Talking Values With the Old Man

The transcripts of two meetings held in 1961 between David Ben-Gurion and several young kibbutz intellectuals show a familiar generation gap, and a shared critique of materialism that could have been uttered yesterday.

While gathering material for my doctorate, a historiographical study of the relationship between David Ben-Gurion and the Israeli media during the state's formative years, I came upon thousands of documents in the archives of the "Old Man" - Israel's first prime minister - at Sde Boker; among them accounts of two meetings that Ben-Gurion had with youngsters from the kibbutz movement of his Mapai party. Those discussions were never intended for publication.

The two meetings, in 1961, were held around the table at the defense minister's bureau at the Kirya defense headquarters, in Tel Aviv, and brought together Israel's founding father and several young activists from Ihud Hakvutzot Vehakibbutzim (the Union of the Kvutzot and Kibbutzim ). The participants included Amos Oz, then a young writer from Kibbutz Hulda; Yaakov Levinson, from Rosh Hanikra, who eventually became one of the heads of both Hevrat Haovdim (the holding company of the Histadrut labor federation ) and Bank Hapoalim; Educator Muki Tsur, from Ein Gev; Meir Zarmi, from Ma'ayan Zvi, who later became the Labor Party's secretary-general; Nahman Raz, from Kibbutz Geva, who years later served as chairman of the Knesset's Education Committee; Israel Schuster, of Kibbutz Mefalsim; and Mussa Harif, from Tzora, who became one of the founders of the United Kibbutz Movement. The two meetings were held shortly after Pinhas Lavon, who served as the Histadrut's secretary-general, was forced to resign. Ben-Gurion, then both prime minister and defense minister, threatened to resign himself unless Lavon stepped down.

Eran Wolkowski

That dismissal sparked a heated argument among the public and especially within Mapai, the ruling party. The kibbutz youngsters criticized Ben-Gurion's moves. Ben-Gurion asked to hear their views, but also to have the opportunity to "tell it like it is," as he titled the booklet he wrote later to defend his actions and counter his critics.

The kibbutzniks expressed concern that the party organs would weaken, warned against the process of depoliticization of public life that Ben-Gurion and his associates Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres sought to promote, and noted a lack of vision, loss of values, and the spread of cynicism and careerism in the nation, which constituted a threat to its strength.

From reading the 133 pages of the minutes of those two meetings, one is mainly impressed by the efforts of the younger participants to demonstrate to Ben-Gurion how detached he was from the severe storm that Lavon's dismissal created in the movement, as well as among the public at large.

"Sometimes," said Muki Tsur during the second meeting, as he led the conversation around to the topic of the state of Hebrew literature, "we ignore the fact that a society with its own life, its own experience, its own desires, is emerging in this land and we are not paying attention to it. You, Ben-Gurion, were influenced by Mendele [Mocher Sforim, the Yiddish writer]. Mendele's criticism of the Diaspora was one of the factors that led you to do many of the things you did. Today, in this country, a new literature is being created, one that expresses a new way of life, rather than that of the urban life of Mendele's period, or even Israeli urban life."

Ben-Gurion: "Which writers are you referring to?"

Tsur: "There are various levels. But it includes [S.] Yizhar, although he is standing at the peak."

Ben-Gurion: "Who for example?"

Tsur: "There are many."

Amnon Barzel from Kfar Hahoresh: "There is a book of poems by Haim Gouri. It's called 'Masa' ["Journey"], and it says: 'For 15 years we went and did not know where to, did not know at all whether we would arrive, and we always talked in the first person and we are tired of it. Now tell us, at last, whether we will get anywhere.' He wrote such a poem two years ago."

Ben-Gurion: "Was he being reproachful, or praising? Haim Gouri is a good fellow."

Tsur: "This is a sign of something bubbling, I think."

Ben-Gurion: "Who are the writers you are talking about?"

Tsur: "Benjamin Tammuz, for example."

Starphot and Y. Barzilai

Nahman Raz: "Benjamin Tammuz's 'Gan Na'ul' ['A Garden Enclosed']. He has an excellent book, 'Holot Hazahav' ['Sands of Gold']. 'Gan Na'ul' reflects something."

Tsur: "There is a literary quarterly called Keshet."

Ben-Gurion: "I read it. I realize that [Avraham] Broides is an important poet, though he seems forlorn."

Raz: "A book of poems by Yehuda Amichai."

Ben-Gurion: "I haven't read even one of his poems."

Barzel: "I'll send you a book by Yehuda Amichai. He is an excellent poet, but extremely dangerous."

Tsur: "I am certain that when you read these things, you will decide that they appeal to you, but the fact is that they represent something one has to resist. And you, for reasons that I do not want to dwell upon - the fact that you ignore it, is dangerous."

