The Last Encounter

Profound, open and moving as they might be, there is not enough in conversations with a very old man - wonderful as he may be - and in his frank writings, to make a biography.

"Yeled lo ratsui: Yitzhak Ben Aharon - Biografia Intimit" ("Unaccepted Child: Yitzhak Ben Aharon - An Intimate Biography") by Yael Gvirtz, Yedioth Ahronoth Books, Sifrei Hemed, 284 pages, NIS 88

It was an unforgettable evening. There will be no more like it. Those who were there had the privilege of hearing the last voices of a vanishing world, the last murmurs before all goes silent. Another year, another five, and nothing will remain. Even now little remains, very little.

The event, at Tzavta in Tel Aviv, marked the publication of "Unaccepted Child: Yitzhak Ben Aharon - An Intimate Biography," by Yael Gvirtz. For this evening alone, it was worth writing the book. Shulamit Aloni, Amos Oz and Yitzhak Ben Aharon on a single ticket, with Shalom Hanoch as a bonus. Three speakers who will perhaps never get together again, who gave no cloying discounts to the evening's honoree, Ben Aharon - who did not give himself any big discounts either. There will not be many more evenings at which the main celebrant will open his remarks with the old-fashioned "haverot vehaverim yekarim" - "Dear comrades," female and male, in that order - as if nothing has happened here. There will not be many more evenings with this audience of people from the Labor movement, oldsters who used to be chiefs of staff and generals and general secretaries and directors general and now look back with longing for what has vanished for them forever, to mourn the state that has slipped through their fingers and gone down the drain, and to identify with the loneliness of a man of 97, who has a son of 70 and a love younger than he by many years.

Ben Aharon. The one and only. They came to see the marvel and perhaps they also came to ask forgiveness of him for all the years of his isolation and negation. They also came to mourn the loss of their world and the new world that has arisen in its stead, for which they are to a considerable extent to blame. Uniquely just and fine as they are, the occupation and the injustice were born in their day. True, Aloni, Oz and Ben Aharon were among the first to cry out at the gates, but at least some of their audience, which sat there, silver-haired and slow-moving in Tzavta, s-h-o-c-k-e-d by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, were full partners to the creation of our new and greater Israel.

Aloni took Ben Aharon to task for his obsequiousness to Yisrael Galili. Even though he had reached the age of 97, she will not forgive him for this and for not having picked up the gauntlet and become a leader. Oz said that as long as there are poor people, the occupation will continue - not, as is somehow usually said, that as long as the occupation continues, there will be poor people. Amir Peretz charmed everyone in Yiddish and in rare statements on his part against the occupation; Shalom Hanoch sang "A Man Within Himself." And Ben Aharon, oh, Ben Aharon. Without a prepared text, in a voice that has remained as thunderous as ever, in his Bukoviner diction, with all the possible "isms," from socialism to capitalism, he raised a great outcry, clear and sharp as a razor, and in the end also asked, with his own charm, that people buy the book about him. Afterward, at nearly midnight, he still wanted to go out on the town for a drink. At the age of 97 and a half.

Great political failure

"Unaccepted Child" is a problematic biography. It is not intimate and it is based almost entirely on a single source of information: its subject. With a biographer who knows how to write, but has too much presence in the book and is selective in her areas of interest. The single source of information and the areas of interest that Yael Gvirtz has chosen for us are not sufficient to tell the full story: Not everyone remembers the days when Ben Aharon was secretary general of the Histadrut labor federation, between 1969 and 1973. These four tempestuous years put a new seal on the musty position, on which none of his successors succeeded in putting their imprint. He was also a member of the Knesset for many years, and together with Yisrael Galili and Yigal Alon, was one of the leaders of the Kibbutz Hameuhad movement and Ahdut Ha'avoda party, which eventually merged into the Ma'arach and the Labor Party.

Profound, open and moving as they might be, there is not enough in conversations with a very old man, wonderful as he may be, in his room at the kibbutz, and in his frank writings, some of which had already been published in the past, to make a biography - even an intimate biography. Descriptions of his relations with his parents, his wives and his children are also not enough to make up for what is missing. His complex relations with his son, Yariv, are important and interesting, but we also deserve to know a lot more, for example, about the complex (and no less interesting) relations with his guru, Yisrael Galili.

The acrimonious relationship with his first wife, Miriam, and the loving relationship with his second wife Bilha, who changed his life, the great reconciliation with his son Yariv and his love for his granddaughter Hadas are moving to the point of tears, but we also want to know more about his great political failure. A giant, a giant, and all he deserved were a few stormy years as secretary general of the Histadrut. Why? We do not find out from this book.

The psychological key that Gvirtz has drawn up of the unwanted child whose mother dies when he was 12 years old, and whom his father made no special efforts to raise and love; the connection between his parents' relationship with him and his own relationship with his rejected firstborn, Yariv, and the beloved child of his old age, Yeshayahu; Miriam's betrayal when he was a prisoner and the weaving of his very late love for Bilha, are all certainly important for deciphering his character and his path, but it is impossible to neglect all the rest for their sake.

Why did he never become a leader? Why did he leave the stage in his prime? Why was he silent with Galili? Why did he not at least become a Yeshayahu Leibowitz, whose voice was heard until his last day, a voice that is now so lacking around here? To all these questions there are no answers in the book.

