Memories of Brief Meetings with Ben-Gurion

Memories of Brief Meetings with Ben-Gurion

From the Autumn 1986 issue


I do not remember when I first met Ben-Gurion; I think it may have been in New York at the end of 1941 or the early months of 1942. My second meeting with him, however, is engraved on my memory. In 1941–42 I was an official of the British Ministry of Information in New York. I had made friends with an eminent American lawyer, Benjamin V. Cohen, who had, among other things, played a major part in the drafting of the Mandate for Palestine of the League of Nations and of much of the New Deal legislation in Roosevelt’s first term of office, as well as the securing of the fifty American destroyers which were crucial to Britain in 1940. However, all this is irrelevant. Cohen was in the habit of coming to New York at weekends and returning to Washington by the night train which left at about 2am. I had arranged to call on him at about 11pm on a Sunday night and at the desk of the Winthrop Hotel in Lexington Avenue I asked for his room number. Armed with this information, I went to the relevant room and tapped on the door. No reply. I tapped again. After a while I heard shuffling footsteps approaching the door. It was opened and I saw before me Ben-Gurion, clad in pyjamas. I tend to talk rapidly and sometimes indistinctly, and “Mr Ben Cohen” and “Mr Ben-Gurion” are easily confused. He must have been exceedingly surprised to see me at this hour, unannounced, not having met me, I believe, more than once before; nevertheless, he ushered me into the room most courteously, begged me to sit down and offered me a glass of fruit juice. I was too embarrassed to reveal the truth. We had a somewhat desultory conversation, I think he assumed that I had come as an emissary from Dr Weizmann, who was then in New York and whose friend he knew me to be, to discuss the possibility of bridging the differences between their views on the drafting of what came to be known as the Biltmore Declaration, which favoured the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine. He complained a good deal about Weizmann’s faith in the effectiveness of a policy based on efforts to gain the support of Britain and America; this, in his opinion, would lead nowhere—the American Government and Congress had shown no tendency to oppose the notorious White Paper of 1938–39. He said that he founded all his hopes solely on an open and vigorous alliance of the Yishuv and the American Jews, no matter how upsetting this might be to believers in quiet diplomacy. I think I probably argued against this, but we parted friends and I then called on Ben Cohen, well after midnight, who said he had felt some anxiety about my non-appearance.

I did not see BG again until well after the end of the war. Somewhere in his diaries he states, incorrectly, that we met in Washington and that I had there given him various pieces of advice; but this is not so, and must have been due to some confusion in his mind. We next met at his house in Tel-Aviv in 1950, when he was Prime Minister of Israel. He asked his wife Paula to give me some coffee or orange juice—“Coffee? orange juice? water would be much easier,” she said, “would you mind?” I did not. BG then spoke passionately and at length about the decisive role of individuals in history—his heroes were Churchill (BG was in London in 1940), Tito and de Gaulle—men who fought against apparently overwhelming odds, and won. The image of David and Goliath, it seems to me, governed his thoughts at many moments of his life.

After this I saw him in Oxford on two or three occasions—he used to come incognito (during his Premiership), mainly, it seems, because Richard Crossman had first interested him in the works of Plato and then told him that Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford was by far the best place to obtain books by and on him. On one occasion he stayed in the old Mitre Hotel for several days and Nehemiah (“Nechemya”), his aide-de-camp, telephoned me from London telling me that BG was bound for Oxford and wished to see me. I went to the Mitre and found him in an upstairs parlour, surrounded by noisy beer-drinkers, warming his feet in front of a coal fire, absorbed in a translation of Indian classical poetry. He tore himself from the page and greeted me with the words “Socrates, gurus, rebbes—same thing, no difference, deep wisdom”. We went for a walk. I led him round the colleges; in my own college, All Souls, he met the late Hubert Henderson, then Professor of Political Economy, sitting alone, half asleep, in the Common Room at about 11pm. I introduced Henderson as an eminent economist and BG as Prime Minister of Israel. BG immediately cross-examined him about the relation of economic growth, national income, inflation and the British war-time organization of the national economy. Henderson had no idea to whom he was talking (he had not taken in BG’s identity), but talked to him for over an hour-and-a-half—I took BG back to the Mitre a little after 1am. “Very intelligent little man,” said Henderson to me the next day, “who was he?”. Our conversations during our walks over the next few days were interspersed with quotations from the Platonic Dialogues—BG always began “Do you know what Socrates said?”, and then tried to apply one of his sayings to some contemporary problem. He did, indeed, speak of Socrates exactly as Chassidim speak of their rebbe.

