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.

Swearing allegiance to Israel

On what day did the Israel Defense Forces come into being? If you guessed May 14, 1948, you’re wrong. The actual date was May 31, two weeks after independence, upon publication of an ordinance establishing the army, signed by David Ben-Gurion.

Why did it take so long? Couldn’t the founders have drafted this ordinance in the weeks before the end of the British mandate? After all, drafting the declaration of independence began some six weeks before independence. And everyone knew there would be a need for a legally constituted army. So why the time lag?

The short answer is that no one knew for sure what the army would look like. Would it preserve the Haganah and the Palmah commands? Would the different parties continue to indoctrinate their own forces, via political commissars? To which civilian authority would the army answer?

Ben-Gurion had an uncompromising answer. The army must answer to the defense minister, acting on behalf of the government. There could be no other armed force, and no other civilian overlord. And until he could get that in writing, he wasn’t prepared to assume the defense portfolio.

There was a huge row over this during the days leading up to independence. It took time to sort it out, and it’s a story of sharp elbows, so it’s been erased from the collective memory. That’s also why I’ve devoted a new essay to it, on the website of Mosaic Magazine.

To round out that account, here I’ll add some details about a major step in the process: the very first swearing-in ceremony of the army. According to the May 31 ordinance, every soldier and officer would “take an oath of allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and its lawful authorities.” Ben-Gurion had pushed for the swearing-in of the most senior commanders right through June, and finally convened them at the general staff headquarters in Ramat Gan on June 27.

Ben-Gurion personally administered the carefully formulated oath. This same oath has been taken over the last seventy-two years by millions of Israeli soldiers assembled across the land, from dusty basic training bases to the Western Wall plaza:

I swear and commit to maintain allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and its authorities, to accept​ upon myself unconditionally the discipline of the Israel Defense Forces, to obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, and to devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life, for the protection of the homeland and the liberty of Israel.

The earliest drafts commanded that the soldiers “obey all the orders and instructions given by the high command.” But what if there were a military coup? “High command” became “authorized commanders”: Ben-Gurion took no chances.

Swearing-in group photograph, June 27, 1948. IDF Archive

There is an iconic group photograph of this occasion. It shows Ben-Gurion seated at ease on a lawn chair in the center, in short sleeves alongside his wife Paula. They are surrounded by about two dozen commanders, standing or sitting, who don’t yet follow any strict dress code. In a low-quality film clip of the same scene, we see Ben-Gurion beaming confidently at the camera, while Yigael Yadin, head of operations, fiddles with a hat and then a beret, perhaps with a mind to covering his prematurely bald head.

Ben-Gurion’s administering of the oath was as fundamental as his declaration of the state. And it was just as hard-earned, if not more so. A broad consensus supported statehood. But as I show in my essay, powerful interests opposed a unified army under Ben-Gurion’s command.

“This day,” Ben-Gurion wrote of the oath ceremony, “resembled the ‘giving of the Torah’ and the laws to the army of Israel.” Sworn loyalty to the state nixed the possibility of domination by a “select praetorian guard,” or the obedience of the army to a “powerful social movement.” These were all veiled references to Ben-Gurion’s rivals on the left in Mapam, who dominated the Palmah. He hadn’t yet defeated them, but he had the upper hand.

Over lunch with the commanders, Ben-Gurion set a new standard for military subordination to civilian authority — one that has yet to be surpassed. Out of the blue, he announced that all of them were to take Hebrew surnames, there and then. Some pleaded for more time, but he wouldn’t hear of it. The afternoon press release listed all the commanders by their Hebrew names, some of them freshly minted.

Ben-Gurion lunches with senior IDF commanders, June 27, 1948. IDF Archive.

Israel’s politics are full of ex-generals. But Israel has evaded the fate of many war-waging new states, and even some old ones, which were hijacked by “men on horseback.” That’s not something to be taken for granted, and it’s been one of Israel’s clearest advantages over its enemies, both in 1948 and after. In Israel, the civilian leader who founded the state also unified the army, and put the former above the latter. It’s another debt we owe to David Ben-Gurion.