Ben-Gurion's dark side
The time has come to move past the cult of personality surrounding Israel's greatest leader and evaluate his actions honestly
By: Gideon Levy
30/04/2013
Launch of Nakba Map in Hebrew // 2013

If Haaretz's editor Aluf Benn described his generation this week as "Begin's Children" (Haaretz, May 27), then we, the children of the previous generation, are Ben-Gurion's children. Admiration and, I must admit, even a bit of a cult of personality surrounded the greatest of our statesmen. In my case, these forces were accompanied by the preaching of my grandfather, who remained a Ben-Gurionist even during the later isolation of Israel's founding father. My grandfather voted for David Ben-Gurion's Rafi party and after that his National List, whose slogan "Because in your heart you know justice is with us," accompanied my childhood. Except for a minority of right-wing Herut party supporters and communists, all of us were Ben-Gurion's children; all of us said yes to the old man.

Ben-Gurion's image has never been damaged. Even after the Nakba was revealed, even when the new historians exposed war crimes in 1948, even when we understood that not all the Arabs fled at the orders of their leaders, even when we learned we were not "a few against the many," even when the ruins of the villages peeked out from under the forests of the Jewish National Fund, even when the truth came out about the reprisal operations and even when we grew up and learned and understood that not everything they told us in our childhood was true; Ben-Gurion remained as admired as ever. With all the appreciation of his greatness, the time has come to examine his dark sides too. The time has come for a new reading of B.G.

Historian Shay Hazkani published a worrying article in Haaretz Magazine on May 16, called "Catastrophic thinking: Did Ben-Gurion try to rewrite history?" about research that was meant to prove the Arabs fled in 1948. The article is about how Ben-Gurion enlisted academia for propaganda purposes. B.G. ordered the "research" from an academic institution seemingly to prove to the world that it never happened: All the Arabs ran away, no one was expelled.

The ground was burning under the feet of the statesman with his well-developed historical awareness, and he understood he needed to sell a propaganda lie. Historians have not yet determined whether Ben-Gurion ordered the research, by command or a wink, or even if he knew about it – but Hazkani's research proves he knew very well. There were Ramla, Lod and at least another 120 villages whose residents were forcibly expelled, the massacres and looting, mass expulsions on the level of ethnic cleansing in a number of regions, and maybe even a couple of cases of rape, and of course the prevention of those natives of the land who fled the terror of war from returning to their homes.

Quite a bit is still confidential in the archives, but no one can claim any longer that Ben-Gurion, who was involved in everything, did not order, did not know, or at least did not allow these things.

What happened in 1948 and the first years after that cannot be judged solely through the critical eyes of 2013. Israel fought for its existence then, and the world was also different. It is clear that today such acts would be clearly defined as war crimes, and those responsible for them would be put on trial: In Jerusalem or the Hague.

For example, in the reprisal attack on Kibiyeh in 1953, infiltrators threw a grenade at a family home in Yehud and a mother and two children were killed. The same day Ben-Gurion ordered the blowing up of 50 houses in Kibiyeh. The orders of Operation Shoshana stated clearly, "Blowing up homes and harming the residents and driving them form the village." The next order defined the goal as, "Attacking the village, its temporary occupation, destruction and maximal harm to people" (Benny Morris, "Israel's Border Wars 1949-1956"). 

The result: 45 houses blown up with their residents inside, 69 dead, mostly women and children. Was this not a war crime? True, Ariel Sharon made the orders more extreme, but the original decision to blow up 50 houses came out of a meeting with Ben-Gurion at his vacation site on the shores of Lake Kinneret. Has the time not come to remember him for this too, along with his great acts?

The Zochrot nonprofit organization recently published a new map with a list of the 678 Palestinian communities that Israel destroyed between the Nakba and 1967. How many of their residents were expelled and how many fled? The argument is not over. But above all this hangs the figure of Ben-Gurion, it can no longer be denied.

This article was published at Ha'aretz om May 30, 2013

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