Ben-Gurion 1948: Israel’s Churchill?

I have the last word word in response to commentators on my essay about Ben-Gurion’s struggle to establish his control over the Israeli army in 1948.

I owe a debt to my three respondents, in order of their appearance: Benny Morris, Eliot A. Cohen, and Efraim Inbar. They’ve added context and some controversy to my essay, “Ben-Gurion’s Army: How the IDF Came into Being (and Almost Didn’t).” And this is a debt owed by Mosaic’s readers as well. The creation of Israel remade the Jewish people, altered the Middle East, and influenced world history. Thus, the pivotal events of 1948 invite never-ending research, questioning, and revision. Since we will never be closer to 1948 than we are now, today’s historians must leave a solid layer of interpretation for future colleagues, and my respondents have done their share.

None of them has contested my core thesis: that David Ben-Gurion used the famous May 12, 1948 meeting of the People’s Administration not only (or primarily) to secure a decision on statehood but also to consolidate and legitimate his control over the army. So there’s no reason to repeat my arguments yet again. Morris, Cohen, and Inbar have, however, raised questions about the broader role of Ben-Gurion in 1948, which is itself one of the larger topics in the history of Israel. What follows are a few reflections inspired or provoked by their contributions….

Continue reading.

1948: Ben-Gurion visits the southern front, accompanied  by Yigal Allon on his left. IDF Spokesman via Wikimedia.

Ben-Gurion and his generals

The history of Israel’s founding, like America’s, is encrusted in myths. Over recent years, I’ve been sorting them out at Mosaic Magazine. I resurrected the forgotten story of the Soviet role in the creation of Israel. I challenged the story of the Palmah “massacre” of Arabs at Lydda in the 1948 war.

And I scrutinized the May 12, 1948 meeting of the People’s Administration, a Jewish government-in-waiting. Led by David Ben-Gurion, its worried members only narrowly voted to declare the state of Israel two days later. Or did they? The problem, as I showed, is that the famous vote never took place. But a forgotten vote on that same day crucially decided Israel’s post-war frontiers.

In a new monthly essay for Mosaic Magazine, I now revisit that May 12 meeting, but with another purpose. The usual accounts tell us that Ben-Gurion summoned his generals to brief the People’s Administration on the military situation. This backfired: by their gloom-and-doom assessments, they almost killed Israel’s chance for statehood. Only Ben-Gurion’s optimistic intervention saved the day.

Did the military men really put the birth of Israel at risk? Spoiler: no, not really, but in any event, Ben-Gurion wanted to shake up the meeting. Why would he do that? Hint: the fate of the army depended on it. Now, for the full answer, you’ll have to read the whole thing.

So go right here, for my February essay at Mosaic Magazine. (Monthly essays are followed by expert responses and my final word, so stay tuned.)

Ben-Gurion reviews Givati Brigade, 1948. On his left, Lt-Gen. Yaakov Dori; on his right, Maj-Gen. Yigael Yadin; on far left, Maj-Gen. Yigal Allon. Fred Chesnick, IDF Archive.

The vote that really made Israel

We’re fast approaching Israel’s 70th anniversary: David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948. (The 70th will be celebrated on April 19, according to the Hebrew calendar.) To mark the occasion, I’ve written an essay about the run-up to Israel’s independence. Do you know that there was a close vote in the Zionist proto-cabinet on May 12, 1948, on whether to declare independence? Sure, you’ve read about it in histories of Israel and biographies of Ben-Gurion. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but the evidence for that vote couldn’t be weaker.

But another vote took place at that same session. It was a close one—five to four—and it had far-reaching consequences for the future of Israel. Although Ben-Gurion chalked it up as a triumph, it’s usually overlooked. I offer a full account in my essay, “The May 1948 Vote That Made the State of Israel,” at Mosaic Magazine. Read here.