In attempting to understand David Ben-Gurion, his thinking and his implementation, there is a need to understand his worldview and what he has brought into today’s history.
Can a single direction be discerned? Or is Israel at a crossroads moving in different directions – with divergent worldviews? Is there a common denominator – or a center to the ideology and Implementation?
An echo of Ben-Gurion’s voice in 1944, thirty-seven years after his first night in Petah Tikvah, resounds in 2022.
… the issue is not whether we look back to the faces of yesterday or those of tomorrow. In history, both past and future are relative terms. What was regarded yesterday as the wave of the future may today seem reactionary, and what seemed of no importance yesterday, may be a great force tomorrow.
Due to multi faceted elements, combinations and permutations of possibilities, we know very little of what the future holds; however, Ben-Gurion’s words of 1944 are a constant in a sea of variables:
Unity is the imperative of our mission and our destiny. Nonetheless of all the values, it is the one that is perhaps most honored in theory and least respected in practice… outside forces beyond our control and unforeseen circumstances which we can not imagine will play their parts in tipping the scales, one way or the other. Nonetheless, despite all that, it does depend on us….
Although we can no longer speak to Ben-Gurion in person, his presence accompanies the reader as a discussion of the Bible unfolds In his regard.
Not a formally observant Jew, adhering to or fulfilling religious tenets or rituals, nevertheless, Ben-Gurion’s life- purpose, inspiration was drawn from The Bible.
“The State of Israel will not be treated by its strength of economy alone, but by its spirit. We have inherited a great heritage and it is binding.”
To Ben-Gurion, the birth of the State of Israel was the link with independent Jewish existence of 2000 years, which received its origins with Abraham who came on aliyah to the land which God had promised him.
To Ben–Gurion, it was not enough to have a land – it was to be a light unto the nations, a model of justice and democracy to all mankind. As the sun sets on the low desert horizon, Isaiah and Micah approach, explaining their visions for the future.
As Isaiah and Micah join the reader, Spinoza and Plato are listening attentively, and do not feel out of place; Ben-Gurion counted them amongst his friends and the ages which separated him from them, had no more consequence to him, than that which separated him from the prophets, who were always with him, as witnessed in his speeches and writings.
To harmonize the scriptures with current affairs was inherent to Ben-Gurion. His attachment to The Bible and to the Land of Israel were synonymous. Comprehension of The Bible, even the Bible Contest which he had established, was not to debate, in a detached, intellectual, exercise but to live its significance, wherein the past coincides with the present, and points the way to the future.
To understand Ben-Gurion is to recognize his mentor Berl Katzenelson who was more than a friend but also his very significant guide.
Born in the White Russian city of Bobruisk, struck by the oppressive Jewish situation, Katzenelson came to Palestine in 1909 at the age of twenty-two (during the same period, as did Ben-Gurion). Life for Katzenelson, as he often repeated, only began from the moment he came to Palestine. This appealed to Ben- Gurion, who too started to count his years on the date he arrived. The challenge of the future of Palestine drew the two, who considered themselves adventurers, together.
With his hands, just like Ben-Gurion, Katzenelson worked as a farm laborer and with his mind and spirit, as he searched the past and conceived the foundations of moral principles by which to build the new Zionism. To Katzenelson, who together with Ben-Gurion would become key founders of the Histadrut, Labor Federation, unique as a trade union, there was no question of discarding the tenets on which the old Zion was built but rather to use its ideological pillars for a labor movement, that would assist in building a State, built on the foundation of the moral principles of justice and of human dignity.
According to Katzenelson:
… a renewing and creative generation does not throw cultural heritage of ages into a dust bin, It examines and scrutinizes it. At times, it may keep it as an accepted tradition. At times, it descends into ruined ghettos to excavate and remove the dust from that which had been buried by forgetfulness, in order to resuscitate old traditions which have the power to stimulate the spirit of the generation of renewal. If a people possess something old and profound, which can educate and train them for future tasks, is it truly revolutionary to despise it and become estranged to its principles?
From fathers to sons throughout all the generations, the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt has been transmitted as a personal experience; and, it has therefore retained its original luster.
These ancient ideas, incorporated into modern day implementational realities, Katzenelson, expressed in numerous ways, at every national and international forum in Palestine and abroad, at which he represented the Labour Zionist movement. Not on politics but on politicians, did Katzenelson give his cultural Zionist imprint as a journalist, commentator and editorialist.
The cultural program of the Palestinian labor movement was established under Katzenelson’s guidance. In 1925, he found the Davar newspaper as the organ of the trade Union organization.
His love for books, which had motivated him to establish a traveling library for farm workers in the first few years of his arrival in Palestine, also expressed itself in his having created the Histadrut publishing house, Oved. Concretised in this endeavor was the harmony he sought between the modern labor Zionist movement and the traditional, timeless heritage of learning, passed from generation to generation.
In 1944, the death of Katzenelson came as a severe blow to David Ben -Gurion, and the labor movement lost a man who would walk for hours to speak to a single young person who wanted to think and talk. The Labor Zion Movement lost not only its orator but its educator, Beryl Katzenelson, who did not speak to audiences, he discussed with them.
These discussions continued at the institution, bearing his name, Beit Berl. Katzenelson’s thoughts inspired Ben-Gurion throughout his life, as their message to Ben-Gurion was and remained current.
… how will our people behave after its dispersed have assembled after its complete liberation from (history’s antisemitic) bondage.. Perhaps, it will celebrate,… with dancing song, or perhaps, it will desire that each child born in liberty and equality, and acquainted with hunger and material oppression, shall know the suffering of previous generations…
Through this friendship between Ben-Gurion and Katzenelson, we better understand who Ben Gurion was, what he did, and why he did it.