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What would Ben Gurion do?

Israel's founding father would have been appalled by the existence of a special ultra-Orthodox army unit in the IDF

This week I had the honor and pleasure of going to Sde Boker to attend the Tekes Kumta (ceremony for the presentation of berets) of one of my daughter’s close friends, an Olah from California, who has become a virtual member of our household. This ceremony marked the completion of advanced training for “Karakal” (meaning ‘wildcat’), the only co-ed combat Infantry unit in the Israeli army. Appropriately, the ceremony took place at Sde Boker, around the graves of David and Paula Ben-Gurion. The Ben-Gurions would have been so very proud.

As I stood there, I could not help thinking of a very similar yet very different ceremony that had taken place in Jerusalem two days earlier, the Tekes Hashbaa (Induction ceremony) of the Nachal Haredi (the army unit made up of Haredi soldiers. I pondered how the same army could contain a unit in which one of its guiding principles mandates as little contact as possible with women… along with another division where men and women train together and learn to fight together as one entity. How can one country maintain an army with units that are diametrically different? After some reflection, I pondered further: Is the existence of these two units (Karakal and Nachal Haredi) a sign of the ultimate success of Zionism; the ultimate achievement–that Zionists could be so pluralistic as to accept everyone’s belief? Or conversely, is this a symptom of Zionism’s failure? And what, I wondered, would Ben-Gurion, (whose body lay not 20 meters from where I stood) think if he were alive today?

Karakal ceremony Sde Boker May 28, 2013
Karakal ceremony Sde Boker May 28, 2013

I believe he would have been appalled by the Nachal Haredi ceremony. While Ben-Gurion would no doubt applaud the fact there are Haredim serving in the army, I believe he would be aghast at the accommodations that had to be made in order to allow Haredi soldiers to serve. More importantly, Ben-Gurion would have been saddened by the realization that the brand of Zionism he had grown up with — the Zionism that he more than any other person managed to turn into a success — has disappeared.

Ben-Gurion’s Zionism was a direct product of the Enlightenment. At the heart of this historical shift towards reason, which shook the European Jewish world in the late 18th century, was the transformation of both the Jewish people and the Jew. Despite the small involvement of the Mizrachi movement, Zionism was overwhelmingly a secular movement. It was a movement confident in its ideology. Zionist leaders called on the Jews of Europe to leave before a fire engulfed them. Zionism blossomed before the rise of Hitler. Zionists believed in the power of Avoda Ivrit (Jewish labor). Zionists believed that men and women were equal (even if that did not always occur in practice).

During that same period, the rabbis of Europe urged their congregants to stay put, not to give in to the dual sirens of Zionism or America. But Zionist leaders actively recruited among the children of the very religious in Europe. Many of the early Chalutzim, pioneers, were the children or grandchildren of well-known rabbis. The Zionists did not believe in leaving the Haredim in their own world. No, they worked to lead them into theirs. Ben-Gurion brand Zionists would not have created army units that reflect what they would have considered the sexist, chauvinistic Haredi society. Ben-Gurion brand Zionists would have actively recruited Haredi children to leave their lifestyle and join the modern State of Israel.

Somewhere, the Zionists lost their way. Zionism became a bad term, associated only with the National Religious party, whose religious fervor is expressed through their love and commitment to the land. While everyone else has almost given up on “Zionism,” Ben- Gurion would not have given up on his belief that our modern way of life is superior.

Today, our society and our leaders accept the Haredi’s way of life. Israeli Zionist leaders only cry out to push Haredim to step up and take on their fair share of our burden to defend our State. I believe that Ben-Gurion (if he could have risen from his grave this week) would have said something very different. It’s not acceptable to have an army unit where women are banned. It is deplorable to have a society in our midst that treats women as second-class citizens. It is unconscionable to have a society within our nation that does not give its youngsters the tools to make choices for their future and to guide their own way of life.

Liberty is the ability to choose. Zionism believed in giving liberty to Jews, while transforming the Jewish people into a modern society. Ben-Gurion would say that it’s our responsibility to show our brethren the light, to bring light to their society in the same way the Enlightenment and Zionism shined a light on the closed communities of Europe more than a hundred years ago.

David Ben-Gurion was a courageous and visionary leader. He was a man who led by conviction, and lived by his values. Today we live in the era of politicians, and public relation spins. We pass laws that sound good, but will do little. The problem is that Ben-Gurion has been gone for 40 years, and the ideological movement that he led has floundered. Without a new generation of visionary leaders who can truly lead instead of spin, the true promise of Zionism will remain unfulfilled.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne and has a weekly newsletter on substack called Israel Update