The Long Descent From Ben-Gurion to Netanyahu

The reason for the ugly face of Israeli society today can be found in the strikingly different way each leader regarded the same problem.

Iris Leal
Iris Leal
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Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the state memorial service for David Ben-Gurion, Dec. 2011.Credit: GPO
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

The revelation that crimes against Arabs were common in 1951 too did not come as a complete surprise. Since that cabinet meeting 66 years ago — minutes of which Gidi Weitz quoted in “Ben-Gurion in 1951: Only the Death Penalty Will Deter Jews From Gratuitous Killing of Arabs,” Haaretz, April 1 — no major changes have occurred in the conflict, not even in our lifetime. It remains a chronic problem that escalates from time to time to murderous peaks. So it is natural to encounter the same moral dilemmas today that troubled the cabinet back then.

But the completely different perspective is despairing. It is worth examining once again how the prime minister at the time, David Ben-Gurion, saw things: “In general, those who have guns use them,” Ben-Gurion asserted, adding that some Israelis “think Jews are people but Arabs aren’t, so you can do anything to them. And some think it’s a mitzvah to kill Arabs, and that everything the government says against murdering Arabs isn’t serious, that it’s just a pretense that killing Arabs is forbidden, but in fact, it’s a blessing because there will be fewer Arabs here. As long as they think that, the murders won’t stop.”

Ben-Gurion describes the atmosphere in the years after the War of Independence, and provides an explanation that is also appropriate for our time: Dehumanization of the Arab people is what enabled civilians to ignore the suffering, and for soldiers to exacerbate it. It was in the form of “every Arab is a dog, a wild dog that it’s a mitzvah to kill.” Reading the cabinet meeting minutes indicates the seriousness which cabinet members ascribed to their role of formulating ethics, just a few years after the Holocaust.

That the present prime minister has a different interpretation of his responsibilities and obligations is clear from the affair of the soldier who shot the wounded terrorist in Hebron, and from the telephone conversation the prime minister held with the soldier’s father. “In recent months our soldiers are standing bravely and with determination in the face of terrorist attacks and confronting murderers who come to kill them,” Benjamin Netanyahu explained, with the cries of the rabble erupting from his throat, “and I am certain that the inquiry is taking into account all of these circumstances. I am convinced it will be professional and fair to your son.” A promise is hidden in Netanyahu’s words, that he will make generous use of all the leniencies of the circumstances that he described to the father.

Israel’s first prime minister chose to focus his criticism on his soldiers out of recognition that he could only educate his own people. For his part, Netanyahu deflects criticism from soldiers by depicting them as victims of circumstances, without recognizing his own responsibility for these circumstances.

Between these two different readings of a similar reality one finds the explanation for the ugly face of Israeli society today. In the abyss between these two ethical poles, one finds“price tag” attacks, the Yesha rabbis and MK Bezalel Smotrich. On this moral Petrie dish, funguses and bacteria have flourished over the past two decade, causing the collapse of the biological and spiritual systems of Israeli society.

These things have an annoying tendency to repeat themselves in the same determined fashion, and we are sentenced, as peoples, cultures and also individuals to move time after time along the same paths. But even if all is foreseen, free will is given — and during the years of Netanyahu’s rule there has been a return to exile, far from the moral homeland of the Jewish people. Now we have our own territory, but we no longer have a dwelling worthy of its spirit.