Debunked, but still fit to print on page one

Nothing gives a historian greater satisfaction than correcting a persistent error. And nothing is more frustrating than the resurrection of that error even after it’s been corrected. Especially if it suddenly surfaces on the front page of the New York Times.

In Monday’s edition, on page A1, an article by Max Fisher appeared under the headline “Israel, Riding Nationalist Tide, Puts Identity First. It Isn’t Alone.” This is the lead:

Amid a moment of national euphoria, 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.

Israel had just won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.

But Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.

In the print edition, 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, once 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.”

This week, Hertzberg’s report hit the front page of the New York Times, via Max Fisher. That’s too bad, because only three months ago I thoroughly debunked it at Mosaic Magazine. 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. 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 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.

Since the New York Times isn’t going to correct the error, I’m excerpting the part of my article that unravels the Hertzberg claim, supported by verifiable Ben-Gurion quotes, in the hope that you’ll share it. I’ve only got a few thousand subscribers, which is nothing compared to the more than half a million who saw the story on the front page of America’s newspaper of record, and the 2.6 million digital subscribers who might have seen it. But who knows? Maybe the next journalist will do some research before he or she recycles this myth, and will somehow stumble on the truth. The more places it can be found, the more likely that is.

Below is the excerpt, reproduced by permission of Mosaic Magazine. Read the whole article here.

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This brings us to Ben-Gurion’s position after the 1967 war. Two decades after that conflict, in a 1987 article in the New York Review of Books titled “Israel: The Tragedy of Victory,” the gadfly American rabbi Arthur Hertzberg would recall hearing a speech by Ben-Gurion in July 1967 at the Labor training institute Beit Berl outside Tel Aviv. Hertzberg’s summary:

Ben-Gurion insisted that all of the territories that had been captured [in the June Six-Day War] had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.

That July speech, Hertzberg insisted, had “become my most vivid memory of Israel in 1967.”

In 2003, Hertzberg repeated this story in the introduction to a manifesto entitled The Fate of Zionism. In that “unforgettable encounter,” he now wrote, Ben-Gurion had demanded that Israel “give back, immediately, all the territory that it had captured” except Jerusalem; otherwise, “it would be heading for historic disaster.” With his “wrathful cry that the most glorious of Israel’s victories could turn out to be even more poisonous than defeat,” Ben-Gurion, according to Hertzberg, “was the true Zionist prophet” who “planted in me a recurring discomfort.” Thus, when Hertzberg himself later called for a Palestinian state, he claimed he was simply “follow[ing] after David Ben-Gurion, who dissented, at the end of his life, from the platform of the very Labor party he had helped to fashion.”

The problem with this story is that 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. “Ben-Gurion Calls for Mass Immigration in Conservative Rabbinic Seminar,” ran the headline in the Israeli daily Davar two days later. If Ben-Gurion had said anything remotely resembling what Hertzberg claimed he said, that headline would have been radically different.

Nor does Hertzberg’s account bear the slightest resemblance to Ben-Gurion’s own precise statement of what he thought should be done with the occupied territories, laid out in a public letter composed with all the force of his considerable personal authority. Sent to the editors of the Hebrew press, the letter was published in nearly all of the major dailies on June 19, nine days after the war’s end. “If Egypt agrees to conclude a peace treaty with Israel,” he wrote,

and commits to our freedom of navigation, not just in the straits of Eilat but also in the Suez Canal, we will be ready to evacuate the Sinai desert immediately after the signing of the treaty. . . . If Syria agrees to sign a peace treaty, and commits itself to preventing attacks on Israeli settlements by Syria’s inhabitants and from within its territory, we will evacuate the Syrian [Golan] Heights now in our hands.

Armistice agreements, as in 1949? Hardly: Ben-Gurion was willing to return territory only in return for full peace treaties. “I am not sure the other side is prepared for that,” he added.

In fact, there was no difference between this position and the Israeli cabinet decision of June 19: Egypt and Syria would be offered full withdrawal for full peace. But for Ben-Gurion it didn’t take long for Syria’s Golan Heights to be removed from the table: after a visit there in August, he concluded that Israel should settle and annex them.

As for Jordan, Ben-Gurion would return nothing. The Old City of Jerusalem and its surroundings would remain entirely in Israeli hands (it had been Israel’s “eternal capital” since the time of King David). When it came to the rest of the West Bank,

We will propose to the inhabitants . . . to choose representatives with whom we will conduct negotiations on a West Bank autonomy (excluding Jerusalem and its surroundings), which will be tied to Israel in an economic alliance, and which will have its outlet to the sea via Haifa or Ashdod or Gaza. A Jewish army will be stationed on the western bank of the Jordan River to protect the independence of the autonomous West Bank. . . . All the Jews who [once] lived in Hebron and its surroundings will be allowed to return to their former homes, even after the West Bank is granted internal autonomy.

