When Ben-Gurion Saw Red

The support of Maki, Israel's Communist Party, for the Soviet Union in the infamous 1953 'doctors' trial' involving Jewish defendants provoked Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion into launching an all-out war on what he called 'haters of Israel.'

Shlomo Nakdimon
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Shlomo Nakdimon

I went down to Tiberias for a vacation, and to bathe in the hot springs there," wrote David Ben-Gurion in his journal on January 6, 1953. He was in the habit of staying at the Galei Kinneret Hotel nearby, where he kept up with his duties as prime minister, defense minister and leader of the Mapai party. On the ninth day of his vacation, however, he was assailed by a flurry of emotions that weighed heavily on the ensuing days in Tiberias. The following entry in his journal was perhaps the most poignant of all, vis-a-vis the affair that was preoccupying him: "We will pay with our lives if we continue to allow this despicable fifth column to run amok among us," he wrote.

On the morning of January 14, Ben-Gurion read in Kol Ha'am, the long-time organ of Maki, the Israel Communist Party, a report on the trial in Moscow of nine doctors, six of them Jews, who were accused of plotting to kill high-ranking political leaders and military commanders in the Soviet Union. As per its custom, Kol Ha'am expressed uncompromising support for the Soviet move.

Pictures of Stalin and Lenin in the Labor Day parade in Tel Aviv, May 1 1949. Credit: Hans Fin/GPO

"With a sense of horror, I read the words of Kol Ha'am this morning, regarding Moscow's appalling acts," Ben-Gurion wrote. "This would be a foolish and suicidal democracy if, out of an erroneous concept of freedom of expression and organization, such a band of converts and nationalist traitors would be allowed to run wild in the press, in assemblies and in the Knesset."

The prime minister's thoughts crystallized into a decision: In a five-page letter addressed to the 15 members of his cabinet, Ben-Gurion called for adopting a decision that would oblige the Ministry of Justice "to very urgently draft a law against 'any hostile organization' that assists - whether orally, in writing or through any other means - external elements that foster hatred of Israel ... hatred of Israel in a two-fold sense: against the State of Israel and against the people of Israel, that is to say also against the Jews."

His proposed law stated: "Authority shall be entrusted to the government to declare that any organization which aids external elements in carrying out anti-Israeli actions (including actions against the state and against Jews, wherever they might be ), which speaks encouragingly of these actions, which provides material to them, etc., as a 'hostile organization.' And when said organization has been declared hostile, it will be possible to shut down and to confiscate its newspapers, presses and meeting places, and to bring to trial its directors, leaders and members; in this case, the burden of proof (refutation ) will be placed on the defendant."

Ben-Gurion did not rule out the possibility that as a consequence of such legislation, Maki would move underground. "This underground exists in any case," he wrote. "However, it is unacceptable that these 'open' traitors be given an opportunity to hold assemblies, speak in the Knesset, come to the immigrant-housing tent camps, provide welfare and public aid to the foreign enemies of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel, travel to international gatherings that engage in anti-Semitic incitement, and poison the atmosphere in Israel among the youth and the immigrants."

At the end of his letter to the cabinet, Ben-Gurion called for expediting passage of the proposal and then enforcing it "with all possible severity of the law. The dignity of the state and the dignity of Judaism demand this of us."

The letter was meant to be submitted to the cabinet at its next meeting, on January 18, which Ben-Gurion was not scheduled to attend, due to his vacation. Simultaneously, he directed the secretary general of the Histadrut labor federation, Mordechai Namir, to take steps to remove Maki from the various institutions of the Histadrut.

'Committing atrocities'

Legal proceedings in 1952 relating to the ostensible "doctors' plot" came on the heels of a show trial in Prague, in which senior figures in the regime, most of them Jews, were charged with conspiring against the state. The linkage of the two trials - with Jews at the heart of both - seemed to indicate a new phase in the Soviet Union's war on Zionism .

For his part, Ben-Gurion stated in the aforementioned letter that the Soviets "were committing atrocities not out of an emotional impulse, but out of a cold-blooded, cruel calculation mandated by their political objectives and needs." They needed it, he wrote, "in order to maintain their absolute rule and imperialist aspirations."

