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David Ben-Gurion and the Arabs

Dusty Sklar
October 8, 2016

by Dusty Sklar

DAVID BEN-GURION -- born David Gruen 130 years ago on October 16 -- was the George Washington of Israel.

The man who became Israel's first prime minister and is widely seen as the "father" of the modern state seemed to have held contradictory views about Arab-Jewish relations -- but he was hardly alone in that.

Ben-Gurion came to Socialist Zionism early and arrived in Palestine in 1906, at age 20. He helped to found the yishuv's first Jewish agricultural community, which would evolve into a kibbutz, and the first self-defense group. Exiled by the Ottoman authorities at the start of World War I, he returned as a member of the Jewish Legion, a unit of the British Army. By 1919, Ben-Gurion was famously writing that "Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews. But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can breach it. . . .We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs."

The following year, he said: "Under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them. Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price."

Indeed, as early as 1914, Ben-Gurion had understood that the animosity of Palestinian Arabs toward Zionism existed because of their dread of dispossession. He believed, too, that the Arab worker in the Jewish settlements was experiencing class conflict, which fed the flames of his hatred of the Jews. On that account, Ben-Gurion came to advocate using only Jewish labor in Jewish businesses. Yet even before the 1929 Arab riots, Ben-Gurion talked about how the common class interests of Jewish and Arab workers should help them to overcome their national differences.

BY 1921, he became General Secretary of Histadrut, the Zionist Labor Federation in Palestine, which he founded and dominated for much of his political career. That same year, at a London meeting with Musa Husseini, a prominent Palestinian who would head the Palestine Arab Congress from 1922 until 1934, Ben-Gurion was warned that if the Jews set up a sovereign state, they would be deemed an imperialist pawn and the Arabs would wage war against them.

In 1924, when another leader, Shlomo Kaplansky, suggested that the Labor Zionists stand with the British Mandatory authorities in setting up a parliament, even if that meant including an Arab majority — "We should come to an agreement with the Arabs, and together demand the expansion of the parliament's jurisdiction and ultimate self rule," said Kaplansky — Ben-Gurion saw to it that Kaplansky's plan did not succeed.

Gradually, however, as he assumed the role of Zionist statesman and policy maker, Ben-Gurion actively sought direct dialogue with Arabs in positions of authority. (Ironically, however, although he was adept at learning languages -- he knew Turkish, English, Russian, French, German, Spanish, and ancient Greek -- he never learned Arabic.) One such Arab leader was Musa Alami, a politician and attorney who had served as private secretary of British Mandate Palestine's High Commissioner General Arthur Grenfell Wauchope. In 1934, when Ben-Gurion tried to convince Alami that Zionism had benefited Palestinian Arabs, Alami responded, "I prefer the country to be poor and desolate, even for a hundred years, until we Arabs are capable, alone, of developing it and making it flourish."

Ben-Gurion also shared with Alami a vision of a federation that would include Palestine, Iraq, and other Arab states. "Even if the Arabs of Palestine constitute a minority," he argued, "they will not have a minority status because they will be linked to millions of Arabs in the neighboring countries."

Unlike other Jewish leaders, Ben-Gurion, at least in public, pooh-poohed the likelihood of the Arabs warring against the Jewish state. Once the state was founded, he argued, the Arabs would come to an agreement with it. Privately, though, he felt that the Palestinian Arabs, aided by other Arab states, would go to war -- and he ended up preparing for it, and capitalizing upon it to expand the Jewish state's territory.

For when the Commission's partition plan was created in 1937, the Jewish state that Ben-Gurion saw within grasp comprised less than one-quarter of western Palestine, including the Galilee, the Jezebel Valley, and the coastal plain, with the Arabs holding most of the rest and the British keeping certain territories under their "protectorate."

As Ben-Gurion wrote in a letter to his son, Amos:

"A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning . . . We shall bring into the state all the Jews it is possible to bring . . . and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means. Our ability to penetrate the country will increase if there is a state. Our strength vis-a-vis the Arabs will increase. I am not in favor of war. [But if] the Arabs say 'Better the Negev remain barren than the Jews settle there,' we shall have to speak to them in a different language."

And so it went in 1948: In successfully defending itself, Israel acquired nearly half of the land that had been reserved for the Arabs under the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and helped to foment a massive exodus of Arabs from that territory.

If there had been no Ben-Gurion, there might be no state of Israel — or perhaps there would have been a bi-national state, or an Arab-ruled country with a large Jewish population. In any case, every year, on the anniversary of Ben-Gurion's death (December 1, 1973), politicians from all of Israel's parties, along with military officers and civilian dignitaries, make the pilgrimage to his grave and eulogize the man who held such contradictory views about the Arabs.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Some of her articles for us have dealt with American corporate collaboration with Nazism, the American eugenics movement’s influence upon Nazism, and Mahatma Gandhi’s views on Zionism and the Holocaust.