The Watchman 60+ Years Ago


The Watchman

Monday, Aug. 16, 1948

The Jews beat the Arabs.

Out of the concentration camps, ghettoes, banks, courtrooms, theaters and factories of Europe the Chosen People had assembled and had won their first great military victory since Judas Maccabeus* beat the Syrian Nicanor at Adasa 2,109 years ago.

Their success has been hidden from the world by U.N. maneuvering and by a confusing war of a hundred skirmishes with real battles. Although, in years to come, fighting might break out again & again, its probable pattern was “fixed: the Jews were too tough, too smart and too vigorous for the divided and debilitated Arab world to conquer.

As the U.N. truce settled on Palestine last week it seemed probable that the new state of Israel, already recognized by 15 nations, would seek and get U.N. membership at next fall’s meeting in Paris. It was time to stop pondering the settled question of whether there would be a Jewish state, time, to start asking what kind of nation Israel was.

The world—every corner of it—knew Jews, but the Israelis were not the Jews most of the world knew. Two millenniums of sorrow and insecurity in a hostile world had put their stamp on the character of this people. In Israel, a few years of struggle to build a state, a few months at the center of the world stage, a few weeks of battle had superimposed another, bolder stamp. That the Israelis’ Dry had come just after the worst of thousand persecutions, that it had been by those who survived the slaughter of 6,000,000, made the newly minted Jewish character gleam brighter.

Political Bends. The new Israelis walked with a confident swagger along beach front at Tel Aviv. They talked confidently—indeed, stridently—of a state of ten million, not necessarily confined to the present boundaries of Israel. It was a bad joke, and also a sober observation, that the idea of Drang nach Osten lived in the new nation of Hitler’s victims. As they looked around them at a disorganized and unproductive Arab world, Israelis showed some of the reactions of the prewar Germans looking around a disorganized and unproductive Europe.

Jewish traditions of peace and democracy run deep, but the Israelis had been transferred so quickly from the depths of Europe to the heights of superiority in the Middle East that they could not escape the political equivalent of deep-sea divers’ bends. The new blood of nationalism ran fast and hot in Israel; sometimes it seemed to be gushing out on the ground. Pleading for more understanding and tolerance of Israel, one sympathetic observer warned: “This could become an ugly little Spartan state.”

Israel’s present leaders are determined that their nation will not take that path. Foremost and most determined among them is David Ben-Gurion, Premier and Defense Minister, labor leader and philosopher, hardheaded, unsociable and abrupt politician, a prophet who carries a gun.

Mystical Ends. Ben-Gurion lives on a typical Tel Aviv boulevard, in a two-story stucco house, distinguished from its neighbors only by the soldiers with Sten guns at the entrance. In his library about a third of the books are on military history and tactics; next in number are books about Greek philosophy and Buddha, his current study. (Zionists all over the world scout up rare Buddhist books for Ben-Gurion.)

In a ground floor study, its windows bricked up against air raids, Ben-Gurion recently sat and answered a reporter’s questions with terse frankness.

“Can you conquer the Arabs?”

“Against the Arabs we are one against 40.”

“Won’t Israel grow?”

“There are eleven million Jews in the world. I don’t say that all of them will come here, but I expect several million, and with natural increase I can quite imagine a Jewish state of ten million.”

“Can that many be accommodated within the U.N. partition boundaries of Israel?”

“I doubt it.”

Then Ben-Gurion dropped his matter-of-fact manner. The labor politician was replaced by the prophet. A dreamer’s stare veiled his blue eyes. The room was small but his voice throbbed loudly, as if speaking to multitudes against the winds on Mount Carmel.

“We would not have taken on this war merely for the purpose of enjoying this tiny state. There have been only two great peoples: the Greeks and the Jews. Perhaps the Greeks were even greater than the Jews, but now I can see no sign of that old greatness in the modern Greeks. Maybe, when the present process is finished we too will degenerate, but I see no sign of degeneration at present.”

