Ben-Gurion & the Holocaust

(article by guest author Egbert Talens)
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., and Senator John Kennedy. Photo taken in Ben-Gurion’s Jerusalem home in early October 1951.

Award winning Israeli journalist and historian Shabtai Teveth has written a remarkable 1024-page biography of the main founder and first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion [1]. The work, which was published in 1987 and is entitled “Ben-Gurion: The Burning Ground, 1886-1948,” [2] gives a voluminous amount of information from declassified documents in Israeli archives. For Publishers Weekly the essence of the biography is: “Ben-Gurion coolly reckoned human suffering in his calculus of political thought”.
Having studied this intriguing work, I feel there is a lot more than that to it. A number of important passages deserve close scrutiny and straightforward comment. I am listing a few of my thoughts below.
Page 848: 

“Two facts can be definitely stated: Ben-Gurion did not put the rescue effort above Zionist politics, and he did not regard it as a principal task demanding his personal leadership; he never saw fit to explain why, then or later. Instead, he devoted his efforts to rallying the Yishuv and Zionism around the Biltmore Program and to the preparations for its implementation.”
“Why didn't Ben-Gurion head the rescue from the moment his sober predictions materialized beyond expectations? Was it not this vision of disaster that had led him throughout the 1930s to decisive and urgent conclusions? The more his forebodings seem corroborated and the clearer it appears that, from the start, he had no illusions about Hitler's true plans for the Jews, the deeper this mystery becomes.” [3]

Teveth argues that Ben-Gurion did have some knowledge of Hitler’s plans, since he read Mein Kampf, having bought a copy August 1933. Of course Mein Kampf did not elaborate on Hitler's plans, so Ben-Gurion could merely have had a rough idea of the disaster the Jews were ultimately going to be submitted to during the lunatic and unfathomable rule of the Führer. Obviously with Mein Kampf in mind, Ben-Gurion said in the Histadrut Council in January 1934: “Hitler's rule endangers the entire Jewish people... Who knows, perhaps just four or five years - if not less - stand between us and that terrible day.”
On pages 849-854, Teveth comes up with many data, all suggesting that Ben-Gurion was conscious of the disaster history had in store for the Jews in Germany and Poland. By choosing apologetical words, Teveth, understandably, seems intent on avoiding any possible blame on Ben-Gurion. Page 849:
“For nearly two years - from March 1941, when Italy entered the war, until Rommel's defeat in December 1942 - Ben-Gurion was more concerned for the fate of the Yishuv than for that of European Jewry. Ben-Gurion repeatedly stressed that the importance of the Yishuv went far beyond the individual Jews of Palestine. As people they were not more worthy of salvation than the Jews of Poland, and Zionism's first consideration was not their individual fate. The Yishuv's importance lay solely in its being ‘the vanguard in the fulfilment of the hope for the rebirth of the people.’ Its destruction would be a greater catastrophe than that of any other community of Jews, for one reason: the Yishuv was a ‘great and invaluable security, a security for the hope of the Jewish people.’...” [3]

 Page 850:

“Why didn't Ben-Gurion, who so accurately predicted the catastrophe, take charge of the rescue efforts after the extermination became a fact? This is the central question about his leadership during the Holocaust: the answer is not simple. His approach to the rescue was the complex product of his philosophy of what might be called the beneficial disaster; his difficulty in drawing the line between this beneficial disaster and a total calamity; his basic disbelief, as late as June 1944, that an actual genocide was in progress; and finally, his lifelong rule of dealing only with the feasible. Although all these factors were interwoven and concurrent in his mind, they can be crudely separated, thematically and chronologically.” [3]

“In March 1928 he told the HEC [Histadrut Executive Committee]  that ‘in order to start a movement in America, a great disaster or upheaval is needed.’ Since Hitler had come to power, Ben-Gurion maintained it was imperative to ‘turn a disaster ... into a productive force’, and asserted that ‘distress’ could also serve as ‘political leverage’: ‘the destruction’ was a factor in ‘expediting our enterprise [and] it is in our interest to use Hitler, [who] has not reduced our strength, for the building of our country.’..” [3]

 In July 1939 Ben-Gurion wrote in Davar : “Our strength is in the lack of choice.” And in March 1941, writing to Mapai's Central Committee, “We have no power”... All we have is the Jewish people, beaten, persecuted, diminished, impoverished.” He told the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE): "The harsher the affliction, the greater the strength of Zionism.” In June 1941, writing to the Mapai convention: “We have no alternative ... but this too is a fountain of strength, perhaps the main source of our strength.”