He was even more specific in an address to an Israel Bonds delegation in August. In his view, the West Bank should be an “autonomous though not independent province.” This scheme for the Palestinians hardly constituted “dissent” à la Hertzberg. It basically tracked Ben-Gurion’s proposals of 1956 and 1958, and also the earliest form of the plan for the West Bank drawn up after the Six-Day War by then-Minister of Labor Yigal Allon.

And once again there was another newly occupied territory, in addition to eastern Jerusalem, that Ben-Gurion proposed to annex outright:

The Gaza Strip will remain in Israel, and efforts will be made to settle its refugees in the autonomous West Bank, or in other Arab territory, with the assent of the refugees and the assistance of Israel.

Picking up here on his earlier ideas about Gaza, he still thought it crucial to extend Israel’s coast all the way down to the Egyptian border, even if that meant assuming responsibility for (the dispersal of?) Gaza’s 350,000 Arabs.

In sum, in Ben-Gurion’s plan, no part of the Land of Israel west of the Jordan would be “given back” to anyone. Israel would patrol its entire eastern frontier, the West Bank would become a subordinate “province” of Israel, and the Gaza portion, evacuated of some of its Arabs, would be annexed outright.

In the following months, Ben-Gurion didn’t deviate from this plan. On August 1 (that is, after his Beit Berl remarks), he participated in a Q&A session with students of the Hebrew University. Repeating every one of his points, he added: “In my opinion, the Sinai, the West Bank, the [Golan] Heights, and the Gaza Strip can wait; we have time. But we have to work immediately to build Jerusalem.” So much for acting to return territory “very quickly,” “very soon,” or “immediately.” Indeed, as a recent study demonstrates, Ben-Gurion invested his greatest energies after the war in plans for absorbing all of united Jerusalem into Israel—including such far-out proposals as demolishing the walls of the Old City. More than two years later, in 1969, his position still hadn’t changed:

If there were a chance for “true peace” (and by true peace I mean stability and common action in economics, politics, and education), I would be for the return of territories (except for the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza). But unfortunately I don’t see any proximate chance for true peace, and thus no room to speak about return of territories.

By 1971, his view hadn’t much altered. He had stopped mentioning Gaza alongside Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as territory Israel had to keep. But his concept of “true peace” remained absolute. Asked by an American senator what it meant, he answered: “Nu, it’s fairly simple. Peace such as that which exists between Belgium and Holland.”

But this wasn’t his final stop. As time wore on, and the wait for “true peace” lengthened, Ben-Gurion envisioned still more revisions to the pre-1967 status quo. In 1972, he was asked whether he’d changed his views during the five years since the war. Ben-Gurion replied that in 1967 he’d been willing to return all of the Sinai, but Egypt had still refused to make peace.

In the meantime, we are settled in the Sinai, and important things are being done there. There is a big difference between returning barren desert and returning settled areas. I would not order the dismantlement of the settlements in the Sinai and the return of territories to Egypt. Something changed in Sinai since the Six-Day War, and things continue to change. It’s one thing to return desert, another to return territory settled by Jews.

When asked whether his revised view included the West Bank, and particularly Hebron, he added: “Provision should be made for a large and growing Jewish settlement in Hebron that should be able, in the fullness of time, to become a part of the state of Israel.” This repositioning didn’t pass without notice outside Israel: “Ben-Gurion Switches on Annexation,” announced a headline in the New York Post. It was the last major statement by Ben-Gurion on borders; he died the following year.

So Hertzberg’s Ben-Gurion—advocate of an immediate, unilateral, and almost total Israeli withdrawal—was a figment of the rabbi’s imagination. But Hertzberg didn’t consciously fabricate him. (I allow myself to say this as someone who briefly had Hertzberg as a teacher.) He simply did what many do when they want to validate their own political notions: they trace them back to a (mis)quotable “founding father.” No doubt, Hertzberg’s encounter with Ben-Gurion—the “George Washington of Israel”—was as “unforgettable” and “vivid” as he claimed. But two decades after the fact, he remembered only those fragments of Ben-Gurion’s remarks that he could distort and cram into his own by-then alienated verdict on 1967: “It would have been better had the Six-Day War ended in a draw and not in a series of stunning victories.”