I also remember being invited to his house (he was Prime Minister once again) in Jerusalem sometime in the late 1950s, on a sabbath afternoon, to a kind of Bible class which he evidently held regularly. On that day, I found, gathered there, six or seven eminent scholars, both professional and amateur: I remember Zalman Shazar (later President of Israel), Professor Yehezkel Kaufmann, Professor Dinaburg, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court whose name I cannot recollect and three or four others. Paula Ben-Gurion said to me “Why do you want to go and talk to these people? You will be terribly bored. BG thinks he has to do these things because he thinks he loves the Bible, he thinks he should, and wants to know more about Jewish history. But you don’t want to know about all these things, I am sure; why don’t you come and talk to me instead?” However, I declined her invitation as politely as I could and joined the group. The subject was the role of the prophet during the period of the First Temple: what was his status? was he an itinerant preacher like Elijah, Amos and perhaps Hosea? or attached to the Court as the Prophet Nathan seemed to be, and perhaps Isaiah too, in virtue of his royal connection? The discussion was exceedingly interesting, conducted partly in English for my benefit; in connection with the Prophet Nathan, the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite naturally came up, and in particular Nathan’s famous fiery words to David “Thou art the man”. Someone then remarked that, as was known, David was not allowed to build the Temple because he was a man of blood; only Solomon could be permitted to do this. At this point BG sprang to the defence of David with mounting passion—declared that he was by far the greatest of the Jews since Moses, that the blood he had spilt was in a holy cause, that he was the creator of a nation, and that Nathan had gone far beyond what was proper in making so fierce an attack on this great and good King. It became plain to me, and perhaps to everyone present, that David Ben-Gurion had in some sense identified himself with his royal namesake, that he was not going to allow that methods of violence should always be condemned as such, that the contrast drawn in this respect between David and Solomon was wholly unjust. So intense and vehement were his words that the Bible class came to an end there and then, while BG paced up and down the room in a state of considerable agitation. I realized then that he really did profoundly identify himself with the Biblical past and that his sense of it, whether real or imagined, was indeed not dissimilar to the historical nationalism of Churchill or de Gaulle, and that this was perhaps the central inspiration of all that he believed and did and was.

I saw him again a year or two later. He then spoke of his vision of Israel—it amounted to a kind of modern welfare state—not very different from Weizmann’s, indeed, not so very different from what had been attempted in this country after the war—with a large public and a diminishing but permanently viable private sector. He said that his opponents on the Right did not believe in this, that he dreaded to think what they might do to Israel, that he supposed that he would himself die in his own country but wondered whether his son would if a really militant nationalism of the right-wing kind became predominant, in view of the enmities in various formidable quarters which it would inevitably stir. I do not really think that he literally believed that Israel might not survive but on this occasion he talked in an uncharacteristically pessimistic vein. He then turned to another subject and asked me whether I did not think that he was right to try to persuade the Amsterdam Jewish community to lift the sentence of excommunication passed on Spinoza three centuries ago. I said that I thought that, given Spinoza’s views, they had no option, quite apart from the political dangers at that time in Calvinist Holland of harbouring those who denied the existence of a personal God. He told me “You speak like a clerical”. He said that Spinoza was a great Jewish thinker, and his anti-rabbinical stance was fully justified by the fanatical obscurantism of some of the rabbis, in his day and in ours; Israel was a secular, democratic state, it could not survive in any other fashion; it must come to an understanding with the Soviet Union, China (he stressed this strongly), and ultimately with the Arabs. Only secular states had a chance of survival in the modern world (this was said many years ago, before General Zia and the Ayatollah). Eshkol, Golda Meir, various Ministers of Education, even Shazar with his Chassidic loyalties, agreed on this, but their successors ... He said these things after he had ceased to be Prime Minister, at his retreat in Sde Boker; then he read me an encomium he proposed to send to de Gaulle, like himself a man with a mission, with whom he believed himself to be on excellent terms. He said that de Gaulle had once asked him to explain Zionism: who were the early Zionists? where had they come from? He had answered that for the most part they came from Eastern Europe—Russia, Poland, Rumania and the like, though there had been some Zionist leaders in Germany too. “And France?” de Gaulle had asked. No, he could not think of any prominent Zionist leaders in France—except, of course, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild. “Mais il n’était pas français,” de Gaulle exclaimed. This most Zionist statement had both amused and delighted BG, who firmly believed that Jews were Jews and not Russians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, and that they had no business to be anywhere except in their own state of Israel. I said that I did not agree—such nationalism often led to intolerance, of which Jews were too often the first victims. He patted me on the back and said “You should have come here forty years ago; you might have made quite a good worker in an orange grove, as I was once. My boss was an excellent man and I owe him a great deal. Now it is all Oxford, Oxford: how can you live there among all those Goyim?” I smiled, he smiled, that was that.

With this, my memories of Ben-Gurion, who seemed to me to look and speak like a great peasant leader, must end. I admired and admire him and his achievement very deeply.