Sorry, “New York Times,” Ben-Gurion Never Called on Israel to Cede the West Bank

July 30 2018

Among the many mischaracterizations and errors in an article that recently appeared on the front page of the New York Times is the statement, made in the first sentence, that “Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction” by their victory in the Six-Day War and therefore “insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered” in that war. Martin Kramer, who in April debunked this oft-repeated anecdote in Mosaic, writes:

In the print edition [of the Times], this claim about Ben-Gurion wasn’t sourced, but the online version provided a link. Where did it lead? To an article by the late Arthur Hertzberg, [then] a prominent American rabbi, in the New York Review of Books back in 1987. There Hertzberg claimed to have heard Ben-Gurion, right after the 1967 victory, “insist that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state.” . . .

Although the Hertzberg story is often quoted, it struck me as dubious, knowing what I know about Ben-Gurion’s stated, public position in 1967. So I went to the trouble of asking the Ben-Gurion Archives in Sde Boker to help locate the transcript of the talk that Hertzberg attended, [where, according to his report, the former prime minister issued his dire warning]. They did, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that Ben-Gurion said what Hertzberg claimed he heard.

Moreover, there’s ample evidence that Ben-Gurion wanted to keep lots of territory. In June 1967, he proposed to annex Jerusalem and Gaza, and to make the West Bank an autonomous zone dependent on Israel. He did propose to return the Golan and Sinai to Syria and Egypt, but only in return for “true peace” by treaty. By summer’s end, he’d taken the Golan off the table, and a few years later, he was arguing against returning Israeli settlements in the Sinai and for including Hebron in Israel.

As Kramer explained in Mosaic:

Ben-Gurion never uttered the words Hertzberg attributed to him. The transcript of his speech, delivered to a visiting group of Conservative American rabbis on July 12, 1967, is preserved, and while it may not be complete, it bears not the faintest resemblance to Hertzberg’s account of it. There is no mention of the West Bank or its inhabitants, no mention of urgent withdrawal, no victor’s remorse. When Ben-Gurion wasn’t lauding Israel’s astounding victory, or reminiscing about his own past, he was haranguing the rabbis over Israel’s desperate need for Jewish immigration from America so that it could rapidly settle 100,000 Jews in unified Jerusalem.

As of this writing, the Times has not issued a correction.

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More about: Arthur Hertzberg, David Ben-Gurion, Israel & Zionism, New York Times, Six-Day War, West Bank

What Israel Can Learn from Its Declaration of Independence

March 22 2023

Contributing to the Jewish state’s current controversy over efforts to reform its judicial system, observes Peter Berkowitz, is its lack of a written constitution. Berkowitz encourages Israelis to seek a way out of the present crisis by looking to the founding document they do have: the Declaration of Independence.

The document does not explicitly mention “democracy.” But it commits Israel to democratic institutions not only by insisting on the equality of rights for all citizens and the establishment of representative government but also by stressing that Arab inhabitants would enjoy “full and equal citizenship.”

The Israeli Declaration of Independence no more provides a constitution for Israel than does the U.S. Declaration of Independence furnish a constitution for America. Both documents, however, announced a universal standard. In 1859, as civil war loomed, Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter, “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Something similar could be said about Ben Gurion’s . . . affirmation that Israel would be based on, ensure, and guarantee basic rights and fundamental freedoms because they are inseparable from our humanity.

Perhaps reconsideration of the precious inheritance enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence could assist both sides in assuaging the rage roiling the country. Bold and conciliatory, the nation’s founding document promises not merely a Jewish state, or a free state, or a democratic state, but that Israel will combine and reconcile its diverse elements to form a Jewish and free and democratic state.

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More about: Israel's Basic Law, Israeli Declaration of Independence, Israeli politics