Back to School: Ben-Gurion for Beginners

On more than one occasion, Israel's first prime minister said that if he were Arab, he too would fight the Zionists,

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has decided that during the next academic year, schools will concentrate on the leadership of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. This week it was reported that principals of Arab schools and several Arab intellectuals are upset about the decision, claiming that it's designed to impose the Zionist narrative on Arab students. But if the teachers know how to deal with the subject matter, Sa'ar could well come to regret his initiative.

The first Arabs David Ben-Gurion encountered in his life were among the passengers onboard the ship bringing him to Palestine in 1906. He took a shine to them: They seemed like "overgrown kids," he wrote later. Here is a possible introduction to a conversation about that same Western condescension that Edward Said termed "Orientalism." The first conflict Ben-Gurion was involved in with the country's Arabs was not over the historic ownership of the land, but rather stemmed from the demand of Ben-Gurion and his comrades that the Jewish farmers oust their Arab laborers and give the work to "new immigrants," like themselves. Here is a possible introduction to the question "Who started the conflict?".

"There was a time when I was naive," Ben-Gurion would later say - because he believed that Zionism benefited the economy of the country, and therefore expected the Arabs to welcome it. It is unclear why the battle over "Hebrew labor" was supposed to make the Arabs happy, but here is the basis for a conversation about the shortsightedness of politicians.

The Arabs indeed did not welcome Zionism; one of them even stole Ben-Gurion's pistol. So Ben-Gurion went to ask Arab politicians why they did not understand that Zionism was a blessing for the land, and according to him they told him: "True, you are developing the country, but we do not want you to develop it. We want the land to remain in its wilderness and paucity until we are capable of developing it." Here is a foundation for discussing the question of what is more important, quality of life or patriotism.

Not right away, but over the years, Ben-Gurion even made an effort to put himself in the Arabs' shoes and stated: "A people doesn't forget so quickly that its country is being taken away from it." On more than one occasion, he said that if he were Arab, he too would fight the Zionists. Here is Ben-Gurion as a justifier of Arab patriotism. Ben-Gurion likened the heroic glory surrounding Izz ad-Din al-Qassam in the 1930s to Yosef Trumpeldor's fame. The terrorists that al-Qassam led and the intifada fighters, more recently, may also be likened to the terrorists that Menachem Begin led. Here is a basis for another riveting discussion about statesmanship and terror.

According to Education Ministry directives, Arab-sector schools are not supposed to hold ceremonies commemorating the Nakba (the Arabic term for the catastrophe that Israel's founding constituted for the Palestinians ), but the Palestinian tragedy naturally occupies a central role in David Ben-Gurion's work. At the very latest in 1937, he enthusiastically adopted the idea that the Arab population would be transferred from the regions of the country that were designated for Jews. This thinking must not be separated from the transfer of 1947-1948. Arab students will be able to find particular interest in the question of how the military under Ben-Gurion's leadership managed to defeat the Arab armies.

Begin, too, plays a role in the Palestinians' national disaster.

At least some of the Arab students will be entitled to vote in the next elections, and in that context they ought to become acquainted with what Ben-Gurion promised the Arab citizens of Israel: complete equality, with the exception of the Law of Return. An Arab could even be elected president of the state, Ben-Gurion declared. But in the 1950s he imposed on the Arab populace the evils of military rule. Here is a basis for a conversation about the difference between what politicians say and what they do.

Menachem Begin adopted the liberalism of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who sang about the sons of the land as though they were brethren - "The Arab, the Christian and the Jew." Begin was opposed to military rule, and subsequently returned Sinai to Egypt, in exchange for peace. That was the same Begin who dreamed of a "Greater Israel" and gave a major boost to the settler movement in the West Bank. During a certain period, Ben-Gurion also dreamed of a "Greater Israel."

So you see, there is no pair of politicians more relevant today than Ben-Gurion and Begin, and it still remains for students to explore the relationship between the two. They habitually compared each other to Hitler. Here is yet another subject highly worthy of being taught, in both Jewish and Arab schools: great statesmen also say silly and demagogic things on occasion.

Photographic memory

Kim Phuc was a 9-year-old girl when South Vietnamese aircraft dropped a napalm bomb on her village. Fire took hold of her clothes and caused her severe burns. She tore her clothes off and fled the village, naked as the day she was born. On the outskirts of the village, an Associated Press photographer named Nick Ut saw her and took her picture. It is one of the most famous pictures in the history of photojournalism.

Kim Phuc survived, studied medicine in Cuba and today lives in Canada. She is married and has two children. She serves as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Everywhere she goes, people ask to hear about the moments that transformed her from an anonymous child into a historic icon. This month marks 40 years since that day, June 8, 1972.

Ben-Gurion visiting Baka al-Garbiyeh in 1959.Credit: GPO
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar wants school children to learn more about Israel's leaders.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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