Stalin's history as a murderer of millions of workers and peasants in his own country, and as a collaborator of Adolf Hitler at the start of World War II, led the Israeli prime minister to conclude that Stalin would not be put off by the destruction of Russian Jewry - "whenever he, for whatever reason, sees a need for it, in due course." Stalin, Ben-Gurion noted, was two-faced: On the one hand, he will taunt with every possible anti-Semitic and racist expression; on the other hand, "he will do what Hitler did without any moral hesitation or hindrance."

The Korean War was then in its third year, and there was a feeling around the world that another world war was imminent, this time between the West and the Eastern bloc. Indeed, discussions were held in institutions of the ruling Mapai party, under the heading of, "Our position in the third world war."

"There is no doubt," Ben-Gurion wrote in the same letter, "that Stalin is preparing for this war with all its totalitarian methodicalness - there can be no doubt." He added: "Stalin was intending to destroy the Jews of the Soviet Union and its satellites, whose loyalty was in his opinion uncertain."

In his capacity as defense minister, Ben-Gurion ordered that Kol Ha'am's distribution to Israeli army units be suspended. On January 15, 1953, the paper's management was informed by the IDF of this decision (until then, the IDF distributed all of the newspapers, most of which were affiliated with political parties, to soldiers ).

Ben-Gurion also activated his own party: At his initiative, the political committee of Mapai was urgently and secretly convened on January 16. With this in mind, he cut his vacation short and travelled to Tel Aviv.

Based on the minutes of the meeting, he was clearly infused with fighting spirit. The Soviet Union's intention, he declared, is to portray Judaism as a monster, as a danger to Russia, and it is unacceptable for a Nazi party to exist among us. The premier proposed that as soon as the Knesset session opened, on January 19, "we enact a law, in the speediest procedural manner, that grants authority to the government to ban an organization of haters of Israel." He enumerated the prohibitions that he wished to enforce: outlawing Maki; abolishing its Knesset faction; putting on trial its leaders and MKs and imprisoning them for between 10 and 20 years; preventing Maki from holding public assemblies; forbidding its activists from appearing in schools; taking over its meeting places, newspapers and property, etc. In the legal realm, Ben-Gurion demanded that the obligation to prove they were not aiding haters of Israel be imposed on the defendants themselves.

Indirectly, the proposed law also contained a warning to the pro-Soviet "faction of the left" led by Moshe Sneh, which was then in the process of being formed within Mapam, and which in any event had a pro-Soviet orientation (and subsequently merged with Maki ).

"We are facing a situation that existed under Nazi rule," Ben-Gurion warned the 28 members of the political committee who were present at the meeting. He called for sounding the alarm around the world: at a special assembly of the UN, in the British Parliament and in the U.S. Congress. He also expressed satisfaction with Namir's steps "to remove these wicked persons from the Histadrut."

Ben-Gurion emerged from the Mapai committee meeting having attained only some of his objectives: He succeeded in creating a general consensus around taking harsh punitive measures against Maki, but his demand to have the party declared illegal failed to marshal a majority. The first person to pour cold water on that proposal was Minister Without Portfolio Pinhas Lavon, Mapai's key polemicist. Lavon assessed that declaring Maki illegal would necessitate creation of concentration camps for thousands of citizens, and that the upshot would be even more extensive communist influence.

Nevertheless, Lavon did propose to revoke the immunity of Maki's five MKs (Esther Vilenska, Meir Vilner, Emil Habibi, Tawfik Toubi and Shmuel Mikunis ) as both individuals and as a faction. He supported Maki's absolute removal from all of the Histadrut institutions, but at the same time supported its members' right to vote and be part of the Histadrut convention. Why, he asked with his sharp logic, cause a situation in which, given no other choice, Maki members could vote for the leftist part of Mapam, thereby creating a sort of "crypto-communism"?