His voice took on a deeper tone:

“Suffering makes a people greater, and we have suffered much. We had a message to give the world, but we were overwhelmed, and the message was cut off in the middle. In time there will be millions of us—becoming stronger and stronger—and we will complete the message.”

“What is the message?” the reporter asked.

“Our policy must be the unity of the human race. The world is divided into two blocs. We consider that the United Nations’ ideal is a Jewish ideal.”

At that point, Ben-Gurion descended from Mount Carmel. “Perhaps,” he said apologetically, “this may sound rather chauvinistic.”

Helpful Push. In less exalted moods, Ben-Gurion goes quietly and industriously about his work of running Israel. His work day of twelve hours is broken by a frugal lunch at a small hotel with other government workers. Colleagues call him by his surname or, occasionally, E.G. During the fighting he slept at a boarding house near his office. Nowadays, he goes home to his wife, a nurse from Minsk whom he met and married in Brooklyn. Ben-Gurion has no close personal friends, but he is widely respected for his ability and his unassuming simplicity. Last week, on a road near Tel Aviv, a truck ground to a stop and the driver signaled for help. Ben-Gurion and a young aide happened to be in a car behind. The 63-year-old Premier of Israel got out and helped push the truck while his young companion stood guard with a rifle to keep down possible Arab snipers.

His son Amos, who was a major in the British Army, later a Haganah fighter, recently married a British Christian. Ben-Gurion did not hold her faith against her; he gathered up an armload of Jewish histories and Zionist tracts, mailed them to her so that she would understand her adopted country.

The Going Up. Few people understand Israel as well as David Ben-Gurion. His life tells the story of Israel’s development. He was born, the fourth of eleven children, in 1884, at Plonsk, Poland, then part of Russia. As he grew up, all Russia was stirring. Jews especially felt the tension of gathering storms. Zionism, the dream of the great Theodor Herzl, captured young David’s imagination. So did Socialism. He decided to go to Palestine, where other Jews had preceded him. They belonged to the First Aliyah (literally, a going up, a wave); most of them were “gentlemen farmers” who hired Arabs to till their land and to guard their property. But Arab guards proved unreliable. The men of the First Aliyah hired some of the immigrants of the Second Aliyah, including David, to replace them. Ben-Gurion came to Palestine at a turning point in Zionist history. Such “practical” Zionists as British Chemist Chaim Weizmann† (who later won British promises to support a Jewish National Home in Palestine) had persuaded Zionists to speed up the development of Palestine without waiting for a political title to the country.

Handing Over. Ben-Gurion took three steps of the utmost practical and symbolic importance to Zionism: 1) he organized his fellow watchmen into a defense force, the germ of Haganah, the army that beat the Arabs this year; 2) realizing that forces outside Palestine would be decisive, he went to Turkey, which then held the country, to study law; 3) he then came to the U.S. to help organize the Pioneer Movement, which was based on the sound notion that if Jews were ever to get a solid footing in Palestine, they would have to work the land themselves.

One of the most dramatic and significant elements in Israel’s story was the “declassing” of immigrants, the transformation of professional men and tradesmen into farmers and factory workers. Ben-Gurion’s hand was in that extraordinary development.

He went back to Palestine as a corporal with Allenby’s army in 1917 and then, under the British Mandate, organized the Labor party and the Histadrut (General Federation of Jewish Labor), over both of which he still exerts a dominant influence. Looking back, Ben-Gurion recently said: “We did not hesitate to hand over to the labor community the cherished institutions and treasured economic enterprises that were begun by small select groups inspired by a pioneering zeal—by the few men of the Second Aliyah.”

“Sneh on Their Boots.” The Histadrut, to which the men of the Second Aliyah turned over Zionism’s economic heart, is unique among labor unions as Israel is unique among states. The Zionist socialists, having no nation, could not pursue a program of nationalizing industry. Instead, they turned over more & more functions to the Histadrut until it became a state within a state, a vast trust as well as a labor union. The Histadrut is one of Israel’s biggest banks and the main local life insurance company. Histadrut controls 96% of all transportation. (It costs between $1,800 and $5,400 to join the bus drivers’ union.) Nearly half of Israel’s Jews belong to the Histadrut, which controls directly or indirectly 20% of the country’s economy.

