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.

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.

Choice books on Israel, 2019

Mosaic Magazine asked its regular contributors for year-end book recommendations. I selected these four worthwhile books published in 2019. Other contributors (the list is illustrious) made interesting choices too, and you can read them in two parts: here and here. Now, my choices.

Journalism, it is said, constitutes the first draft of history. Sometimes it’s more than that, as when journalists move away from day-to-day reporting and plumb the past. Three of the most worthwhile books on Israel in 2019 fall into just that category.

David Ben-Gurion lived a life that still confuses, inspires, and fascinates, and each retelling reveals some neglected aspect. His greatest biographer was the late Shabtai Teveth, originally a journalist, who wrote a multi-volume study in Hebrew (and a single-volume condensation in English). As it happened, I knew Teveth well; when he was working on Ben-Gurion, his archive filled a specially rented apartment in Tel Aviv. There was so much to say that his monumental project never made it to 1948.

Now Tom Segev, also a journalist, has produced a one-volume portrait: A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816pp., $40). Some will remember Segev from decades ago as one of those enfants terribles who tried to demolish conventional Israeli narratives. His claim, back then, that Ben-Gurion had heartlessly exploited the Holocaust drove Teveth to write a book-length refutation.

But in this new biography, not only does Segev effectively admit that he got that wrong, he has also given Ben-Gurion an admiring treatment—almost despite himself, one is tempted to say. Sure, Ben-Gurion’s flaws are there to see (no one who knew him could fail to see them). Yet Segev still lets Ben-Gurion’s greatest strength shine through: his sheer single-mindedness, without which Israel might have been born in much more pain and suffering. No one should rely on just one biography to put Ben-Gurion in focus, but Segev’s is a good place to start.

We think we know all there is to know about 1948, until someone comes along and proves that we don’t. Matti Friedman, in his brisk Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 272pp., $26.95)tells the story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies. It’s the kind of espionage better known through the saga of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian Jew sent by Israel in the 1960s to spy on Syria. Friedman shows that Zionist intelligence began recruiting Jews from Arab countries as early as the 1940s, sending most of them to Lebanon. Whether they made that much of a difference is debatable, but their adventures make for riveting reading.

Friedman’s book is also an antidote to the present-day meme of the “Arab Jew”—Jews who supposedly felt themselves to be Arabs until the birth of Israel displaced them. Yes, there were far-left intellectuals, mostly Baghdad Jews, who imagined themselves to be Arabs. (I had one as a colleague, the late academic Sasson Somekh.) But Friedman’s heroes undertook aliyah before the state, and some made the supreme sacrifice to launch it.

In 1948, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from Europe or European parents. Of the 37 signatories of Israel’s declaration of independence, 35 were born in Europe. But Friedman shows that other Jews assisted at the birth, and his book is an effective way to remind American Jews (as Friedman does in this interview with Jonathan Silver) that today’s Israelis are as much Middle Eastern as anything else.

Dangers from the north still loom over Israel, but thwarting them is now a high-tech enterprise. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has reconstructed the most dramatic case in Shadow Strike: Inside Israels Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s, 320pp., $28.99)It’s amazing just how much information Katz collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction. Most of the people involved eagerly talked to Katz, who weaves an artful narrative of technology, intelligence, and politics. (He did the same in this interview with the Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.)

It’s also a cautionary tale. The George W. Bush administration had thrown a whole army against supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on the basis of flawed intelligence. But when Israel proposed that the United States act against a proven nuclear facility in Syria, it demurred. At least Bush stood aside when Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would act alone. It’s a repeat of an old lesson: at crucial moments, Israel’s staunchest ally is just as likely to balk, which is why Israel needs the means and independence to defend itself against any threat—alone.

Finally, and still on the subject of journalism, one reason America isn’t an entirely reliable ally is that its elites get much of their notion of Israel from the New York Times. The Wellesley historian Jerold S. Auerbach has undertaken the dour task of plowing through more than a century of the paper’s reportage, to demonstrate not just the infamous bias of the Times but its peculiarly Jewish origins, dating all the way back to its publisher Adolph Ochs. Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95) is a must-read for anyone who relies even a bit on the Gray Lady for news and opinion (and an essential companion to Laurel Leff’s 2006 book Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust). An excerpt from Print to Fit appeared in Mosaic.