda and Hashomer [the Labor Battalion and the Watchman, early-20th-century Jewish organizations in Palestine]. He replied in his own hand on paper from a notebook with numbered pages and carbon paper, inviting me to visit. And I had chutzpah, too: As I had a toddler son, I asked if I could come on a Friday, so my husband could drive me [to Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Ben-Gurion lived]. He adjusted his schedule, received me warmly and opened his diaries to me. I was thrilled by his persona. He could be charming when he wanted, or when he didn’t feel threatened.

His loneliness was very apparent toward the end of his life.

If a person isn’t capable of conducting a conversation with someone he doesn’t know in the kibbutz dining room, that is terrible loneliness. He was very much alone, but the old age of leaders is usually no blessing. Theodor Herzl died at 44. How wonderful; he remained young in our memory, and everyone wept for him. Ben-Gurion died at the age of 83, right at the end of the Yom Kippur War – who even gave him a thought then? What was there for him after he left the government? He was a nice grandfatherly type, friendly to everyone. But was that Ben-Gurion? Without the challenges, without the tempestuousness, it wasn’t Ben-Gurion. The shell remained, but without the inside. It was pathetic.

Well, we can’t go around killing people after they fulfill their public roles, just to enhance historical memory.

Think about it. He would have spared himself – and us – all the controversies of the “dirty business” [referring to an affair involving a Jewish espionage ring in Egypt in the 1950s, which haunted Ben-Gurion], the path toward destruction, like in the famous cartoon by Dosh [the late Israeli cartoonist Kariel Gardosh], in which Ben-Gurion, armed with a hammer, is smashing a statue of himself. If he’d died in the 1960s, he would have remained in our memory as the greatest of leaders.

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