In Tsur's eyes local literature and poetry reflected a broader reality with which Ben-Gurion was not familiar, or that he preferred to ignore; this was a situation that had developed "among one-third of the residents in this country."

And as a response to Ben-Gurion's persistent argument about the Israel Defense Forces' quality and that of its officers, Tsur chose to mention the Zahala neighborhood of northern Tel Aviv, where many army officers lived. One of its best-known residents, in those years, was the army's former chief of general staff, Gen. Moshe Dayan.

"I do not want you to look at the officers only," Tsur tells Ben-Gurion. "I teach Zahala's boys and I know how their sons look, what sense of calling Zahala's boys have. There are parlor societies, all the most negative things that can be - and those are our officers' sons. I think you are ignoring it. If Mapai does not pay attention to these things, in the end it will fall. There is one force that can topple Mapai and that is Mapai itself. There is no other force that can bring it down."

Ben-Gurion preferred not to get into a conversation about the mischief that Dayan's son Assi was up to with his friends, and instead steered the discussion back to literature and poetry.

"Amichai represents nihilism?" he asked. "Is he himself a nihilist?"

Tsur: "Of course."

Ben-Gurion: "I'll get the book. I can't stand nihilism. There are more important books than Amichai's, and the time I can devote to reading is limited, to my regret, and therefore I have to be choosy about the books I should read. Every night when I lay down to read, I have an internal struggle over whether to read this book or that one."

Amos Oz: "You should read it. Not because it is important, but because it expresses something."

Ben-Gurion: "I know that in Tel Aviv there are homes where they play cards every night. Do you place him together with Yizhar?"

Tsur: "There is a certain similarity."

Ben-Gurion set out to defend Yizhar, who was also, at the time, a Mapai member of Knesset. "Yizhar is a beloved person," he said.

Oz: "There is a certain similarity as a writer, not as a person."

Ben-Gurion: "Are you referring to 'Yemei Ziklag' [Yizhar's monumental war novel, 'Days of Ziklag']?"

Oz: "Especially to 'Days of Ziklag.'"

Ben-Gurion: "There is truth in it, but not the whole truth. I told Yizhar so. I read the fallen men's literary remains. We have wonderful young people. Never have we had such young people."

Oz: "Let me read a verse from a poem by a young poet, a very characteristic one, David Avidan. He is a capable young man and he wrote this sentence: 'What justifies the great loneliness and the grave despair more than anything else is the simple and unequivocal fact that there is actually nowhere to go to.'"

Ben-Gurion: "Is this the mood among the youngsters?"

Oz: "Among very many. He is still apologizing for it, but others do not even do that."

Raz: "The point is that they do not know where to go, but the fact is that in the end there is somewhere to go. When there is no other significance to life, except that found in materialism, they will do whatever they can in order to benefit, and that is what's happening now in the country. That's the mood in the country, and this must be recognized. We are seismographs in this matter, because this group is very sensitive on this point. It immediately senses these feelings, our radar reacts to it and this, for us, is our raison d'etre. When I hear you say, 'What do you want from our youngsters, we have wonderful young people ... '"

Ben-Gurion: "We do have wonderful youth. I oppose generalizations and I was also against the generalization that Yizhar made when he talked at the party's central committee. There are young people, and then there are other young people. The good young people are the ones that count."

The premier was referring to a speech in June 1960, in which Yizhar adopted the idiomatic phrase coined by writer Arthur Koestler, who referred to an "espresso generation," whose members seek something "strong, quick and cheap," entertain petit bourgeois dreams, and feel entitled. It is a passive generation, one that consumes instead of creating, despises utopia and seeks out the material only.

Raz: "Of course, there are youngsters in Ein Gedi and Yotvata [kibbutzim in the south]. But they are few, lonely and isolated. It is true that Ein Gedi [along the shore of the Dead Sea, and hard to reach before the Six-Day War] is our crowning glory. But it is a grave mistake to say that the youngsters in the land look at them as models for emulation. You say you read the fallen men's literary remains, and that they are wonderful, that may be true ... But I am not sure that the person who wrote wonderful things during the War of Independence is not involved, today, in profiteering."

Ben-Gurion: "There is a young man who excelled during the [1956] Sinai war, and was caught stealing weapons and selling them to Arabs."

Raz: "We have wonderful youngsters in Ein Gedi, but are they representative of Israeli youth in general?"

Ben-Gurion: "But the kind of youth you have in Ein Gedi don't exist anywhere else in the world."

Then Ben-Gurion turned suddenly to Amos Oz: "Your conclusion, Amos, is one: a dictatorship. Yes, yes."

Oz: "Heaven forbid."

