The Lessons Israeli Students Can Learn From Begin and Ben-Gurion

The Ministry of Education has dedicated this academic year to studying the leadership of two former prime ministers. Indeed, David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin have much to teach.

A few weeks ago, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that the national curriculum for the 2012-2013 academic school-year would focus on former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. The decision to pair them together was supposedly coincidental: Next year will be both the 100th anniversary of Begin’s birth and the 40th anniversary of Ben-Gurion’s death.

The result, though, is that two major Israeli leaders, one from the right wing and one from the left, each of whom shaped Israeli society for better and worse, are being studied at the same time. The analysis of two such dynamic and opposing figures can shed light not only on where we are today, but also help us understand where we want to be in the future.

The major events in Ben-Gurion’s long reign are well-known, the most dramatic being the establishment of the state. But Ben-Gurion’s leadership was also marked by major decisions, from the policy of havlaga – restraint – in the pre-state days to the welcoming and absorption of more than a million immigrants, to the official character of the army, and more.

About 30 years later, Begin’s stunning political assent wasn’t just symbolic – it created far-reaching changes in Israel. The sixth prime minister is best-remembered for the peace treaty with Egypt, but his other accomplishments were equally impactful. These included strengthening the state’s Jewish identity, respecting the rule of law as determined by the courts, tightening Israel’s hold on Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip and the annexation of the Golan Heights, the beginning of Operation Peace for the Galilee and the destruction of the nuclear reactor in Iraq.

Each of these decisions had an influence on Israel’s direction as both a state and a society and each deserves to be examined from every angle – ideologically, operationally, politically and culturally.

In looking at these two leaders, it’s fitting to begin an analysis with the issues on which they disagreed. One such issue was reparations from Germany to compensate for Jewish property stolen by the Nazi regime. Ben-Gurion, as prime minister, saw the payments as a boost to the newly-established state’s economy. Begin saw them as the beginning of a process of absolving the Germans.

A lesser known issue where the two leaders diverged was the military government that Israel's Arab citizens were subject to until 1966. As Israel's prime minister and defense minister, Ben-Gurion headed the military government and refused to do away with it even when fears of an Arab fifth column were dispelled. Begin opposed the military government, believing that all of Israel's citizens deserve equal treatment under the law.

Despite clear differences between Ben-Gurion and Begin in personality and ideology, they had several important similarities. First, both believed in change. They believed in people’s power to change their situation, their society and their future. As a result, both men practiced leadership motivated by values and put ideological considerations before political ones.

Second, both believed in the state’s responsibility to its citizens. Both saw power as a tool for social change. As enthusiastic Zionists who believed in the power of Jewish nationhood, both men worked to strengthen a shared sense of responsibility amongst citizens.

Students will find the doctrines of each man to be relevant today. As they look at the social justice protest and the current economic situation, they can study the economic policy that Ben-Gurion instituted in the 1950s that succeeded in bringing about growth while narrowing income gaps. It would also be appropriate to examine Begin’s social economic policy, which led to the liberalization of the economy on one hand and launching the Housing Rehabilitation Project on the other.

Regarding Judea and Samaria, students can analyze the opposing opinions of the two leaders on the “partition plan.” Regarding the difficulties in absorbing Ethiopian Jews, students can look at the “melting pot” philosophies of both figures – both the Israeli melting pot and the Jewish one.

Dedicating the coming school year to studying Ben-Gurion and Begin offers students of all ages and social groups, from all over Israel, an opportunity to become acquainted with the legacy of these leaders and examine society’s central values in relation to today’s reality, understanding the power of politics and democracy to shape the future.

Dr. Gofer develops curricula at the Ben-Gurion Institute and lectures on Zionism at Haifa University. Moshe Fuksman-Sha’al is deputy director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.

Yossi Roth