In conclusion, Lavon recommended that Maki be virtually depleted of its powers. Ben-Gurion did not back down from his principled stand. If the protocol of the meeting could speak, it would testify to the flurry of emotions evidenced by the leader of the state, who felt that the fate of Jews all over the world depended on him. His statements were also an indictment of those who disputed him:

" ... It is not acceptable that within the State of Israel there exists an organization that espouses blood libels against the Jewish people. This is the state for which each of us is responsible; it is its laws, customs, parliament and democracy that they are distorting. They support a global Jewish blood libel.

"Can the laws of Israel permit such a thing? Can the laws of Israel permit publication of their newspaper, their ability to serve in the Knesset? I am told this would mean the establishment of detention camps. If there is a need to build camps, we will do it. If there is a need to shoot, we will shoot. We have already been through times when there was a need to shoot people - people who were even closer to us."

Ben-Gurion apparently reiterated these last few sentences in a strident voice. "If there is a need for detention camps, I would suggest establishing them, and if there is a need to shoot, I would not be afraid to do so. We have already been in this situation and we have fired shots, even though the situation was a lot less severe. We told the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (the pre-state right-wing underground National Military Organization, also known as Etzel ) that it had to lay down its arms and if it did not, then we would begin firing within 24 hours."

He was referring, of course, to the Altalena affair of June 1948 (involving the sinking of the underground's weapons ship by the first Israeli government ). Now, Ben-Gurion explained, there would be no need to fire weapons - nor was there any need for the State of Israel to permit the legal existence of a party that identified with blood libels against it. "Would the Russian state," he asked, "tolerate the spinning of a blood libel against its sons?"

He hinted at the fact that the danger not only came from Maki: "There are others who are organizing themselves for acts of sabotage and civil war. They have farms, and they have weapons in their possession. I have been informed that the air force has now removed machine guns from an airplane."

This statement was a veiled threat against Mapam: The head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Isser Harel, had reported to Ben-Gurion about so-called subversive activity by Mapam in the Foreign Ministry and the security services, as well as about arms caches found on Mapam-affiliated kibbutzim, for use in the event of a possible Soviet invasion of Israel.

Sensing that he was in the minority in terms of his very harsh feelings toward Maki, Ben-Gurion intimated that he would not take responsibility for the consequences: "Woe is to the state that tolerates such a thing within it. If this is the decision, then that is that. I, in any event, consider it a mistake. My hands will not spill this blood. I will not go to any other institutions to argue the point. Whatever is decided here, that is what will be."

Anti-Jewish incitement

Two proposals were put to the vote. That of Ben-Gurion, the more uncompromising of the two: "granting authority to the government to declare the Communist Party a hostile organization that may be dissolved." The second was a combination of proposals put forth by Lavon and then-Minister of Labor Golda Meir: "to permit the employment of all means at the government's disposal, in the framework of the existing law and of laws yet to be passed, to deny Maki the opportunity to take public action, without declaring it an organization that exists outside the law."

According to the latter proposal, the cabinet was to adopt a resolution in this spirit on January 18. On the following day, the cabinet would issue an announcement to the Knesset, in which Maki would be explicitly defined as "a body that hates the State of Israel." Drafters of this proposal asked the Mapai political committee to commit "to do the utmost to prevent the spread of hatred of Israel or solidarity with those who spread hatred of Israel and the state."

Thirteen members of the committee voted in favor of the Lavon-Meirson proposal, with only seven voting for Ben-Gurion's proposal. In accordance with the first proposal, a committee was created that would scrutinize the plan for dealing with Maki. However, this body did not take action and was subsequently replaced by another, one chosen by the cabinet.

It is hard to say what Ben-Gurion was thinking following his defeat. He did not write anything about it in his journal, and hastened to return to Tiberias. The cabinet thus convened for its scheduled meeting on January 18 without the prime minister. His deputy, Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, did not present Ben-Gurion's letter there - perhaps because he did not know about it, since he had not taken part in the meeting of the political committee.

There is another possibility: Since the political committee decided to reject Ben-Gurion's demand to outlaw Maki, there was no reason to present a letter declaring such a demand. Nevertheless, it is unclear who decided not to distribute the letter among the cabinet members, and Ben-Gurion only learned about this later: "This matter stemmed from a mistake," he wrote to himself.

