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Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Morning with David Ben-Gurion, or Where did all the Spiritual Leaders Go?

One of my favorite yoga teachers tells us that if you are struggling with a problem, a puzzle, or a challenge, stand on your head. You will see the world upside down and you will find a way. I often practice her teaching in my office instead of staring at my computer screen trying to figure out where I want to go with my analysis or a normative argument. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, liked to stand on his head. He was an avid Yogi and travelled to India to study meditation. Here is a picture of him at 71, in 1957, at the Herzeliya beach (where I am heading to lunch in a bit).

I spent the morning revisiting his home in the heart of Tel-Aviv, on the corner of Ben-Gurion and Arlozorov sts.  I went through his amazing book collection. Every wall of his house constituted part of his library. Ben-Gurion was a complex leader. He was born in Poland, the son of a lawyer and a Zionist activist. Early on, as a young student he joined the Marxist Zionist movement and in 1906 immigrated to Ottoman Palestine. He worked in agriculture but it was his political activism that got him expelled in 1915, and for a few years he lived in NYC, working as a journalist. When he returned to Palestine he quickly became the leader of the Jewish soon to be labor movement, led the 1948 war and on May 14 declared the independence of Israel. Browsing through his bookshelves, I tried to understand what inspired him and how the vast range of readings made sense together. In a pre-internet, pre-tv, low-tech era, Ben-Gurion read everything, in Hebrew, English and Spanish. Plato, Kant, Mill and Gandhi; biology and Jewish thought, economics and poetry, physics and philosophy journals. In the middle, an entire wall covered with book on Buddhism, yoga and Zen thought.

It occurred to me that in Ben-Gurion's world, Buddhist thought and practicing yoga and meditation helped reconcile the many contradictions that inevitably come with good faith leadership. Ben-Gurion said once that people always ask whether we would find a land fit for our people, but no one dared to ask whether there will be a people fit for this Land. Yoga means union and spending the morning with Ben-Gurion I was reminded how incredibly difficult it is in our worldly life to ethically unite the challenges, hopes and needs of a country. Ben-Gurion certainly was courageous enough to devote his life to trying to find such union, even as he stumbled and at some turns, failed. I imagined him stopping for a moment when the dilemmas became unbearable and standing on his head. And I wished that some of our current leaders would learn an inverted asana or two for those moments.

Posted by Orly Lobel on December 10, 2009 at 06:49 AM | Permalink


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lovely thoughtful post orly. wish i could be on that beach too!

Posted by: david law | Dec 14, 2009 2:48:48 AM

Patrick writes: "The original post is animated by a claim of "good faith leadership:" dissenting from or disagreeing with that claim in one response is hardly tantamount to exemplifying an instance of "derailing every post about Israel into these tiresome threads," indeed, the post was not about Israel as such and the only thing tiresome was your predictable response to addressing in a forthright manner the shortcomings of a one-sided portrait."

Maybe this comment needs to be evaluated in light of a very similar intervention into a Faculty Lounge post about Haifa?

Posted by: dave hoffman | Dec 13, 2009 3:04:45 PM

As anyone well acquainted with the practice of critical analysis, and who is in possession of a public library card can see... Pappe is complete and total charlatan.
-Don't listen to huffy online people, do your own research!

Posted by: EricS | Dec 12, 2009 10:13:38 PM

Please pardon the typos in the above comment.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Dec 10, 2009 6:42:52 PM


As anyone well acquainted with the field of Near or Middle Eastern Studies would inform you, the isolated, predictable abd feeble attempts to discredit and smear Ilan Pappe's good name and scholarship have proven unsuccessful: he's oft-cited in the relevant literature and well-respected among the majority of his peers in the profession. I could have equally drawn upon the works of others to say what he has recently succinctly and accurated stated in the course of one book: it's just too tedious to track down and cite all the relevant sources (in fact, if there's a remotely plausible complaint--and I happen to think it's unwarranted--about Pappe's work it is that he himself has not done a lot of the 'original research' upon which he makes his arguments).

The original post is animated by a claim of "good faith leadership:" dissenting from or disagreeing with that claim in one response is hardly tantamount to exemplifying an instance of "derailing every post about Israel into these tiresome threads," indeed, the post was not about Israel as such and the only thing tiresome was your predictable response to addressing in a forthright manner the shortcomings of a one-sided portrait.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Dec 10, 2009 6:32:57 PM

Pappe's own words: "My bias is apparent despite the desire of my peers that I stick to facts and the "truth" when reconstructing past realities. I view any such construction as vain and presumptuous. This book is written by one who admits compassion for the colonized not the colonizer; who sympathizes with the occupied not the occupiers."

In a review essay of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Seth J. Frantzman calls Pappé's work "a cynical exercise in manipulating evidence to fit an implausible thesis." He writes that Pappé "ignores context and draws far broader conclusions than evidence allows by cherry-picking some reports and ignoring other sources entirely."

