Reflections on Zionism – Its Thinkers and Implementers (4)
Throughout his life Ben-Gurion regarded himself as a writer. The policy orientation of his work to recreate Eretz Israel and to provide directions for the State, once established, was the implementation of the spirit which motivated his writing.
To Ben-Gurion, the Jewish people possessed “a secret weapon” to which he alluded during one Knesset meeting. Years later, when asked what that weapon was, “the spirit,” he answered. Power was not in economic growth, nor in military might, which were manifestations of the spirit, utilizing material forces. For him, the Jews or any people who survived, had to be immersed and self- possessed of spirit. If the spirit was felt, the people were capable of anything. Thus, it would be needless to recount all of which it was capable; all that is necessary is to marvel, to sense the awe of the spirit’s presence in every sphere.
Men have fought for their opinions no less than for their power or prosperity, and since man began to think, the contest of ideas has not ceased. And in the history of our people this occupies a place, greater, perhaps, than, in that of any other.
To describe himself, Ben-Gurion wrote in 1955, in an introduction to his writings and speeches:
The writer began as one of the workers in this land… these 30 years… naturally left their traces upon the soul of the writer… The soul of the world and of our people has undergone severe and bitter trials and the writer too did not remain closed and locked away from all the changes and transitions.
Ben-Gurion recognized that his dream of a united Labor Party would lead the way towards national and universal redemption. But, how many more steps would he have to take and how many more times would he have to leave Palestine? How much longer would he have to convince his people and direct his energies towards harmonizing disparate groups rather than solidifying and building towards nationhood? Both would have to be accomplished simultaneously.
An agreement had to be reached, Ben-Gurion believed; all the parties had to merge, if the State was to come into existence. This, he felt, was the pioneer’s vision, a united Jewish labor movement.
After a year which seemed as if all the meetings became one, it was 1929. Violent riots and the indifference of the British mandatory regime forced the reality that the labor factions could not be solely economic entities. To work towards the all-encompassing goal, they had to be strengthened, and that could be effected only by amalgamating them and creating a cohesive force that would withstand political, military and economic threats of the present and the future.
Before Ben-Gurion, the man and the Secretary General of the Histadrut , retired for the night, he expressed his hope and his purpose in his diary entry: “Histadrut is forcing all the parties… to work for the good of Palestine.”
His words would remind him of his friend and mentor, Beryl Katzenelson, (as referenced in Reflection (3) as well as that of the philosopher of “the sanctity of labor,” A. D. Gordon.
A.D . Gordon was born into a wealthy family in Russia, arriving in Palestine in 1904, at the age of forty-eight. He decided to live by the “ labor of his hands”. Gordon advocated through essays and articles, his philosophy of love for nature and of dignity which “can only come of the work of one’s hands”. This Gordon believed, was the way to man’s mission and happiness.
For Ben-Gurion, whether he was at the Kinneret or in Jerusalem, whether in New York or in Tel Aviv, Gordon’s vision was as relevant after the State was created as it was before. “The ideal of labour must become the pivot of all our aspirations. It is a foundation upon which our national structure is to be erected.”
Ben-Gurion’s earliest memories recalled the questions he asked himself. From shtetl to State building, how was the transition to be bridged? What instrument would bring this ancient people, united by their attachment to a soil, to modern nationhood?
Ben-Gurion believed that the answer, although rooted in the past, was directed towards the future and the pioneering vision of an all-encompassing labor movement, that would lead the way to a State. According to Ben- Gurion, such a State would be democratic and just, and would serve as a light unto the nations. Although his goal was fixed from the time of his childhood meetings held in his home In Plonsk, Ben-Gurion’s resolve was strengthened by thoughts which to him were more powerful than all the armies that had dispersed his people throughout history.
The thoughts of A.D. Gordon were known in Palestine, even before he made Aliyah. It was his essay, People and Labour, written in 1911, that inspired a generation,
A vital culture far from being detached from life embraces it in all its aspects. Culture is whatever life creates for living purposes. Farming, building and road building – anywhere, any craft any productive activity – is part of its culture… it sustains science, creeds and Ideologies.
This philosophy motivated Ben-Gurion’s leadership which culminated in the history of becoming a comprehensive force in every sphere of Israel’s life – from the school system, the health system, the newspaper, Davaar, the industrial enterprises, the public utilities, to the dramatic theater company, Ohel.
The Histadrut had a direct bearing on three-quarters of the Jewish working population of Palestine; it had become the central force in the Yishuv. And by 1933, Ben-Gurion’s struggles for a prominent place in the World Zionist Organization were over. He had successfully brought labor into its leadership with himself at the helm. It would be this leadership which would, in 1935, bring about his chairmanship of the Jewish Agency from which he would become Israel’s first Prime Minister in 1948.
A.D. Gordon’s reflection in Our Tasks Ahead, written in 1920, just two years before his death, in Kibbutz Degania, could have served as the guiding principle of the Histadrut and of the labor governments that followed. “We must draw our inspiration from our land, from life on our soil, from the labor we engage in….” Gordon, although not an observant Jew, believed in a mystical bond between the Jews and Eretz Israel.
To this, it must be added that similar ideas were rewoven and wafted in the air of Palestine; reflections on the writings of first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, and of the existential philosopher, Martin Buber, that were swept into this era’s landscape of Eretz Israel, and thus into subsequent essays in coming issues.