The Most Important Jew of the Twentieth Century
By Rabbi Louis Kaplan
The new millenium has arrived and Time magazine has answered the tantalizing question on many minds: who was the most important person of the twentieth century? Their choice was a popular one -- Time featured a fine picture of Albert Einstein on its front cover.
No argument with that.
But, if you had to pick the most significant Jew of the past century, someone who had the greatest impact on the present and future survival of the Jewish people, who would it be?
I would choose David Ben-Gurion.
Let me explain why, and also suggest some specifics. We can learn from his life concerning our Jewish commitments.
David Ben-Gurion was born David Gruen in 1886 in Plonsk, Poland. His father was a legal adviser and passionate Zionist. As a boy he attended a modern Hebrew-language cheder and the local Russian school. (Plonsk was then in Russian-controlled Poland.) His mother died when David was only eleven. At 17, he was already speaking in various Polish communities on behalf of Poale Zion.
Believing that Palestine is the Jewish people's real home, he emigrated to that land in 1906. Once there he changed his last name to Ben-Gurion ("son of a lion cub"). David worked in orange groves and wine cellars, then as a farmhand and watchman. In 1910 he moved to Jerusalem, co-editing the periodical of the Po'ale Zion movement of which he was already a leader.
Palestine was then under Turkish rule, and in 1913 he studied law in Salonika and Constantinople to prepare himself better for political leadership. when World War I broke out, he returned to Palestine but was soon exiled by the Turkish authorities who opposed his Zionist work. In 1917 Ben-Gurion went to the United States. Here he helped establish the He-Halutz organization (to encourage young Jews to become chalutzim pioneers in Palestine), and this was where he met and married Russian-born Paula Munweis, a nurse and Po'ale Zion member.
He returned to Palestine in 1918 as a volunteer soldier in the Jewish Legion, part of the British army. In 1920 he was one of the founders of Histradrut, Palestine's labor federation. He soon became the main leader of the Jewish labor party, the dominant one in the country. In addition, Ben-Gurion and Dr. Chaim Weizmann were the two chief leaders of the World Zionist Organization. From 1935 to 1948, Ben-Gurion header the Jewish Agency Executive, which was responsible for Jewish immigration to and development in Palestine as well as recommending policies to the world Zionist movement.
As a result of being on the losing side in the First World War, Turkey lost control of Palestine. Great Britain was confirmed in the mandate of Palestine by the League of Nations in 1922. England issued a White Paper in 1939 that severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and the purchase of land there by Jews. Ben-Gurion called for the defiance of both measures. He also testified on behalf of the Zionist cause before commissions in England and America (including the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947). Furthermore, he made time to travel to Jewish communities in many countries in order to get their support for an eventual state in Palestine.
Ben-Gurion foresaw an armed conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. He therefore ordered the Haganah (the main secret Jewish army charged with protecting Jews from Arab attacks) to begin stockpiling arms, and he headed the effort to buy weapons.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. (I remember listening to the vote on the radio in my bedroom.) The Arabs rejected that U.N. decision. Palestinian Arabs, aided by Arabs from nearby nations, commenced assaults on Jewish individuals and property. England announced that it would withdraw its forces from Palestine on May 14, 1948. The prospect loomed of the Yishuv (Palestine's Jewish population) being largely wiped out by Palestinian and other Arab forces superior to the Jewish troops in numbers and equipment. some of Ben-Gurion's advisers therefore urged him to postpone declaring a Jewish state in Palestine. In the United States, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk implied that if Ben-Gurion went ahead with statehood, the United States might prohibit donations by American Jews from being sent to the Jewish state.! American officials did say that the United States government would not be receptive to a request to sell military equipment even if the Arabs invaded the new state.2
Now came David Ben-Gurion's finest hour. He resisted pressures urging delay, declared his faith in the morale and tactical knowhow of the Jewish fighters, and courageously maintained that this was the best moment to announce a Jewish state. He urged his colleagues to act. They agreed. At 4:00 p.m., on May 14, 1948, the fifth of Iyar in the Jewish calendar, Ben-Gurion chaired the People's Council meeting in Tel Aviv's museum. He read the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. Incidentally, he was also responsible for the name: Medinat Yisrael, State of Israel.
