Ben-Gurion Invented the Israeli Right

It’s becoming ever clearer that the founder of the state laid down a very dangerous foundation through his desire to return Israeli Jews to former glories

David Ben-Gurion being interviewed in "Ben-Gurion: Epilogue."
David Marks/United King Films/Hot 8

Anyone who watched “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” on Channel 10 this week, featuring a previously unseen interview with former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion from April 1968, heard the man who founded the state repeatedly tell them they are meant, in his view, to be a model nation – and even though they aren’t one yet, he believes in their ability to become one and demonstrate “moral superiority” to the world. This was arrant nonsense when it was first uttered, and even more so nowadays when it completely contradicts our lived experience.

In general, from a historical perspective – and Ben-Gurion was a diligent student of history – it’s becoming ever clearer that he laid down a very dangerous foundation, and sowed the seeds of calamity, through his desire to return Israeli Jews to their former greatness and glory: That of the biblical era when God appointed them a Chosen People.

This burning yearning for past glories was also common to Mussolini’s Italy, which felt a strong desire to seize a place of honor among the nations, which would restore its ancient glories and recreate the days of the Roman Empire.

This is a path that leads with absolute certainty to extreme nationalism, by creating a kind of refusal to make do with non-imperial normalcy, to be a nation like all others. Pretensions to greatness, to the heights of “moral superiority,” drive a nation to grant itself excess privileges.

In Ben-Gurion and his little black-and-white hut in the Negev, the modern Israeli can see its current right-wing leaders. Ben-Gurion never stopped quoting from the Bible, identifying himself with the greatest of the prophets. He claimed the Jewish people was created by the Land of Israel itself (and the organic connection between the people and its land was fascism’s contribution to the 20th century), and that it has a right to the entire land, including the territories conquered in 1967. (He was in favor of ceding those territories in exchange for peace, aside from Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, so we can retroactively conclude that he would have supported the peace agreement with Egypt, but opposed peace with the Palestinians and Syria, just like the Netanyahu government.) He defined himself first and foremost as a Jew. He invented the Israeli right.

There is something refreshing in his lack of pathos, his casual manner, his patently unemotional succinctness. And his atheism. The interviewer asked whether, like the prophets, Ben-Gurion also asked God to strengthen him. The founder of the state was amused: the idea of speaking to God made him laugh. “Does God live in some place where you can contact him?” he asked. “Did the prophets go to see God? They wrote down his address and went to see him?”

The conclusion is that he doesn’t believe in a God who intervenes in people’s lives, and also not in prayer – not even the agricultural prayer for rain. “Speaking to God is thinking deeply about something,” he explained. And then he quoted the Buddha and praised him. Ben-Gurion’s Israel didn’t speak with God, but it cultivated messianism.

Those who insist on establishing a model nation, and who consistently inculcate a feeling in their people that they are meant to be an exalted people, better than others and therefore can’t settle for an ordinary existence, will end up with the seeds of fascism and the belief that God speaks to this nation.