The May 1948 Vote that Made the State of Israel

tags: Israel, Palestine, Jewish State

Martin Kramer teaches Middle Eastern history at Shalem College in Jerusalem and is the Koret visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His most recent book is The War on Error (2016).

Israel’s 70th anniversary, which falls on April 19 (by the Hebrew calendar), coincides with a resurgence of interest in David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father. In addition to new biographies, most notably by Anita Shapira (2014) and Tom Segev (Hebrew, 2018), the Ben-Gurion revival probably owes most to a 2016 film, Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, directed by Yariv Mozer. Made up mostly of excerpts from a long-lost film interview given by Ben-Gurion in 1968, during his twilight years, the documentary ran in Israeli theaters and on TV and was screened by almost every Jewish film festival worldwide.

At the time of the 1968 interview, Ben-Gurion was eighty-two and living in Sde Boker, a desert kibbutz where he did chores like any other member. Notwithstanding the occasional pronouncement, often in a prophetic register, he’d faded from public life. Friends looked for ways to mitigate his isolation and boredom; politicians mostly ignored him. Most of his biographers would concur with Tom Segev: “Ben-Gurion’s old age was sad, degrading, superfluous. . . . Like many people, he lived a few years too long.”

Which makes it strange to see a new generation embracing this late-life Ben-Gurion—or perhaps not so strange. He lived long enough, after all, to witness the June 1967 war, and then to issue opinions about what should be done with the territories Israel occupied in that war. There will always be those who, to clinch a present-day argument, resort to citing a long-dead “founding father,” and Ben-Gurion, Epilogue supplies one very useful quotation. In the documentary, Ben-Gurion says: “If I could choose between peace and all the territories that we conquered last year [in the Six-Day War], I would prefer peace.” (He made exceptions for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.)

Not surprisingly, this provided the theme for most of the press commentary about the film and for its reviews. “Ben-Gurion Favors West Bank Withdrawal in Footage from 1968,” proclaimed the headline of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Screen Daily went so far as to claim (erroneously) that he had predicated peace with the Arabs upon Israel’s withdrawal from “all of the territories” it conquered in 1967.

Thus did the film deliberately summon forth Ben-Gurion’s ghost for a contemporary purpose. “It’s not a film about history, it’s not a nostalgic film,” its director has said. “It’s a film relevant to Israel today.” According to the official synopsis, Ben-Gurion’s “clear voice provides a surprising vision for today’s crucial decisions and the future of Israel.” ...

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