“The buck stops here,” read the sign on the desk of United States President Truman, emphasizing his willingness to take responsibility for any situation that might arise under his leadership. With responsibility comes credit. It is impossible to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel without recognizing David Ben Gurion’s inextricable role in bringing all the different factions together into a unified nation, a unification the Jewish people have not seen perhaps since the days of his namesake — King David himself. Ben Gurion’s role not only as a military, logistical, and diplomatic leader but as a national unifier carries with it profound lessons to this day. If we would like to continue to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in decades to come, we must study the legacy of unity and live by it.
Just a few weeks before the end of the British mandate was going to end, David Ben Gurion tasked a group of scholars with the secret drafting of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Rabbi Dr. Harry Davidowitz, an American conservative rabbi and scholar, used the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution as an inspiration for his drafting of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Being inspired by the United States Constitution would mean that the document would surely include a mentioning of God. Aaron Tzizling representing the socialist Mapam and the Marxist Kibbutzim, raised a strong objection. In no way would they tolerate a mentioning of God and religion in the declaration of the state they had worked so hard to bring about. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, leader of the Mizrachi movement, argued it would be unthinkable for a Jewish state to be established after two thousand years of yearning and prayer and not to have God’s name in its declaration.
Despite some dissatisfaction from both sides, David Ben Gurion pressed his opinion, preferring a compromise in which they would use the term “Tzur Yisrael — Rock of Israel.” Religious people can think of it as referring to God, while more secular people can think of it as referring to Israel’s strength. No side was delighted, yet both were able to agree to that.
This episode, though important, is merely symbolic of David Ben Gurion’s unrecognized greatness. It is hard to meet anyone who loves all of Gen Gurion’s decisions or who feel like he “took their side,” yet that was precisely his greatness, and without this greatness, there would never be a State of Israel. Never. Contrast the broad adoration founders of other countries receive from their people and how Israelis regard Ben Gurion, and you will find a significant gap there.
While Israelis and Jews admire Ben Gurion across a broad spectrum, many still bear grudges to him. Some of those grudges are objectively justified, as Ben Gurion was an imperfect person, yet others are just because he did not take their side. Secular Israelis might begrudge Ben Gurion for giving too much power to the Chief Rabbinate and the orthodox, while religious Israelis feel he did not do enough for religion. Socialists Kibbutzim felt like Ben Gurion caved in too much to capitalism and prioritized a strong relationship with the United States over better relations with Soviet Russia; to capitalists, Ben Gurion was too much of a socialist who kept in place too many regulations and restrictions. The list goes on and on. There is not a single group, right or left, religious or not, socialist and capitalists, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, hawkish or dovish, and so on that can say Ben Gurion has represented “their agenda.”
This seemingly diminished legacy of Ben Gurion is indeed his greatest one and is the only way the State of Israel still exists. Ben Gurion’s recognition that the only way a Jewish state, with all of its diversity of opinions and passionate believers, will be able to stand is by making strong compromises that would both force and enable everyone to live together. His vision for a state that would incorporate Jews immigrating from over fifty different countries and vastly different cultures and backgrounds is what made today’s Israel possible.
Another embodiment of how Ben Gurion facilitated the modern-day state of Israel is the Ben Gurion Rice, also known as Petition. In the 1950s, Israel was blessed with hundreds of thousands of Mizrachi Jews who fled Arab countries to live in Israel. This was the time Israel suffered from severe poverty, food rationing and struggled to get by. There was no rice in the country, and many Mizrachi Jews relied on a diet that was heavy with rice. The young state of Israel had no food to give them. Ben Gurion asked the managers of the Osem food company to produce from wheat pasta-like food that would look like rice. Once again, Ben Gurion created a new happy medium that would address existing needs using innovative thinking.
Even Ben Gurion’s most controversial and regrettable decision in those early days of the state — the shooting and downing of Menachem Begin’s Irggun’s Altalena ship embodies the complexities Ben Gurion was dealing with. Members of the Palmach, the Kibbutzim, and the “red” factions of the young state of Israel favored a harsh and violent approach to the Irggun’s Altalena and its much-needed weapons cargo. At the same time, Ben Gurion did not share this approach. So deep was the divide that Palmach commander Yigal Alon’s biographer and historian, Anita Shapira, writes that the reason Palmach men were tasked with handling the case of the Altalena, to begin with, was their hostility to the Irgun was part of their ideology and who they were.