The seven cabinet ministers from the smaller coalition factions (General Zionists, Hapoel Hamizrachi, Progressives ) were unaware of Ben-Gurion's demands, and also did not try to clarify at their meeting what Ben-Gurion's position was. They assumed that if his deputy Eshkol was running the session, and Lavon, who was close to the prime minister, was presenting the subject - it could be assumed that everything was being done on the say-so of the vacationing prime minister.

Aside from Ben-Gurion, also absent from the cabinet meeting were Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett and Minister without Portfolio Dov Yosef. For his part, Lavon provided to those present a full description of the Maki affair. "There are in the State of Israel forces engaged in anti-Jewish incitement, justification of this incitement, and its dissemination and advocacy," he said. Sanctions should be imposed on them, he argued, going on to enumerate the restrictions suggested by Mapai's political committee, adding a few new ones: that the state mechanism be "cleansed" of Maki members, including the state radio, Voice of Israel, and the municipalities.

Meir, who backed Lavon, argued in favor of a cabinet decision by which Maki would be labeled "an organization hostile to the State of Israel and to the people of Israel."

"Really, how is it that Toubi, Mikunis and Vilner can travel around the world with diplomatic passports?" she asked. "It is shocking that they are permitted to go every place where a military administration rules [in Arab communities in Israel]. It is as if a state decided to commit suicide." In her opinion, the Lavon proposals constituted the least severe option. "I am shocked that we cannot do more," she said with typical sharp-tongued scorn.

'Actions, not declarations'

The leader of the Hapoel Hamizrachi party, Minister of Welfare and Religions Moshe Shapira, who by and large held moderate views, sought to lower the tone. "We could understand it if the United States were speaking in this fashion (about the Communist Party in America ), but in the State of Israel there is need for a little caution and a little self-restraint ... Evidently, Russia is poised to launch a broad-based purge, and we have to be careful not to see this only from the Jewish standpoint. If we overemphasize the Jewish standpoint, it [this purge] is liable to become Jewish."

Shapira joined those in support of taking punitive action against Maki, but proposed not reporting on them from the Knesset podium. "We should take action, not make declarations," he advised. He was in favor amending the law that granted immunity to members of Knesset, but only with each case being judged according to its own merits - even with respect to members of Mapam. Shapira even suggested neutralizing the Maki-affiliated press by not including it in the government's paper allotments. In his opinion, it was preferable to intermittently shut down the newspaper due to one or another article, as dictated by the law, and to make life difficult for the Communists in a manner that would weaken their activity and their degree of influence on the youth.

The head of the Progressive Party, Minister of Justice Pinhas Rosen, expressed doubt regarding the government's ability to persuade the Supreme Court that Maki should be outlawed because of its links to a foreign organization that fosters hatred of Israel.

"If the government is to take action against the Communist Party, it should do so openly and directly," said the justice minister. "However," he added, "in spite of this special situation, I have numerous doubts" about doing so. He suggested that the name Maki not be explicitly referred to in the Knesset plenary session.

Lavon responded to the dissenters: You are disregarding the fact, he told Shapira, that the states behind the anti-Jewish campaign are announcing to the world, "that the Jews as a people, as Jews and authorized Jewish organizations (the Joint ), have organized to commit murder, that they poison wells, that it is their purpose to destroy the peoples of the world ... We stand before a new historic phenomenon, a renewed and immensely powerful attempt to forge a binding policy in which the Jews are seen as the bearers of destruction and a danger to the peoples of the world." He insisted on releasing a cabinet announcement calling for hatred of Israel to be defined as an act of hostility against the state, and obliging its government to act against said hatred in the legal and organizational realms.

The cabinet appointed a committee to draft proposals for action, headed by Foreign Minister Sharett (who was not present ). Other members of the committee were Rosen, Labor Minister Rokach and Lavon.

'Traitors to our people'

At a session of the Knesset held the following day, January 19, only one speaker, Rabbi Mordechai Nurock, a Hamizrachi faction member, demanded the "removal from the Knesset of traitors to our people."