The guests argued that Ben-Gurion's moves to strengthen the state's institutions and especially the IDF came at the expense of the political movements, and thus "diminishes pioneering."

Ben-Gurion: "Not at all. Does the state dimiss the pioneering act? Can you silence Amichai?"

Raz: "What do you think can be done?"

Ben-Gurion: "Dictatorship could be a solution. To force people. This solution does not suit us because you are dealing with Jews ... you cannot have a dictatorship over them. It is inappropriate, even if for that reason alone. If not a dictatorship, then a pioneering state, and we should strive for that. There was a disaster. Some of the pioneering forces have stagnated. This is one of the disasters. The youngsters in Tel Aviv would not be the way they are if the pioneering movements were united, if joint forces would challenge the youngsters in Tel Aviv. I am not saying there will be no card playing in Tel Aviv, but there would certainly be more pioneers than there are ..."

Raz: "First of all, we should not be divided."

Ben-Gurion: "You must overcome something. Just as you do not like Amichai and people who play cards, this too is a game of cards. Are you living in this business? Is there nothing else?"

Then Ben-Gurion turned to Meir Zarmi: "Do not despair, no low spirits. So Amichai writes such poems. He will write. Now I will read him. We'll see who this Amichai is. Sometimes I read poetry. Without any desire to do so. I sometimes read it in the newspapers. Empty poems. It's only because they are vocalized and the words appear one beneath the other that one even knows it is a poem ... You are wrong about Yizhar. He is one of the best people."

Barzel about Yizhar: "He reflects the generation."

Israel Schuster: "He also teaches them."

Ben-Gurion: "Listen to him and you will get his oral commentary."

Schuster: "He was in Mefalsim for three and a half hours, and said very severe things. The members left depressed."

Ben-Gurion: "About young people?"

Schuster: "About us, too."

Ben-Gurion: "What did he have against you?"

Schuster: "He said, 'If people claim that there is no physical work in the country and no work at all, then what about you? Do you have any physical work?'"

Ben-Gurion: "So, even you are not enough for him?"

Schuster: "Of course."

Oz: "He said the color of all the flags had faded. All the truthfulness is worn out."

Ben-Gurion: "If Amichai becomes like him, I'll read his work with a different pleasure."

As the minutes surprisingly show, Ben-Gurion did not join in the criticism of the so-called dangerous messages of Amichai, Yizhar, Gouri and Avidan. Perhaps because the prime minister, as he was wont to do, focused on one goal at a time: to convince young people that he had been right in the Lavon Affair. However, the restraint he showed was outstanding in light of his attacks during those years on the New Hebrew literature.

"My mind is gnawed - and when I use term 'gnaw' I am using a softened language - with one concern: Won't our enemies destroy us as they destroyed the European Jewry?" he wrote in 1960 to author Moshe Shamir, who expressed concern about the loss of values among the youngsters. "And with this unending fear I have a deep feeling that this small and very vital nation is unbeatable and that all those lamentations and complaints about a drop in suspense, the youngsters' emptiness, the diminution of literature and the signs of degeneration, for some reason are not clear to me, and do not make sense."

"We still do not have a new [national] poet like [Chaim Nachman ] Bialik, definitely not a new Hebrew Shakespeare or Sophocles," Ben-Gurion wrote student Ran Sigad.

"The books that appear year after year, month after month or week by week maybe make the free time more pleasant and prevent excessive boredom, but very few of them are guides for life."

Amos Oz says he does not remember the details of the meetings between the Ihud members and Ben-Gurion, and not even the conversation about writers and poets. But he does remember, in detail, another, private meeting he had with the prime minister at that time. This was the meeting he described in his 2001 memoir "A Tale of Love and Darkness." From a distance of almost five decades, he says of the references in the transcript to Amichai and Avidan, "I was part of this generation, so I wrote at that time, too. I suppose the atmosphere in that conversation was one of kibbutz puritanism."

Another outstanding participant in that group's meeting, Muki Tsur, recalls that the young participants sought to inform Ben-Gurion of the social processes under way, which the prime minister did not know about, or preferred to ignore.

Our message, says Tsur, was clear: "If you do not read literature, you are not sensitive to what is happening beneath your political cloak, even the philosophical one."

Yizhar, Tsur adds, "really annoyed us. His anti-ideological poetics were really insulting. He captivated us with his literature, but not with his remarks about education being unnecessary."

The minutes reflect the mood at the time, during Ben-Gurion's last year in office; it was a conversation that mixed politics, ideology and literature. "The talk went around in circles," recalls Tsur. "The premier focused on his political goal and returned to the Lavon Affair over and over. He did not budge from his seat. He was like a hunter who could not let go. We left with a terrible impression."