There is much debate among historians and activists about the precise attitude of pre-state Israel’s leadership toward the Palestinian minority. Leading up the 1948 War, how far was David Ben Gurion prepared to go? Was he an active proponent of the ethnic cleansing campaign that eventually drove nearly 1-million Palestinians from their ancestral homes? Or was Nakba a combination of the exigencies of war along with an unstated policy adopted by some of its military commanders.
These questions are difficult to answer for two reasons: one, Ben Gurion must’ve realized if Israel was planning to expel such a large proportion of its non-Jewish population, it could not do so publicly. For this reason, aside from documents vaguely alluding to the subject, there is no official smoking gun. I don’t know how aware he was of the approach the Nazis took to their own genocide: aside from the Wansee Conference, there is almost no documentary record of the Holocaust in the archives of the perpetrators. Similarly, Ben Gurion made sure there would be almost no official record to document Nakba.
Two, the Israeli State has done a generally good job of sealing its archives to prevent most historical research on the subject. Some documents have leaked out and a few reporters or historians have been lucky enough to stumble upon such material in haphazard fashion. But the State and its institutions don’t want the world to examine this subject in great detail, and for good reason.
For this reason, it’s fascinating to read this letter Ben Gurion wrote to his son, Amos in 1937. In it, he deals with the prospect of partition raised by the British Peel Commission which was meeting at that time. It would appear, from Ben Gurion’s tone in the letter, that he’s engaging his son, who’s told him that of his emotional reaction to the prospect that the Jews may get less than the territorial mandate they hoped and expected. Amos appears to be among those holding out for a more maximalist position that would tend to either reject compromise and hold out for more.
Ben Gurion reveals himself to be a practical and pragmatic man–within limits. He reminds Amos that the Jews essentially have no land at all and that the Peel Commission will likely offer them more than what they currently have. He reminds his son that the Jews must be patient and that whatever they are now offered may be augmented in the future by the combined forces of those Jews in Israel and the millions of Diaspora Jews who will bring their power to bear in helping their brethren there.
What’s most interesting to me is that even at this early date, before the Holocaust, more than a decade before the declaration of statehood, and despite professing a pragmatic willingness to compromise; despite all that, the seeds of Israel’s current ultra-nationalist, rejectionist approach to the conflict were already planted and waiting to bear fruit.
There is also a certain naiveté evident in Ben Gurion’s assumptions that the Palestinians will simply understand, either through superior Jewish power or their own reasoning, that they must compromise with the Jews and accept a diminution of their dreams and expectation. The noblesse oblige with which the future Israeli leader professes such confidence that this eventuality will come about is shocking. No doubt, it played no small role in the many Israeli miscalculations about Palestinian motivations, intentions and interests. These disastrous appraisals in turns led to many of the wars and much of the bloodshed that followed.
Though of course it takes two to tango, and the Palestinians made their share of errors, the Jews have always been in superior position and had the luxury of pursuing accommodation had they chosen to do so. But they never did.
Here are some of the most salient passages. Ben Gurion’s emphases are noted in italics with [BG]. Longer passages in italics are mine:
…Here what I want to talk about is the conflict you are experiencing between your reason and your emotions with regard to the question of the state. Political matters should not be a question of emotions. The only thing that should be taken into account is what we want and what is best for us, what will lead to the objective, and which are the policies that will make us succeed and which will make us fail. It seems to me that I, too, have “emotions” [quotation marks in original. Hebrew: regesh]. Without these emotions I would not have been able to endure decades of our hard work. It definitely does not hurt my feelings [regesh] that a state is established, even if it is small.
Of course the partition of the country gives me no pleasure. But the country that they [the Royal (Peel) Commission] are partitioning is not
in our actual possession; it is in the possession of the Arabs and the English. What is in our actual possession is a small portion, less than what they [the Peel Commission] are proposing for a Jewish state. If I were an Arab I would have been very indignant. But in this proposed partition we will get more than what we already have, though of course much less than we merit and desire. The question is: would we obtain more without partition? If things were to remain as they are [emphasis in original], would this satisfy our feelings? What we really want is not that the land remain whole and unified. What we want is that the whole and unified land be Jewish [BG emphasis]. A unified Eretz Israeli would be no source of satisfaction for me– if it were Arab.
Here already we see Ben Gurion’s determination that the Jews should maintain absolute sovereignty over the land. There can be no brooking a Palestinian presence that offers them their own source of national sovereignty, authority or power. There will be no state in which Jews and Palestinians are equal. It goes without saying that there will be no bi-national state. Later claims, including those in the Declaration of Independence itself, that Israel will be a state that is both Jewish and democratic, are proven false even at this early date.