The Knesset members held a heated debate with representatives of Maki, who ardently defended the Soviet Union. Foreign Minister Sharett, who spoke last, announced that the government would condemn at the United Nations, and from every international stage, the incitement taking place in communist regimes against the Jewish people. He spoke of the danger posed to the well-being of millions of Jews in these countries, and warned Maki, without mentioning its name, that "any attempt that might be made by persons or by public parties in Israel to justify or endorse incitement directed against Jews, or that endangers their welfare in any country, will be considered by the government to be an act of hostility toward the state, and the government will draw all necessary conclusions."

By majority vote, the Knesset decided to transfer the matter to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for more detailed discussion.

Ben-Gurion looked on from the sidelines. Although he was present at the Knesset debate, he made do with some not-particularly-inflammatory heckling from the side. He reserved his critical barbs for the cabinet. After reading the minutes from the previous day's cabinet meeting, at which he was not present, the premier dispatched a letter to the cabinet members in which he expressed his disappointment at the feeble voice sounded against the Soviet Union, which he defined as "a house of slavery ... a regime built upon murder, deceit and repression of human freedom ... a cruel and efficient carry-over of czarist imperialism."

He also wrote that he "became pale" when reading that the only response against what was written in Kol Ha'am was Interior Minister Rokach's warning of the newspaper's possible closure, for even that was merely a warning, not an action per se. "Could it be that we are to permit the haters of Israel in Moscow to openly and by the power of Israeli law sustain the aiders and abettors of hatred of Israel?"

On January 27, the ministerial committee headed by Sharett convened. Interior Minister Rokach announced that he had ordered the closure of Kol Ha'am to take effect the next day, for a period of 10 days. He was also considering closing the Arabic-language communist newspaper, and said that henceforth, the punishment would be made more severe. For his part, Rosen reported that his ministry was engaged in preparing amendments to the law of crimes against the state. It was decided at this meeting to carry out changes in that legislation - including determining that a hostile organization is one that has contacts with a foreign organization "that fosters hatred of Israel."

Lavon proposed that all of the Maki newspapers, in all languages, be closed, and suggested leaving intact the immunity of the Maki MKs when it came to "speeches and votes," but also to enable searches of their homes. He further proposed depriving them of the right to leave Israel on diplomatic passports, and the right of free movement and of free entry to every locale in Israel. In other words, that they be reduced to the status of ordinary citizens. Lavon also spoke of cleansing the government mechanism of Maki members. The justice minister agreed to all of the restrictions on immunity, except for searching their residences.

The ministerial committee decided to order the cabinet secretary and the Civil Service Commission to contact the appropriate parties and take action in accordance with this decision. One other suggestion was adopted: allowing the House Committee to make possible, in accordance with the statutes of the Knesset, "the immediate removal from the Knesset sessions of MKs at such time as they are deemed to be causing scandal."

The justice minister was asked to look into the possibility of removing the Maki newspapers from the list of papers that benefit from governmental funding, via the Ministry of Trade and Industry. In addition, it was decided to ensure that the Voice of Israel would no longer broadcast Maki events or the speeches of its members in the Knesset, or even report on articles appearing in Kol Ha'am.

Ben-Gurion was apprised of the decisions of the committee, and in a letter to the cabinet members dated January 29, he charged that they were working against their own decisions. For example, as to the interior minister's decision to close Kol Ha'am for 10 days, the intent, the premier explained, was to deny this "criminal body" an opportunity to speak to the public - but Maki outsmarted everyone and published a daily under a different name, Voice of the Youth. "Is this the logic and the intent of the punishment? By this laugh-provoking act," Ben-Gurion wrote, "aren't we ridiculing and making a mockery of the law and the government and responsibility of the state? If you are trying to do something against those who identify with the blood libel or who are committing actual actions, or even if you don't do anything, at least the government should not be turned into a helpless object of ridicule ... A government can be good or bad, but it mustn't be ludicrous."

"I have a bitter feeling," he concluded, "that you do not assess the severity of the danger or the severity of the crime."