 Shabtai Teveth seems to place himself in Ben-Gurion’s position with the following rhetorical question:
“Did he [Ben-Gurion] ask himself, when confronted with information on the systematic physical extermination of the Jews, whether history was playing a cruel joke on him, testing the courage of his convictions? He might well have answered yes, for the terms ‘destruction’, ‘extermination’, ‘ruin’, ‘catastrophe’, and ‘extermination’ had had an entirely different meaning before the Holocaust, the putting to death of six million Jews, was recognized for what is was and named. When Ben-Gurion spoke in January 1933 of the ‘annihilation’ facing German Jewry, he meant terrible living conditions imposed on them by Hitler.”

Page 851:

“In April 1935 he (Ben-Gurion) defined ‘ruin’ as ‘economic and cultural impoverishment, the weakening of a people as a whole, political devastation, the eradication of civil rights.’ In summer 1937, at the Congress: ‘Physical destruction and material impoverishment endanger the existence of the Jewish populations of many countries’, and when he wrote Myriam from Beaver Lake in April 1942 that Hitler aimed ‘to annihilate’ these Jews, he was thinking of political and economic ruin, not genocide. Ben-Gurion, like his colleagues, visualized large-scale pogroms, not the Final Solution.”

 That is how Shabtai Teveth brings it. The question then is of course: so where is the mystery?  At the bottom of page 851, Shabtai Teveth writes, after he has mentioned the Wannsee Conference (January 1942):

“From a Jewish, Zionist point of view it mattered little whether the six million died by typhus and shooting or by gas and crematoriums. Hence it was difficult for Ben-Gurion to draw a line beyond which this destruction would threaten both Jewish existence and Zionism. Had he realized sooner that an industrial systematic genocide was taking place, he would have understood that time was of the [utmost] essence and [he] might have reacted [p.852] differently.” [3]

Might have? For heaven’s sake, why might? He ought to have reacted differently, but this implies a person of a different category, someone else; not Ben-Gurion! The political zionists were fully aware of what was going on in Germany; they were there, inside Germany, working together with the Nazis, notably in camps where Jews were trained for agricultural and perhaps even military purposes in Palestine...

Page 852:

“He, ... , was thinking in terms of a relatively modest catastrophe ... He foresaw destruction, but not the Holocaust, ... This incomplete vision was what allowed Ben-Gurion to become so attached to the concept of turning a Jewish misfortune into a Zionist asset. Acting accordingly, he fell victim to his own idea. Having successfully turned such disasters as the Arab riots of 1929 and 1936 to advantage, he  became a grand master of this political skill, to the point that he considered himself ready to take on Hitler. Each disaster, Ben-Gurion might have said, has its rewards for Zionism, and given that Hitler was the worst disaster until then, Ben-Gurion was determined to make it yield the greatest prize.” [3]
“The advantage Ben-Gurion had sought after publication of the Nuremberg Laws was a Jewish majority in Palestine; he therefore demanded ‘commencement of activity to turn Palestine into a place of refuge for the masses of Jews, who will in turn make Palestine a Jewish country ... to get a million Jews out of [Poland and Germany] and direct them to Palestine... I regard this as the lever for our political activity.’ In January 1937, having adopted the partition solution recommended by the Peel Commission, Ben-Gurion reversed the order of his strategy, and instead of trying first to create a Jewish majority and then establish a state, he wanted to exploit the disaster of Hitler to obtain first a state, which could then absorb masses of the persecuted. When the partition solution was withdrawn in November 1938 [by the British] at the very hour when the anticipated devastation was, in his views, a certainty, Ben-Gurion came up with combative Zionism [4] which was also based on the disaster created by Hitler.” [3]

Ben-Gurion did not accept the partition plan suggested by the Royal Peel-commission. He “accepted” it in attaching special conditions of his own. Shabtai Teveth explains this in chapter 34, “Grappling with Partition” (pgs 584-607) and on pg 588 he writes:
“Partition was also the basis of the Peel Commission's plan. Both Ben-Gurion and the commission put the holy places under British control. So similar were Ben-Gurion's plans and the recommendations of the Peel Commission that they seemed almost like the work of one hand. Accordingly, all that was required for Ben-Gurion to accept the partition idea was mere a tactical shift --  from all of Palestine to a part of it.” [3].

And on page 590 Teveth writes:

“First of all, Ben-Gurion warned that while partition was the answer, it is not the solution under all conditions... I do not consent to any partition of Palestine; it depends on how it is partitioned.” [3] There is a lot more of such stuff in Ben-Gurions skilful, if not slick, vocabulary.