From our standpoint, the status quo is deadly poison. We want to change the status quo. But how can this change come about? How can this land become ours? The decisive question is: Does the establishment of a Jewish state [in only part of Palestine] advance or retard the conversion of this country into a Jewish country?
My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning.
I’ve always bridled at pro-Israel apologists who predict a disaster should Israel sign an agreement with the Palestinians because, so they insist, that such a deal is only the first step toward eventual Palestinian domination of the entire land. They have a point because right here Ben Gurion exposes his own incremental view of attaining full control over all the territory of Israel.
Further, this approach of taking the country inch by inch, settlement by settlement, is precisely the strategy adopted by the current settlers and their enablers in the centers of Israeli power. So we see that Occupation and settlement are not hodge-podge policies adopted on the fly. They are deliberate policies that aim to empower the Jewish majority and leave Palestinians stranded and powerless in the midst of this Jewish sea.
When we acquire one thousand or 10,000 dunams, we feel elated. It does not hurt our feelings that by this acquisition we are not in possession of the whole land. This is because this increase in possession is of consequence not only in itself, but because through it we increase our strength, and every increase in strength helps in the possession of the land as a whole. The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.
In the passage below, Ben Gurion reveals the instrumental role he believed the Law of Return had to play as a force-multiplier of Jewish power. Similarly, it explains why Israel advocates so adamantly reject the Right of Return. They fear that Palestinians would aim to do to Jewish Israel precisely what Ben Gurion aimed to do with the Law of Return. This passage proves even more strongly than almost anything I’ve read, that both these principles must be modulated so that they allow both peoples to populate the country in a fair, transparent and regulated fashion.
We shall admit into the state all the Jews we can. We firmly believe that we can admit more than two million Jews. We shall build a multi-faceted Jewish economy– agricultural, industrial, and maritime. We shall organize an advanced defense force—a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best armies in the world. At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbors, or through some other means.
We must always keep in mind the fundamental truths that make our settlement of this land imperative and possible. They are two or three: it is not the British Mandate nor the Balfour Declaration. These are consequences, not causes. They are the products of coincidence: contingent , ephemeral, and they will come to an end. They were not inevitable. They could not have occurred but for the World War, or rather, they would not have occurred if the war had not ended the way it did.
The following passage reveals both the critical underlying assumptions of Ben Gurion’s strategy of state-building, but also the fundamental weaknesses and illusions which his vision betrayed. Though the Holocaust did, less than a decade later “propel” some of those Diaspora Jews to settle the new state, the declaration of statehood did not, in itself, bring the flood Ben Gurion expected. Indeed, one may argue that had there not been such a genocide, the State, had it come into being, would’ve taken on quite a different composition. Diaspora Jews would’ve come certainly, but in numbers closer to those of the present day. In other words, Israel would not have become the central address of world Jewry that Ben Gurion expected.
In point 2 below, you also see Ben Gurion’s huge blind spot when it came to predicting or evaluating the views of the Palestinians. While he could see the Jewish inhabitants as politically united and having an identity of their own; he refused to acknowledge the same principles at play among Palestinians. Had he been able to do so, the miraculousness of the Jewish talents enumerated in point 3 below might’ve been realized in a far fully, more constructive way than they have.
But on the other hand there are fundamental [BG emphasis] historical truths, unalterable as long as Zionism is not fully realized. These are:
1) The pressure of the Exile, which continue s to push the Jews with propulsive force towards the country
2) Palestine is grossly under populated. It contains vast colonization potential which the Arabs neither need nor are qualified (because of their lack of need) to exploit. There is no Arab immigration problem. There is no Arab exile. Arabs are not persecuted. They have a homeland, and it is vast.
3) The innovative talents of the Jews (a consequence of point 1 above), their ability to make the desert bloom, to create industry, to build an economy, to develop culture, to conquer the sea and space with the help of science and pioneering endeavor.
These three fundamental truths will be reinforced by the existence of a Jewish state in a part of the country, just as Zionism will be reinforced by every conquest, large or small, every school, every factory, every Jewish ship, etc.
Our ability to penetrate the country will increase if we have a state. Our strength vis-à-vis the Arabs will likewise increase. The possibilities for construction and multiplication will speedily expand. The greater the Jewish strength in the country, the more the Arabs will realize that it is neither beneficial nor possible for them to withstand us. On the contrary, it will be possible for the Arabs to benefit enormously from the Jews, not only materially but politically as well.
In the italicized passage above, we can see the tragedy that is Ben Gurion’s Zionism. Had he only been willing to ascribe to Palestinians the same aspirations he himself had for statehood, political power and national identity, he might’ve realized that they were not infants, nor chattel, nor savages who could be bought or turned around by brute force or charity, imagine how Israel might’ve developed as a joint project of two peoples.
I do not dream of war nor do I like it. But I still believe, more than I did before the emergence of the possibility of a Jewish state, that once we are numerous and powerful in the country the Arabs will realize that it is better for them to become our allies.