Most of the farming is collectivized, because socialist Zionists wanted to work the land as intensively as possible, with Jewish labor. The collectives have another advantage: many are stockaded forts, built to protect pioneer settlers from Arab attacks.

The peculiar socialism of the Histadrut and the collective farms does not lead Israel toward Communist sympathies. Quite the contrary. Ben-Gurion’s Labor party, which dominates the present coalition government, is consciously but cautiously antiCommunist. To its left stands the United Workers party; in the left wing of this group is a sinister opportunist named Moshe Sneh, who plays the Kremlin’s game. As one Israeli punned: “If the Russians ever come to Israel, it will be with Sneh [Yiddish for snow] on their boots.”

On Ben-Gurion’s right lurks the Irgun, which calls him a dictator because he wants to prevent Irgun from operating a private army. The Irgunists are intense nationalists and “revisionists,” which in practical present terms means they are gangsters and expansionists, itching to carry the fight into Arab territory.

“Blow Your Nose.” The new nation is further divided by the differing nationalities and social backgrounds of its citizens. Each aliyah had its own characteristics and dreams for the new state. The men of the Second Aliyah are still on top in the government, but in the army and among the people, the sabras (literally: cacti), the native-born, are coming to the fore. Palestinian climate has played a, strange trick on the sabras. They run to the big-boned, blue-eyed, blond athlete type associated with anti-Semitic persecutions.

In other lands the German Jews tend to look upon themselves as the aristocrats of Jewry (although they give precedence to the Sephardic families from Spain and Portugal). In Palestine the recent German aliyah is looked down upon and made the butt of the same kind of joke that German Jews in the U.S. used to hurl at their Russian brethren.

Israel calls the German Jew a yecki (roughly: squarehead), laughs at his naiveté. Many of the yecki are physicians (of that great, devoted band of German-Jewish doctors) and they have a hard time adjusting to the land. Many try chicken farming, going about it in that highly scientific Teuton way which makes the Polish and Russian Israelis guffaw. They say that when one yecki found a sick chicken he sent all the way to India for a serum, inoculated every one of his flock. They tell of a yecki with an old dry cow who asked a Polish Jew to sell it for him. The Pole found a Russian Jew to whom he said: “This is a fine young cow; she gives six liters of milk every day.” The yecki, standing by, said: “Well, well, that I didn’t know; I’d like to buy her back.” To new arrivals the Eastern Jews say: “Did you come here from conviction—or from Germany?”

The people of each aliyah may speak their own language for the first two years, after that are expected to switch to Hebrew.* A dead language, a language of scholarship and liturgy for centuries, Hebrew has been revived and made the official language of Israel. In earlier days, some of the old folks were shocked to hear Hebrew used in everyday speech. When a mother scolded, “Little Ittomar, blow your nose,” in the tongue of the prophets, oldsters winced.

“Buses Will Run.” Hebrew will help hold the new nation together. The world outside Israel (including many U.S. Zionists) expected the main cement of the new state to be the Jewish religion, preserved through centuries of vicissitudes. In Israel this seems to have lost its validity. When the Promised Land was the unpaid balance of a divine I.O.U., when they lived among more or less hostile Gentiles, religion was a far more vital force than it is today in Israel. The Jew is supposed to wear a hat; in Tel Aviv, young men risk sunstroke to go hatless. Waiters at the Armon Hotel in Tel Aviv have no qualms about offering guests bacon. Throughout the country dietary laws are widely breached.

The constitution to be written next fall will make a point of separating church and state. Ben-Gurion and other leaders rarely turn up at synagogues. Jews are not supposed to travel in vehicles on the Sabbath but they do today in Israel. Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok, a brisk, urbane statesman, did not even wait for a reporter to ask him about it. Said Shertok: “And if you’re going to ask whether the trains and buses are going to run on the Sabbath, I can tell you right now—they are.”

