The “New York Times” Stands by Its Debunked Claim about Ben-Gurion

In a July 22 article in the New York Times, Max Fisher cited a widely circulated anecdote told by the American rabbi and historian Arthur Hertzberg that David Ben-Gurion, in Fisher’s words, “emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction” and urged Israel to give up the newly acquired territories as swiftly as possible. Martin Kramer—who in an April article for Mosaic had demonstrated that both the transcript of the speech to which Hertzberg referred and numerous other statements by Ben-Gurion give the lie to this anecdote—called attention to the inaccuracy on his blog. Last week, Fisher defended his original assertion, citing a conversation with the staff of Ben-Gurion Archives in Israel and several secondary sources. Kramer replies:

The twelve pages of the transcript [of Ben-Gurion’s speech] don’t include even a hint that Ben-Gurion made the dramatic renunciation of territorial acquisition that Fisher, relying on Hertzberg, claims he made. . . . [I]t would be bizarre if something as earth-shaking as a warning of Israel’s possible “self-destruction” didn’t make it into the transcript. Or into Ben-Gurion’s diary, which I can now add as additional source. In his diary entry of July 12, Ben-Gurion summarized his own remarks. . . . Ben-Gurion’s own summary tracks the transcript, and includes nothing whatsoever on territorial concessions.

Nor is there any corroboration in the Mapai [the precursor to Labor] party newspaper Davar of July 14. It summarized Ben-Gurion’s remarks. . . . Here, too, as in the transcript, there is no attribution to Ben-Gurion of any territorial position, except this quote about Jerusalem: “We will not return Jerusalem — and no force in the world can take it from us.” So we have three contemporary sources for this event, and not even one corroborates Hertzberg’s belated account of it.

But “we don’t have to go off Hertzberg’s account,” Fisher suddenly announces, because “in any case, multiple historical accounts have independently reported that Ben-Gurion made a statement like this immediately after the war.” These “historical accounts” turn out to be a few screenshots of secondary works comprising unsourced or fragmentary quotes about Ben-Gurion’s territorial desiderata. None has Ben-Gurion warning against “occupation” as a threat to Israel’s “democracy and pluralism” [that Fisher originally cited]. And none qualifies as “immediately after the war.” Remember, the point of Fisher’s lede isn’t that Ben-Gurion was willing to trade territory for peace under certain conditions. It’s that Ben-Gurion supposedly warned that Israel would destroy itself if it didn’t retreat, and that he made such a prophecy as early as July 1967. Fisher brings no new evidence for either.

In fact, we already have a precise and authoritative statement of Ben-Gurion’s position “immediately after the war”: his personal press release that appeared in almost all the Hebrew newspapers on June 19. He issued it in order to banish any misunderstanding of his views. . . . In short: all of Jerusalem and Gaza to Israel, autonomy for the West Bank, the Israeli army on the Jordan river, and the return of territory to Egypt and Syria, but only in exchange for peace treaties. (Soon amended: he took the Golan off the table at the end of August.) In an interview published only three days before the meeting [Hertzberg attended], Ben-Gurion elaborated: the West Bank should be a “protectorate” of Israel, and Israel should run its foreign affairs and defense. Any objective reader must agree that nothing in this program even faintly resembles “giv[ing] up the territories” to avoid “self-destruction.”

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More about: Arthur Hertzberg, David Ben-Gurion, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli history, New York Times, Six-Day War

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