"A Nation without Vision Cannot Survive": Memories of David Ben-Gurion

By Cohn, Arthur | Midstream, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

"A Nation without Vision Cannot Survive": Memories of David Ben-Gurion


Cohn, Arthur, Midstream


The 60th birthday of Israel is a suitable opportunity to remember the early years of the Jewish state and to express our appreciation and gratitude to the founders of Israel.

David Ben-Gurion was certainly the decisive factor in the establishment of Israel. He endorsed the decision not to postpone the declaration of the state, he wrote the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, and he led the tiny army to a victory over the mighty Arab states.

As a Swiss journalist, I had the opportunity to meet Ben-Gurion in his home. I was deeply impressed by the unique way his leadership was guided by vision and spirituality.

Ben-Gurion's private office on the first floor of his Jerusalem home was of medium size, and there was a map on all four walls. The map behind his desk was very big and showed the Arab states in red, the rest of the world in yellow, and Israel as a dark blue speck, so small as to be hardly noticeable. "This map reminds me every day just how small we are," said Ben-Gurion.

The library in his room revealed much about the character of the prime minister. Next to a shelf containing his literary works, there were books in half a dozen languages, bearing testimony to a whole range of interests. By constantly widening his field of knowledge, he kept himself spiritually young and one step ahead of others. Already fluent in seven languages, he turned his attention in his fifties to the study of Ancient Greek, and immersed himself in Greek philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Plato. Ben-Gurion also became interested in Asian mysticism and the teachings of Buddha.

Bible study had a profound influence on Ben-Gurion's thinking. One of his comments to me about the future of Israel's culture was: "The civilization of Israel must be based on two principals: on the past, the Bible, which teaches us the true value of things and how to evaluate them, and on modern science, which teaches us know-how."

In the eyes of historians, Ben-Gurion will not be seen as a philosopher, as he left no writings to establish such a status. The lasting contribution of this small dynamic man with wild white hair was in the military field. His politics aside, the military mastery over seven Arab states in 1948 (at that time supported by England) and the exemplary military campaign in Sinai in 1956 will always be associated with the name of the commander-in-chief David Ben-Gurion.

With characteristic tenacity, he succeeded in assembling an army, which, with no tradition as a guide, became a melting pot for immigrants of diverse origins and backgrounds--an army in which the left-socialist militants of the Palmach, the right-wing Irgun Zvai Leumi, and the Haganah surrendered their identities under the command of the chief-of-staff. Each of these political groups would have preferred to maintain its own combat force, but Ben-Gurion saw that the unity of the state was dependent on the unity of the army.

Ben-Gurion was usually one step ahead of his people. While other Jews were still speaking Yiddish, he began to speak Hebrew. At a time when the notion of self-defense was still foreign to Jews, he introduced it into Jewish life. Ben-Gurion had little respect for experts, although he often availed himself of their services. "Experts know the facts," he told me, "but they are often mistaken in their appraisal of them. When an expert says that something is impossible, it usually means that he doesn't have any advice to offer. AS soon as an expert uses the word 'impossible,' it is time to find another expert."

It was one of Ben-Gurion's greatest strengths that he understood how to instill his enthusiasm in others. When he first proposed an idea, it often seemed unrealistic or patently inconceivable. …

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