The old Jews of Europe had to wear long curls; many young Israelis of Tel Aviv favor crew cuts in the American—or Prussian—style. Israeli girls, who run to the buxom bucolic type, stride the streets in slacks or shorts. Many have gone into the CHEN, Israeli version of the WAC. The young people turn their backs on sentimental, nostalgic, masochistic traditional Jewish art. Such plays as the great Yiddish drama, The Dybbuk, draw an almost unanimous “it stinks” from the sabras. Their strong, bronzed young hands have no tendency to rend their open-necked sport shirts in grief.

Victims of History. If not religion, what will hold Israel together? Today fear of the Arabs performs for the Israelis the same unifying function that Gentile persecution and discrimination performed during the Dispersion. The Arabs, as Ben-Gurion noted, are 40 to one Israeli. But the Jewish superiority over the Arabs is not just a figment of Israeli imagination; it is a fact. Israel has probably the highest percentage of skilled labor and executive experience of any people in the world; by comparison, the Arabs are near the bottom of the scale.

The Western world tends to think of the Arab as a falcon-eyed warrior on a white horse. That Arab is still around, but he is far less numerous than the disease-ridden wretches who lie in the hot streets, too weak, sick and purposeless to roll over into the shade.

The Arabs, no less than the Jews, are victims of history. Four centuries of Turkish rule hurt them at least as badly as a decade of Naziism hurt the Jews. Now, in their morning of independence, the Arabs have suffered defeat at the hands of a small, despised people. It rankles.

Yet only in peace between Jews and Arabs is there much hope for either. If the Israelis are forced into many years of war they may indeed become “an ugly little Spartan state.” Their wiser leaders know this. Such men as Ben-Gurion see the Israel of tomorrow as an industrial, trading and organizing nation leading the whole Middle East to new levels of productivity.

But how can the Jews now come to terms with the Arab world whose insecure leaders do not dare cross up the people they have inflamed against Israel? The Jews’ hopes of a deal are pinned on Abdullah of Transjordan, whose British paid and trained Arab Legion bolsters up his position as Arab spokesman and leaves him free to compromise. Ironically, it is the British subsidy to Abdullah (against which the Zionists rail) that offers the best chance of attaining the understanding with the Arabs essential to Israel’s future peace and commerce.

Need for a Talent. If the Israel issue plunges the Arab world into further chaos and thus gives the Russians a chance to gain influence with the Arab mobs, World War III becomes much nearer. Ben-Gurion, for one, has little hope that Israel would survive such a war. “We would be crushed,” he says simply.

Israelis who do not understand the danger of too much success are impatient at British and U.S. concern for Arab friendship. They shout “Oil!” as if nothing but profits were involved. The same oil, which the Arabs can shut off, is an essential part of the world’s hope of recovery; without that recovery, the dream of Israel as a prosperous trading nation cannot come true. The same oil is an essential part of the defense of the West. Without that defense Israel, a democratic state, is lost.

So the Israeli political position is a highly delicate one. They may resist Abdullah—but must be sure not to crush him. They may beg the U.S. for help—but must be sure that help does not hopelessly alienate the Arabs. They may snarl at the British, but must remember that the British want essentially what Israel has to have—stability in the Middle East.

In their long and brilliant history the Jews have displayed great genius for religion, ethics, husbandry, commerce, literature, music and art. The one skill they have never shown as a people is a talent for politics. That is the talent they need now. Perhaps the Israeli has it.

* For six years (166-160 B.C.) he led pious Jews in rebellion against the Greeks, who had dedicated the temple in Jerusalem to the worship of Olympian Zeus and sacrificed pigs on the altar. Three centuries later the Jewish hero Bar Kochba led a less successful three-year rebellion against the Romans, briefly set himself up as king in Jerusalem.

† Last week Dr. Weizmann, who has been named first President of Israel, was in Switzerland. Ailing and suffering from an eye disease, he has not yet been to Israel since it became a state.

*Not to be confused with Yiddish, which is Low German mixed with Hebrew and Slav words, written in Hebrew characters.

© 1948 TIME