On page 853, Shabtai Teveth makes mention of a note which Ben-Gurion - while in London October 1941, before his departure for the United States - wrote to himself; a note which the British secret service later got hold of:

“In my opinion, we must make it perfectly clear that we want no less than all of western Palestine. ... the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine is both imperative and possible.” [3]
“There is no doubt, therefore, that in October 1941 Ben-Gurion saw the catastrophe, in its pre-Holocaust sense, as a source of strength and momentum and a powerful accelerator of the realization of Zionism. He did not hope for the disaster, needless to say, but since he was not in a position to prevent it, he used it to help solve the Jewish problem. Did he still think this way once he learned that the Germans were carrying out systematic, full-scale genocide? When he returned to Palestine Ben-Gurion did not know of the existence of the death camps, and his remarks to the Zionist Executive on October 15, 1942, should be understood in this light. Disaster is strength if channelled to a productive course; the whole trick of Zionism is that it knows how to channel our disaster not into despondency or degradation, as is the case in the Diaspora, but into a source of creativity and exploitation.” [3]

Reflecting these misgivings, Shabtai Teveth refers to what I would call Ben-Gurion’s devious attitude towards the Holocaust. The author must have had his doubts about Ben-Gurion’s true intentions. Why for example would he call this chapter a deeper becoming mystery...? Small wonder then, when he writes:
“needless to say [Ben-Gurion] did not hope for the disaster.”

Personally, I would not be surprised if some day it would transpire that Ben-Gurion did have a hand in the Holocaust so as to profit by it in establishing the ultimate political-zionist goal, the Jewish state. Question marks remain about Mossad/CIA/... operations aimed at benefitting Israel. These conspiracies were and are of course carefully shielded from public scrutiny. However, with ever more states' archives being declassified, it seems to be only a matter of time before new realities will come to the fore.

Page 854:

“In late 1942 it became evident to Ben-Gurion that his prophesies became true beyond all expectation, and he fell silent on the strength of adversity and did not mention it again for three years. Only in the final stages of the Holocaust, hoping that a remnant of European Jewry would survive, did Ben-Gurion revert to his ‘adversity is strength’ formula. ... he again resolved to extract the greatest possible benefit from the catastrophe. ... better that they, the suffering Jewish people, gain a state in its aftermath than nothing at all. In December 1943 Ben-Gurion said that the tragedy would help create worldwide sympathy for the Jews. ‘The Zionist case rest not merely on the reality we have created so far, but also on the reality of the Jewish catastrophe ... The world must be made to see this.’ ...” [3]

To be sure, the state became practicable only for those who had not suffered from the Holocaust; for the Yishuv in Palestine, and as such for Ben-Gurion himself and his fellow political zionists.
Now see this statement by Ben-Gurion:
“Our movement will be doomed unless it exerts the greatest effort to salvage the absolute maximum of Jewish assets for Palestine, in the absolute minimum of time... To the disaster of German Jewry we must offer a Zionist response, namely, we must convert the disaster into a source for the upbuilding of Palestine, we must save both the lives and the property of German Jewry for Palestine's sake. This rescue takes priority over all else.”

Those unfamiliar with the date of this statement may place it between September 1939 and the year 1945. In reality, Ben-Gurion made it as early as November 1935. And as to the use of the word “assets” one might wonder whether Ben-Gurion gave priority to goods over lives of German Jewry. Besides, there were Jewish groups in Germany looking for ways to come to a deal with the nazis: the Ha'avara Agreement (das Ha'avara Abkommen) was an undertaking of this sort.
On pages 855-862 Teveth equally produces several items which can be added to those typical Ben-Gurion-strong-willed utterances. For example, this well-known sentence of December 1938, addressed to Mapai's Central Committee:
“Were I to know that the rescue of all German Jewish children could be achieved by their transfer to England and of only half their number by transfer to Palestine, I would opt for the latter, because our concern is not only the personal interest of these children, but the historic interest of the Jewish [p. 856] people.”

Teveth explains that Ben-Gurion knew very well that his formulation was purely theoretical and that there was no hope at all of rescuing those children, and that his purpose in using this phrasing - to which later events gave a different and unintended meaning - was to hammer home the axiom that true rescue of the Jewish people was possible only in Palestine. Now, and by this picture by Teveth, we are getting very near the threshold of Ben-Gurions populistic stance. And in this way Teveth makes himself more or less complicit in Ben-Gurion's, what I would call, wild statements. A bit more distance would have served Teveth well, in my humble opinion.
My above analysis is of course by far incomplete. Yet the examples provided of such ominous expressions by David Ben-Gurion - who began his life in Poland as David Grün - will allow for an educated opinion on the extent in which this David has been an honest defender of the personal interests of each individual Jew during those dreadful days in both nazi-Germany and beyond...
[1] Wikipedia: “David Ben-Gurion
[3] my emphasis
[4] see p. 668
Egbert Talens is a Dutch author who in the 1960s was a volunteer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) teaching children of Palestinian refugees. The history of Israel and Palestine haunted him, which was reflected in his book (in Dutch) “Een bijzondere relatie: Het conflict Israël-Palestina nader bekeken 1897-1993”(“A Special Relationship: scrutiny of the Israel-Palestine conflict1897-1993.”)

Geplaatst door Paul Lookman op 26/10/2012

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