The rest of the review of Pappe's work can be found here:

Was Ben-Gurion perfect? Hell no. Is there complexity to be seen in the situation. Emphatically. Indeed, that's what Ben-Gurion is basically saying in the apparent quotation toward the end of his comment. The fact that other people view you as having stolen something is not equivalent to saying that you did steal it. Indeed, that Ben-Gurion himself doesn't give a full historical account of the persistent Jewish presence in Israel doesn't mean one should buy his account; it also doesn't deny that the Palestinians have both suffered grievously and imposed grievous suffering on themselves and Israelis. In any event, can we try not to derail every post about Israel into these tiresome threads?

Posted by: anon | Dec 10, 2009 5:19:39 PM

Dear Orly,

Perhaps we could fill out Ben-Gurion’s portrait a bit more:

“I am for compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it.” (David Ben-Gurion to the Jewish Agency Executive, June 1938)

This is the same Ben-Gurion “in whose private home all early and later chapters in the ethnic cleansing story were discussed and finalized.”

It was Ben-Gurion who “aspired to Jewish sovereignty over as much of Palestine as possible,” persuading “the Zionist leadership into accepting both his supreme authority and the fundamental notion that future statehood meant absolute Jewish domination.”

It was under Ben-Gurion’s leadership that the “issue of security” (bitachon) “became an obsession …nourished so carefully and successfully that it came to overshadow all other social and political issues on the agenda of the Jewish community in Palestine, and later, of course, in Israel.”

It was Ben-Gurion and his aides who formulated the infamous strategy that was to be implemented against the Palestinian population once the British were gone, namely, Plan C, or Gimel in Hebrew (a revised version of the earlier Plans A and B). “Plan C aimed to prepare the military forces of the Jewish community in Palestine for the offensive campaigns the would be engaged in against rural and urban Palestine the moment the British were gone. The purpose of such actions would be to ‘deter’ the Palestinian population from attacking Jewish settlements, and to retaliate for assaults on Jewish houses, roads and traffic. Plan C spelled out clearly what punitive actions of this kind would entail:

Killing the Palestinian leadership.
Killing Palestinian inciters and their financial supporters.
Killing Palestinians who acted against Jews.
Killing senior Palestinian officers and officials [in the Mandatory system].
Damaging Palestinian transportation.
Damaging the sources of Palestinian livelihoods, water wells, mills, etc.
Attacking nearby Palestinian villages likely to assist in future attacks.
Attacking Palestinian clubs, coffee houses, meeting places, etc.

Of course Plan C was merely a prelude to Plan D (Dalet): “It was this plan that sealed the fate of the Palestinians within the territory the Zionist leaders had set their eyes on for their future Jewish state. Indifferent as to whether these Palestinians might decide to collaborate with or oppose their Jewish state, Plan Dalet called for their systematic expulsion from their homeland.”

In 1947, Ben-Gurion was prone to boasting of Jewish military supremacy in the region, informing a correspondent: “We can starve the Arabs of Haifa and Jaffa [if we wish to do so].”

It was Ben-Gurion who helped orchestrate the image of Arabs as Nazis “as a deliberate public relations ploy to ensure that, three years after the Holocaust, Jewish soldiers would not lose heart when ordered to cleanse, kill and destroy other human beings.”

It was ethnic cleansing instigated by Ben-Gurion in 1948 that “ensured that “the number of Palestinians was reduced to less than twenty percent of the overall population in the new Jewish state.”

The quoted material is from Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2006).

“By 1948, as David Ben-Gurion [the spiritual leader] remarked, Jerusalem was more Jewish than it had been at any time since its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70. What had happened in Jerusalem might well be repeated in other parts of the country. Great changes stood ahead, not all of them disadvantageous to Jews. Deeds followed words: a few days later, Ben-Gurion ordered the Hagana High Command to clear the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem and settle Jews there instead. After the murder of an Arab woman, a Hagana—owned truck drove through the streets of the suburb of Talbiya, announcing over a loudspeaker that its Arab residents must leave, ‘or else be blown up with your possessions.’ The Arabs fled indeed, soon followed by the residents of other Arab neighborhoods and villages close to Jerusalem. Intimidation, terror, and expulsion triggered a flood of refugees in the coastal plain as well.” (Gudrun Kramer, A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel, 2008).

It was not just the Stern Group who committed massacres at this time (e.g., Deir Yassin, which was no doubt coordinated with Haganah), as the troops under the Labor leaders of the yishuv were clearly responsible for nearly all other massacres, as Sylvain Cypel has made clear. Mapam, the Zionist left, had abundant reason to denounce the behavior of the IDF in 1948.

Ben-Gurion, the spiritual leader: “As Ben-Gurion told Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, in 1956, ‘If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?’”

Of course much more might be said, but I trust this begins to reveal a different and far darker side of one of Israel’s most beloved founding figures.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Dec 10, 2009 2:39:24 PM

Another leader of that level of thoughtfulness was Vaclav Havel. Read Summer Meditations.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 10, 2009 7:36:29 AM

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