It takes two to make history

The role of individual leaders in history is much-contested. But if leaders matter—and I think they do—then they have to matter to each other. Let’s call that factor “the other guy”—that other person, also a leader, whose opposition might block the way, or whose cooperation might open a door.

And the examples are legion. What’s Napoleon without Wellington? Franklin without Washington? Grant without Lee? Gladstone without Disraeli? Custer without Crazy Horse? Roosevelt without Churchill, Churchill without Hitler, and Hitler without Stalin? These questions fuel the fascinating genre of the dual biography. That’s when a historian takes two leaders, and intertwines their lives as a series of interactions, often culminating in a duel that changes the course of history. 

The examples in the history of Israel are also numerous—of the intertwined lives of Israeli and Arab leaders whose duels had huge consequences. David Ben-Gurion and King Abdullah (the First) of Jordan fought a war in 1948, and its political and demographic legacy is still with us. Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace in 1979, and it’s the pillar of Israel’s security to this day. Ariel Sharon and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat slugged it out time and again, and we still live in the ambiguous reality they created. These weren’t just three encounters. They were fateful.

In a new essay for Mosaic, I apply this dual approach to the first of these pairs: Ben-Gurion and Abdullah. There are crucial differences between the two, but you’ll discover more parallels than you might think. Go here to Mosaic, or download here.

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.

Does Ben-Gurion deserve the credit?

Over the past two weeks, three distinguished scholars have responded to my essay at Mosaic Magazine on Ben-Gurion’s struggle to gain control of the Israeli army in 1948. In order of appearance, they are:

Benny Morris: “In the end, the army that won the 1948 war was largely commanded by the original, homegrown Haganah officers, from Yigael Yadin on down. These commanders and their reorganized, retrained, and re-equipped ‘militia’ units had swiftly turned into ‘regular’ formations. And together they accomplished exactly what Ben-Gurion had long argued they could never do.” Read more.

Eliot A. Cohen: “Ben-Gurion was an outstanding war statesman—as outstanding in his way, given the size of the stage on which he operated, as Churchill on his much larger stage. An indomitable spirit, a powerful vision, and rhetorical gifts combined to help make him so. But we should not forget that he was also a shrewd judge of people and things, a realist rather than a dreamer, a calculator as much as a prophet armed.” Read more.

Efraim Inbar: “Using the bricks at his disposal, Ben-Gurion built the IDF into a highly effective military force that simultaneously became the ultimate melting pot for Jews returning to their homeland from all corners of the earth. Historians can debate the role played in the ultimate realization of that vision by a single meeting on May 12, 1948. What is beyond debate is that, at its creation, Israel was extraordinarily lucky to have David Ben-Gurion at the forefront of its leadership.” Read more.

Next week, I’ll have the last word in the discussion. In the meantime, enjoy these three informed responses. As you’ll see, I’m in agreement with some aspects, in dispute with others.

llustration: Prime Minister Ben-Gurion (right chair) and Defense Minister Ben-Gurion (left chair), in a caricature by Yoel Buchwald (1920-97). The Israeli Cartoon Museum, Holon, Israel.