A second key move of his was to insist that the gates of Israel be open to all Jewish immigrants (except criminals) despite the hardships this would entail in housing, feeding, education, and finding jobs for a horde of newcomers. As a result, Israel's Jewish population zoomed from 650,000 in May 1948 to 2,000,000 when Ben-Gurion retired from office in December 1953.
He who had long urged settlement and development of the largely barren Negev wilderness, retired to a small kibbutz, S'deh Boker, in the Negev, but returned to government service in February 1955 as Minister of Defense. He became Prime Minister nine months later. Ben-Gurion retired permanently to S'deh Boker in 1963. He died December 1, 1973, at age 87.
Why do I believe David Ben-Gurion deserves to be selected as that Jew who most made for Jewish survival in the twentieth century and beyond? Because, more than anyone else in those hundred years, this visionary is responsible for the existence and survival, the growth and democratic character of the State of Israel. And it is mainly Israel which has taken in millions of Jewish immigrants and rebuilt their lives. It is Israel, where the main culture and religion are Jewish, that primarily insures the continued existence of the Jewish people.
What Jewish lessons can we learn from Ben-Gurion's life? I suggest three.
One, we should help the State of Israel to be more than just another country. Ben-Gurion wrote that for the new Israel his goal "was the creation of a model society which could become, in the language of the biblical prophets, 'a light unto the nations'."3 Let us therefore be careful to allot our dollars meant for Israel to those organizations and institutions which are likely to advance a democratic, better Israel.
Two, we should study the Hebrew Bible and later Jewish literature so as to increase our knowledge of Jewish history, to become more familiar with Jewish values and ideals, and to then practice good Jewish teachings. Even when Prime Minister, a weekly Bible-study group met on Shabbat afternoon in Ben-Gurion's home. He wrote: "The Bible [is the] crowning glory of the Jewish creative genius and wellspring of the faith and moral teachings of Israel...But Jewish creative powers were not exhausted with the completion of the Bible. In the best Jewish literature of the post-biblical periods expressive of the Jewish genius, every Jew can [also] find insights enabling him to know himself better."4
Three, a Jew should not limit herself or himself to Jewish studies, as some ultra-Orthodox Jews do. Although a life-long reader of books dealing with Jewish subjects, Ben-Gurion mastered Greek in order to read the philosopers Plato and Aristotle in their original language. But Indian philosophy and Buddhist thought also fascinated him. There is plenty of worthwhile reading and knowledge in Jewish and non-Jewish sources.
I heard Ben-Gurion speak three times, twich in Israel and once in the United States. On each occasion I was aware of being in the presence of one of the great persons in modern Jewish history. However, I didn't know the man personally. Those who did, mention his extreme stubbornness. Well, stubbornness can be a negative or positive trait; it depends on what one is stubborn about. For instance, it does seem petty of Ben-Gurion to have refrained from spekaing with Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, two of Israel's prime ministers, in some of the last years of his life. After all, for decades he had worked closely with both of them. His stubborn silence was prompted by the political disagreement. Also, it was neither polite nor factual to call Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader who died in New York in 1940, "Vladimir Hitler." And what about Ben-Gurion's adamant refusal to sanction Jabotinskuy's reburial in Israel? Like all of us, Ben-Gurion had his share of faults.
A number of his ideas too, I, for one, disagree with. To cite only one example, he thought that anyone should be considered Jewish who said he or she is.5
But these defects cannot diminish the man's greatness. What a difference he made in the creation, survival, and democratic nature of the State of Israel, the center of current Jewish life and continuity! For me, David Ben-Gurion, from whose life we Jews especially can learn some valuable lessons, is the most important Jew of the twentieth century.
1. Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 310.
3. Quoted by Allen S. Kaplan, "David Ben-Gurion," Keeping Posted, leader's edition, Apr. 1984, vol. XXIX, no. 6, p. 5.
4. Ibid., p. 15.
5. Ibid., p. 7.
5. Joseph Telushkin
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