Control over secrets

At the cabinet session held on February 1, which discussed "actions against hostile organizations," Sharett reported on the decisions of the special ministerial committee. He admitted that on the matter of closing the newspaper "in essence, the objective was not achieved," since in its place Maki hastened to publish another, under a different name. Aside from that, Maki had appealed to the High Court of Justice against the interior minister. Furthermore, Sharett reported that the justice minister would coordinate with the prime minister on drafting a proposed amendment to the law, to determine that "hatred of Israel and any attempt to defend it and uphold it is a hostile act against the state." This amendment would be brought up for approval by the Knesset.

Sharett informed the cabinet that all of the changes in the MKs' immunity, including searching of their homes, would be brought up for cabinet approval. Maki members would be ejected from governmental, municipal and academic institutions, and a directive had already been issued "to see to it that the matter is taken care of." Sharett charged that in the universities, communists had a foothold in the most important places, and "in laboratories they control the most important secrets." It had been decided in the Haifa municipality to appoint a well-known communist as city engineer. "I hope," said Sharett, "that this approval will not be given."

Furthermore, it was decided to confer with the custodian of abandoned property, in order to consider the option of removing the communists from buildings given them for use as meeting places, which essentially served as centers of incitement and poisoning against the state and the government. Sharett read aloud Ben-Gurion's aforementioned critical letter, and Rokach reported that he had involved the attorney general, Haim Cohen, in the matter. He added that if any articles containing incitement appeared in the Maki newspapers, they would be shut down for a much longer period. Complete closure was not possible, however: The interior minister explained to the cabinet that Maki, but not only it, was in possession of several permits for publishing dailies, monthlies and periodicals, and thus had several options. Maki had five permits, and Moshe Sneh himself held a sixth.

At the end of the session, the cabinet decided to draft an amendment to the journalism law, according to which the interior minister would be authorized to ban publication of any paper that replaced another paper whose publication has been banned, even if a permit existed for it. Another amendment was designed to enable the interior minister to shut down a printing press that had printed a newspaper as a substitute for another paper that had been banned. At the same time, the option was being explored of preventing the delivery of newsprint to Maki. "However," Rosen informed the ministers, "it is not possible to discriminate."

It was ultimately decided to place limitations on the use of paper for printing newspapers. The cabinet assigned Interior Minister Rokach and Trade and Industry Minister Peretz Bernstein to draft a joint proposal in this regard; the cabinet secretary would oversee that process.

B-G's ongoing war

Nevertheless, the whole affair faded away. As he promised Ben-Gurion, Mordechai Namir did the best he could to pass a decision to remove Maki from the Histadrut. His attempt failed. On February 9, a group of zealous ex-Lehi (the National Military Organization, a pre-state underground ) members detonated a bomb in the Soviet delegation's building in Tel Aviv in response to the trials in Prague and Moscow, and then Moscow cut off relations with Israel.

Ben-Gurion, however, continued to wage his war on Maki. On February 17, the prime minister complained in writing to the Knesset presidium against the continued unchecked behavior of Vilner, Vilenska and Mikunis, whom he dubbed "the open and archetypal enemies of the State of Israel" - but the system meant to implement sanctions against these persons failed to function. On March 5, Stalin died, and shortly thereafter, there was a turnaround in Soviet policy. On April 3, the defendants in the doctors' trial were unexpectedly released. On July 20, relations between the Soviet Union and Israel were renewed.

Writing in his journal in 1953, Ben-Gurion summed up the turbulent month of January in thus: "I did get to swim in the sea, but it was not exactly a vacation."

The Kol Haam trial

The infamous affair in which Maki newspapers were shut down and a legal struggle was launched against that decision began some two months after the Mapai political committee rejected Davids Ben-Gurions proposal to outlaw the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the cabinet was deciding on a series of measures, most of which were not implemented.

On March 22, the interior minister shut down Kol Haam for 10 days, and on April 14, the Arabic paper Al-Ittihad, for 15 days, due to publication of a lead article opposing the governments supposed willingness to dispatch soldiers to fight alongside U.S. and UN forces in Korea. (The government denied the report; Israel subsequently supplied only medical aid).

Makis appeal to the High Court of Justice against the closure orders led to a precedent-setting verdict: that in issuing the closure orders against the two newspapers, the interior minister had deviated significantly from his range of authority, and had damaged the freedom of journalistic expression.