I learned a great deal about Yitzhak Ben Zvi a few years ago, while reading “My Father’s Paradise” by Ariel Sabar, a fabulous book on the Kurdish Alyah. He became instantly one of my favorite Zionist figures.
Ben-Zvi’s political profile is well known. He was born in 1884 in the Russian Empire, and immigrated to Eretz-Israel at the age of 23, in 1907. A prominent and very respected leader of the Yishuv in the pre-State era, he was elected twice to the Knesset after 1948, and then succeeded Chaim Weizmann as president of the State in 1952. Up to this day, he is remembered as Israel’s longest-serving president. He served for eleven years until his passing in 1963. He was also a noted scholar, a specialist in the history and sociology of the Oriental Jewish Communities.
Ben Zvi and David Ben Gurion were close friends, they had studied Turkish and law together in Constantinople, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire, before World War One. As close friends, they agreed and disagreed on many issues. One particular controversy was the character and the future of Oriental Jews. Ben Gurion, just like most of the founders of the State, believed into “modernizing” or “westernizing” the Sefardim and the Edoth ha Mizrach – turning them into an Ashkenazi-looking population. Ben Zvi held the opposite view. He saw Oriental Judaism as the remnant of the most authentic Jewish civilization: Judaism as it had been practiced in the land of Israel two thousand years ago, and by extension, as something worthy to be maintained and developed.
What struck me when I got acquainted with that aspect of Ben Zvi’s personality and life was that he needed much courage and intellectual integrity to take such a stand. He did not just give “good marks” to the Sefardim at a time they were despised and marginalized in the Zionist movement and then in Israel. He was actually humble enough to acknowledge them – the “other Israel” – as superior, in many ways, to his own Israel. Instead of insisting “he knew best,” as a member of the new nation’s elite, he was prepared to question the accepted norms, and to look for new answers.
I have found that same philosophical modesty while reading, last summer, some of Friederich Hayek’s writings. In the famous speech he delivered upon receiving his Nobel Prize in Economy, The Pretense of Knowledge, Hayek develops a similar idea and, whatever the honors bestowed on him, calls for intellectual modesty. In his own words:
The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.
I must admit that when I moved to Israel from France seven years ago, I found that kind of humility, so cherished by both Ben Zvi and Hayek, cruelly missing in my new country. And let me insist that I have much more in mind here than just being impatient when people who don’t speak or read French or have any clue about French history and society teach me about the country where I was born and grew up. What gets on my nerves is students who interrupt professors telling them how wrong they are on whatever issue, or complete strangers telling me what to buy at the local supermarket.
My remarks also apply to government matters. As a true believer in democracy – uniquely a regime in which you are supposed to distrust your rulers – I was prepared to be unimpressed by members of cabinet or Knesset committees (whatever their affiliation). Still, I have been amazed by some of them, and especially by some who never held office earlier and simply should realize they don’t know the world as it is. How come they can’t merely ask for advice and counsel?
Simmer down, I am not renouncing Israel and fleeing back to my native Europe. All I wish is that the verse “the man Moshe was very humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Numbers, 13:12) would resonate more strongly in the minds of my fellow Israelis, and that Moshe, “whom Hashem knew face to face,” (Deuteronomy, 34:10) the Mapai politician and great historian Ben Zvi and the economist Hayek would strongly inspire a new Israeli generation.
I do hope that in a few years things will change handsomely for the best. People will not be afraid anymore not to know and will understand that acknowledging some ignorance should be seen as a strength and not as a weakness. I would be more than happy to see the entire country calling for some pretense for once, the pretense of ignorance.