They will derive benefits from our assistance if they, of their own free will, give us the opportunity to settle in all parts of the country. The Arabs have many countries that are under-populated, underdeveloped, and vulnerable, incapable with their own strength to stand up to their external enemies. Without France, Syria could not last for one day against an onslaught from Turkey. The same applies to Iraq and to the new [Palestinian] state [under the Peel plan]. All of these stand in need of the protection of France or Britain. This need for protection means subjugation and dependence on the other. But the Jews could be equal allies, real friends, not occupiers or tyrants over them.
Let us assume that the Negev will not be allotted to the Jewish state. In such event, the Negev will remain barren because the Arabs have neither the competence nor the need to develop it or make it prosper. They already have an abundance of deserts but not of manpower, financial resources, or creative initiative. It is very probable that they will agree that we undertake the development of the Negev and make it prosper in return for our financial, military, organizational, and scientific assistance.
It is also possible that they will not agree. People don’t always behave according to logic, common sense, or their own practical advantage. Just as you yourself are sometimes conflicted between your mind and your emotions, it is possible that the Arabs will follow the dictates of sterile nationalist emotions and tell us: “We want neither your honey nor your sting. We’d rather that the Negev remain barren than that Jews should inhabit it.”
Below, you’ll find the “money quote.” The words that ultimately define Ben Gurion’s philosophy and how far he was willing to go in realizing his ambition. The answer is: all the way. He preferred persuading Palestinians with vague promises of economic development and good will that they should partner with Jews (in a subordinate role, of course) in building a new Jewish nation. But should they balk, the response was clear. Ben Gurion planned to have a military capability that would keep Palestinian in line and deter other external Arab enemies:
If this occurs, we will have to talk to them in a different language—and we will have a different language—but such a language will not be ours without a state. This is so because we can no longer tolerate that vast territories capable of absorbing tens of thousands of Jews should remain vacant, and that Jews cannot return to their homeland because the Arabs prefer that the place [the Negev] remains neither ours nor theirs. We must expel Arabs and take their place.
Up to now, all our aspirations have been based on an assumption – one that has been vindicated throughout our activities in the country – that there is enough room in the land for the Arabs and ourselves. But if we are compelled to use force – not in order to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev or Transjordan, but in order to guarantee our right to settle there – our force will enable us to do so.
In the above paragraph, Ben Gurion tries to have it both ways: he says the use of force will serve an affirmative rather than negative purpose. Jewish power will enable ‘us’ to settle areas that would otherwise remain barren and fallow. Such power would not (at least as of 1937) be meant to expel Palestinian populations. But we can already see that the future Israeli leader’s thinking on the subject is in the process of evolving. By 1948, when he saw the Palestinians of Israel and the Arabs states as implacably opposed to statehood, he certainly would’ve become an advocate of ethnic cleansing. It would be the only way he could ensure Jewish power and sovereignty for decades to come, if not in perpetuity.
Clearly in such event we will have to deal not only with the Arabs living in Eretz Israel, since it is very probable that Arabs from the neighboring countries will come to their aid. But our power will be greater, not only because we will be better organized and equipped, but also because behind us stands a force still greater in quantity and quality. This is the reservoir of the millions in the Diaspora. Our entire younger generation of Poland, Romania, America, and other countries will rush to our aid at the outbreak of such a conflict. I pray to God that this does not happen at all. Nevertheless the Jewish state will not rely only on the Jews living in it, but on the Jewish people living in every corner of the world: the many millions who are eager and obliged [BG emphasis] to settle in Palestine.
There are not millions of Arabs who are compelled or willing to settle in Palestine. Of course it is likely that Arab adventurers and gangs will come from Syria or Iraq or other Arab countries, but these can be no match for the tens and hundreds of thousands of young Jews to whom Eretz Israel is not merely an emotional issue, but one that is in equal measure both personal and national.
For this reason I attach enormous importance to the conquest of the sea and the construction of a Jewish harbor and a Jewish fleet. The sea is the bridge between the Jews of this country and the Jewish Diaspora – the millions of Jews in different parts of the world. We must create the conditions that will enable us in times of necessity to bring into the country in our own ships manned by our own seamen, tens of thousands of young men. Meanwhile we must prepare these young men while they are still in the Diaspora for whatever task awaits them here. I am confident that the establishment of a Jewish state, even if it is only in a part of the country, will enable us to carry out this is task. Once a state is established, we shall have control over the Eretz Israeli sea. Our activities in the sea will then include astonishing achievements
Because of all the above, I feel no conflict between my mind and emotions. Both declare to me: A Jewish state must be established immediately, even if it is only in part of the country. The rest will follow in the course of time. A Jewish state will come.