Infighting and mismanagement within the Palmach, Haganah, and the new IDF lead to poor communication and the profoundly regrettable shooting and sinking of the Altalena. However, it also exemplified the radically different factions Ben Gurion had to pull together into one nation. On the one hand, this was not a proud chapter in Ben Gurion’s 1948 legacy. On the other hand, it highlights the number of issues he was dealing with simultaneously and how radically different parts of a nation were, even as Ben Gurion knew must be brought together.
Ben Gurion’s famous visit to the home of the ultra-orthodox leader, the legendary Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, is another example. Ben Gurion recognized that the rabbi will not come and visit him, and went to the home of the rabbi. Showing respect, deference, and willingness to address the most difficult questions, Ben Gurion engaged with the rabbi and created a frame of conversation between the young state and its ultra-orthodox constituents.
There was nothing glorious about doing what Ben Gurion did at the time, yet today we know that there would be no state without him. Would Ben Gurion get a 100% grade for his work on unifying a nation? Absolutely not. The Altalena, Yemenite children who were taken from their parents to other homes, and other scars of that time are still deep and unresolved. Would Ben-Gurion get a pass on a pass-fail grading system for what he has done? The answer is a resounding yes. Not only did Ben-Gurion resoundingly succeed in passing, but he has passed where so many had failed. He had succeeded in bringing together a vastly diverse nation at the one time that it mattered. Like a captain who succeeded in saving his ship at its most difficult time, Ben Gurion succeeded in bringing together a people at its most critical time.
This very conduct brings to mind what has brought the Jewish people our most glorious time — the Unified Kingdom, under King David. While there is so much to be said for King David and his spiritual intensity and lasting legacy, he was also the one who unified a divided people into one kingdom — establishing a capital city in a part of Israel that has yet to be divided into the part of any tribe—the holy city of Jerusalem. King David uproots the center of the kingdom away from the more established city of Hebron — in the land of his own tribe, Judah — and centers it in Jerusalem, a unifying and shared city. This is the key and essence of Jewish independence and survival, our ability to stand together — united. Tragically, David’s unification did not last more than two generations. After the death of King David’s son and successor, King Solomon, the Unified Kingdom was divided between King Rechav’am and Yerov’am. The tragic end is known history; the kingdom’s reminded divided, and the kingdom of Israel was expelled, leading to the loss of a majority of our people, reinforcing the belief that we can only survive as a nation if we are united.
Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut means to many a celebration of Israel’s miraculous military success and deliverance from the hands of seven enemy armies. To others, Yom Ha’atzmaut marks the incredible miracle of the return to our Jewish homeland after 2000 years of not being there, while others focus on the incredible gift of Jewish self-determination and self-governance. Another aspect we ought to celebrate is the miraculous gathering of the exiles and returning of Jews from all over the diaspora to be joined in their ancestral homeland. Our vision of what Yom Ha’atzmaut is all about shapes our vision of what be done to strengthen Israel today — supports its military, independence, encourage Aliya, or focus on building Israel internally.
To me, Yom Ha’atzmaut means — more than anything else the miracle of bringing together a radically diverse nation. Creating a state in which religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, left and right, hawkish and dovish, and those from such radically different histories, traditions, cuisines, and ideologies into one state. The state is often divided and opinionated — but it is one state. This was Ben Gurion’s outstanding achievement, and this is the key to Israel’s survival. Interestingly, despite their deep rivalry and even animosity — this is the strongest common belief share by David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin. They both recognized that the greatest danger that Israel will ever face is the danger of infighting and disunity.
When speaking of the final redemption and all the blessings that will come with it, the prophet Isaiah (11:13) famously says: “And the envy of Ephraim shall cease, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off; Ephraim shall not envy Judah, nor shall Judah vex Ephraim.” The painful history of division, going all the way back to the time of the twelve tribes and the rivalry between Rachel’s children and Leah’s children, is a central concern when talking about the final redemption. Rashi, the greatest biblical commentator, notes (ibid): “Ephraim shall not envy Judah: [this is to say] The Messiah, the son of David, and the Messiah, the son of Joseph, shall not envy each other.” Part and parcel of redemption is our ability to get along with one another, something we should never take for granted.
As we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut and Israel’s amazing success, let us remember that this all would be impossible without so such different groups and people coming together. And yes, let us give credit where it is due. Were it not for the fearless and often unpopular leadership of David Ben Gurion, the state of Israel would never have fully materialized. “And David was successful in all his ways; the Lord was with him.” (Samuel I, 18) Looking into the future, we must make sure that the only way the state of Israel can survive is if we remain committed to the legacy of Ben Gurion, that of building bridges, of unifying, and of creative ways to solve fundamental differences. Wishing everyone a very happy Yom Ha’atzmaut.