Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Principle & pragmatism


Yesterday, according to the Hebrew calendar, marked David Ben-Gurion's 36th yahrzeit. A founding father of Israel and its first prime minister, he died on December 1, 1973 at 87.

In considering the lessons to be drawn from Ben-Gurion's life, one involves his quest for the right balance between ideology and pragmatism. His admirers argue that Ben-Gurion was wise to jettison ideological consistency in the name of creating and consolidating the Zionist enterprise. He was a socialist, though Marxist dialectics took a back seat to his Zionist pragmatism: settling the land and promoting aliya. Doggedly single-minded, he acquiesced to majority rule, but was no pluralist. He ruled his party and saw to it that it ruled the Histadrut, the Jewish Agency and the government. Ben-Gurion expected absolute allegiance to the cause in the way that he defined it.

HIS CRITICS on the Zionist Right, followers of the classically liberal ideologue Ze'ev Jabotinsky, denounced Ben-Gurion's willingness, by 1937, to accept an independent Jewish state in a small part of Palestine, when by Divine right, historical association and international treaty the Jews deserved all of Eretz Yisrael. The Jabotinsky people did not understand how Ben-Gurion could cooperate with the British while their White Paper barred the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees. Nor could they forgive his June 1948 decision to sink the Irgun arms ship Altalena, carrying desperately needed weapons, to hammer home the point that the future state would have one unified command and he would be the commander-in-chief.

He was uncompromising not in his ideology, but in his pragmatism. He insisted on unity, seeing fragmentation as an obstacle to achieving Jewish independence. In a 1944 speech, he declared, "Anyone who questions the ultimate authority of the nation as a whole… undermines its dynamic potential." He personified that ultimate authority.

Ben-Gurion sought Arab assent for Zionism by holding talks with Mussa al-Alami, a pre-state Palestinian leader. He assured the Cambridge-educated Alami that his people would materially benefit by recognizing Jewish rights to Eretz Yisrael and agreeing to live in peace. But when Alami replied that the Arabs would rather see the country remain a wasteland for another 100 years than share it with the Jews, Ben-Gurion concluded that war was inevitable.

He speculated - somewhat optimistically, it turns out - that once the Arabs were decisively defeated and had witnessed the Jews developing the country, they might "possibly acquiesce in a Jewish Eretz Israel."

In the final analysis, Ben-Gurion believed that statecraft was the art of the possible, that ideology was something to be overcome if it stood in the way of pragmatism, that gradualism could deliver the very same outcomes as an all-or-nothing approach.

Where he also did not waver was in his philosophical commitment to the Zionist goal. He was faithful to a Jewish revolution "against destiny, against the unique destiny of a unique people." The Jews, he argued, were distinguished by their refusal - from Hadrian to Hitler - to surrender to historic destiny. For him, the meaning of Zionism was to teach the Jewish people that "non-surrender" was not enough: "We must master our fate; we must take our destiny into our own hands" by creating a state.

OF COURSE, if Ben-Gurion's legacy makes the case for setting aside the ideal for the practical, there is no shortage of contemporary politicians for whom "pragmatism" is nothing but a fig leaf for careerism, sloppy intellectual thinking, or even nefarious motives.

Take the particularly blatant example of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

He is supposedly a Christian ("I preach the word of Jesus Christ") and a leftist, but he has pretentiously embraced two Muslim religious reactionaries. His dalliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is well-known, but his defense of Ilich Ramirez - aka Carlos the Jackal, a convert to Islam and a believer in the path of Osama bin Laden - is only now getting attention. Chavez's favorite anti-Semitic newspaper, Vea, is lobbying to have Ramirez transferred from France, where he is serving a life term, to Venezuela.

Historians will argue about the legacy of principled leaders who chose pragmatism over ideological consistency. But we do not have to wait for history's judgment to label as "wicked" the demagogue who cobbles together an incoherent platform of Marxism, Jew-hatred, Israel-bashing and populism.
This article can also be read at /servlet/Satellite?cid=1258705173909&pagename=JPArticle%2FShowFull

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