What Do You Say, Kids – Ben-Gurion or Begin?

This year, as per a decision by the Education Ministry, both leaders are focal points of school curricula, in what seems like an effort to put them on similar footing in terms of importance.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

The Snunit Center for the Advancement of Web Based Learning is a nonprofit association affiliated with Hebrew University that operates an educational web portal. Among the information Snunit offers online is an explanation of the historical significance of the year 1886: That year, “an American pharmacist marketed the first bottles of Coca-Cola in the United States. Far away, in the Polish city of Plonsk, a baby boy was born to Avigdor and Shaindel Green on the third day of the Festival of Sukkot; they named him David.” These two events “changed the face of history,” according to Galim (meaning “waves”), Snunit’s so-called flagship portal (which is primarily in Hebrew, although there are a few English sections), and is aimed at elementary and junior-high-school pupils. Some might say that Coca-Cola influenced history more than David Ben-Gurion did, but Galim has at present been spotlighting him or, to be more precise, him and Menachem Begin.

This year, as per a decision by the Education Ministry, both of these prime ministers are focal points of school curricula, in what seems to be an effort to put them on a similar footing in terms of their importance. But, in fact, the Galim site seems to emphasize the contrast between them, in its online feature “Head to Head.” Galim displays eight pictures of Ben-Gurion and only six of Begin, but Begin looks better: He radiates optimistic openness, while Ben-Gurion looks detached and gloomy. Information and photos of both appear under the headline of “trailblazing leaders,” but Begin is also described as “a leader of vision and action.” Beneath one photo of Ben-Gurion, is the simple legend, “Get to know the man and his accomplishments.”

As opposed to the so-called man of vision and action who is described here, Ben-Gurion’s accomplishments seem to be not very different from those of an emcee at a ceremony: He is described on the site as the man who “declared the establishment of the State of Israel.” If this were a televised debate, the media advisers of the country’s first prime minister would not agree to go on with it.

The editors of the site did take care, however, to balance its explanations of the two men: Ben-Gurion is mentioned first in the discussion of one issue, while Begin is mentioned first in the next. Yet on another Galim page, under the heading “The time axis,” Ben-Gurion is given clear preference: Begin’s specific biographical data is represented graphically here as stations in the life and times of Ben-Gurion.
In “Head to Head,” the two “argue” about the question of whether to accept or reject the partition plan as proposed in the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947.

This online exercise is conducted in the present tense, and at the end of it the children pupils in grades three to six, in this case are invited to help decide its outcome by voting online. They are asked whether they agree with the plan or are opposed to it. Thus, the controversial 1947 plan is ostensibly infused with contemporary political meaning.

The young web surfers are asked to read a variety of arguments with respect to this issue both of Ben-Gurion and Begin. Each man is quoted 11 times, but the order in which their positions are presented varies. The bulk of Ben-Gurion’s arguments are practical and political in nature, while most of Begin’s are emotional.

Nevertheless, Begin warns against a war, and one of his arguments seemingly neutralizes his objections in principle to partition: “The territory being offered to Jews is too small, and we have to demand its enlargement.”

One imaginary reason in favor of the plan is put into Ben-Gurion’s mouth that it would make it possible to settle all the Jews from around the world in the land offered by the UN. One of his arguments is no less emotional than those of Begin: We have an obligation to previous generations, and how can we turn down such an offer?

In reality, this whole debate is fictitious, even if it is only an exercise for schoolchildren; the issue of whether to accept or reject the November 29 plan is presented by this web portal as a choice between two supposedly realistic alternatives. But Galim does not raise the question of whether Begin would have rejected the plan if he had the authority to do so. Maybe he would not have. Although Begin issued a few statements in which he condemned partition, and Ben-Gurion spurred the Zionist movement to agreement with the plan, in actual fact the debate between the two was much less significant than the principled argument that splintered the Zionist movement 10 years earlier, concerning the partition scheme then proposed by the British. In 1947, all parties involved realized that the November 29 plan was inoperable, due to the opposition of the Arabs and the impossible boundaries that it set. Everyone knew, therefore, that the country’s future would be determined by war.

For its part, Galim also attributes to Ben-Gurion a rather vague statement regarding what it is possible to do by “various means” after Israel is established: “to try and enlarge the territory of the state and to change the map.” Begin actually believed the same thing. Indeed, even before officially declaring the creation of the state of Israel, Ben-Gurion strove to enlarge its territory, with the hope that it would have as few Arabs as possible. Begin was a partner in this goal. His pre-state Etzel underground movement worked in coordination, and often in collaboration, with Ben-Gurion’s Haganah.

But none of this is mentioned on the Snunit portal. Nor is there a single word about the Nakba or “catastrophe,” as Palestinians describe it, of the establishment of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, back on Galim, the time to make a decision has come. The site does not say how many young surfers have already voted on the partition issue to date, but the wording of the question and the argument as it has been posed have apparently influenced the results: Only 53 percent of the voters agree with the partition plan, with 47 percent opposed.

These seem to be good kids: The site also asks them to rank various characteristics that for them express “Israeliness,” and the biggest number of votes 35,000 were cast for the trait “singing ‘Hatikva,’” nearly double the number for the trait “touching a bench that says ‘wet paint’ on it.” The Galim site is quite well designed and one must pay a monthly user fee to access it, although certain parts of it can be viewed for free. Public libraries provide passwords for people to gain access to it.

Begin speaking at memorial ceremony for Ben-Gurion's 94th birthdayCredit: GPO



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