Gvirtz fell captive to Ben Aharon's charms. There is nothing easier. She also admitted this herself with a great deal of her own charm at the evening at Tzavta. She is allowed this, of course. In fact, it is impossible otherwise to be face to face with a character as fascinating and impressive as Ben Aharon. Precisely for this reason, then, she should have sought answers not only from him. A very old man who is clear as a bell, a man of principle who spent his childhood during World War I and whose late love blossomed during the second Gulf War, whose voice is as unambiguous as ever, who is so far removed from the current political experience and who arouses great longing - he is indeed very charming.

But this charm would have evaporated into thin air had Gvirtz also attempted to deal with criticism of the man and his path. Of his self- effacement before Galili, of the tribalism in Kibbutz Hameuhad that took precedence over everything, of the active participation of that movement in the work of the occupation, of Ben Aharon's having been partner to this, of the responsibility of Galili and Allon for the project of Jewish settlement in the territories at its inception and of Ben Aharon's silence in the face of their deeds.

This is also true with respect to the early chapters of his life: There are plenty of love letters to Miriam from Germany, but it is not sufficiently clear what he was doing in Germany in the first place in 1935. Even "the cellar of weeping" at Brenner's house and the period as a prisoner in Germany, two formative experiences in his life, are surveyed quite rapidly in favor of a handful of revelations about the insufficiencies of love.

Touching details

However, lacking as it may be, "Unaccepted Child" is also a compelling and moving biography - both because of its subject, of course, and because of the sensitivity of its writer. A good editor would have brought Gvirtz back to the missing questions, improving her story and adding interest to it. A good editor would also have weeded out sentences such as: "It was said that Golda [Meir] and her cronies sipped Champagne when the results became known to celebrate his failure" (in the 1973 elections to the Histadrut convention). Or: "With the end of the strangest campaign in the history, which shrank the Labor Party to 19 Knesset seats ..." with respect to the 2003 elections. Why "strange"? Because the Labor Party shrank? But these are minor details.

And perhaps in the world of ignorant youth, where the name Ben Aharon hardly means anything to anyone, this flawed biography, which chooses to focus on the personal rather than on the political, will arouse interest.

At the moment, the writer of these lines, who is himself no longer young, was almost the youngest among those present at the evening at Tzavta. At the moment, out of 10 students of communications at the Camera Obscura school, who were asked not long ago who Yisrael Galili was, eight did not know, one thought he was from Kibbutz Rehavia and one thought he was the No. 1 scorer on the all-Israel soccer team. And then they went on to ask whether he had any connection to Einav Galili. In this generation, the story of the loves and disappointments of Ben Aharon might perhaps succeed in touching hearts.

His story is a sad one. Neither of his two sons and none of his nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren live on his kibbutz, which is becoming privatized and is fading. He is a stranger in his own home. The attitude toward him on the kibbutz is disgraceful. When he once asked for a loan to his son's kibbutz, he was refused shamefully. "It is now 5 o'clock and I am still trembling all over. I have already swallowed a great many pills and I have not calmed down. Is this darkness just a sun in eclipse? At this hour what does one do faced with this crudeness and insensitivity?" he wrote. He will not talk about the rift in the kibbutz movement. Nor about the split. Why? Because. Instead Gvirtz describes the new Ben Aharon - after the death of his wife and his new marriage to Bilha - and is revealed as a man who is reconciled, easily excitable, moving.

"Your letter moved me and succeeded in melting the knot of tears that had long been frozen," he wrote not long ago to his 8-year-old granddaughter. How can one not be moved? Before that he wrote of himself: "On that day I was brought back anew to that despairing marvel - the isolation of the lonely man at the kibbutz. With no pretense and no mercy. What is the source of this cruel alienation? Simply - a useless piece of junk? ... And perhaps - and this doubt never leaves me - it is something in me? Have I put up high walls, distances and alienation between me and society? Have I indeed sent people from all levels away from me - have I been arrogant, have I shut myself in, have I gone silent? Is it natural that among 1,100 souls there aren't 10, there isn't one who is sometimes in need of a talk with an experienced and alive and sensitive and educated old man like me? The door never opens ..." How can we not wipe away a real tear upon reading these things?

And the story of Bilha Rubin, who appeared in the skies of his life when he wanted to die after the death of his wife Miriam, the director's assistant for a film that was being made about him, who married him nine years later when he was 93? This is truly a wonderful story. And isn't the story - of the longevity of someone who was a sickly child with weak and crooked legs, a sunken chest, a swollen belly, slow and heavy speech, who in 1981 suffered a serious heart attack and then another one, refused to have surgery or stents, and is living with us to this day, nearly 100 years - a truly astonishing one?

How great this man is, who supported the UN Partition Plan and half a century later was one of the first to diagnose the malignancy of the occupation, in both cases isolated from his colleagues. One must not ask in the same breath why he did not fight for this more. How great is his stature, in the perspective of time and in the context of the despairing present.

This book without a doubt casts a new light on the later Ben Aharon. For this, Gvirtz deserves praise. She has succeeded in getting close to him and touching his emotions. But we and Ben Aharon deserve to know more about the sides that Gvirtz has chosen to ignore. After all, he was above all a political figure and not only a lovable grandfather with an amazing life story.

Because of Ben Aharon, because of us, because of the vacuum he left behind him after his retirement and because "this was the last encounter," as in the poem by Yehuda Amichai at the beginning of the book - because of all this, it would be best if "Unaccepted Child" were just one volume in the complete biography of Yitzhak Ben Aharon. "The encounter knew that it was the last. We did not know," wrote Amichai.