Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a socialist who rejected the Marxist belief that all important struggles are economic. Rather than believing that religion, nationalism, and moral ideals obscure economic struggles, he saw intellectual and moral struggle as important in its own right. He warned us that “we will not be prepared and equipped-and the decisive ‘equipment’ is the spiritual equipment-either for a political struggle or for a military struggle, if we do not grasp fully and recognize the moral and intellectual struggle which transpires in human history”.
From 1950 to 1968, David Ben-Gurion hosted a Bible study group in his home. In 1972, Ben-Gurion had some of his lectures and discussions before this group compiled and published in a book entitled Ben-Gurion Looks at the Bible. Many members of the Bible study group were brilliant scholars. Alan Seaburg, a writer and librarian who reviewed “Ben-Gurion Looks at the Bible for the New York Times, noted that “Ben‐Gurion is rightly shy of his scholarly credentials. He regards himself as a dabbler in this field, a “simple student,” as merely an “average reader of the Bible.” Nonetheless, Ben-Gurion Looks at the Bible is important both because it shines light on the worldview of an important Jewish leader and historical figure, and because it contains some brilliant insights which remain relevant today.
Ben Gurion wrote: “We are presently involved not only in a conflict with our Arab neighbors, but, to some extent, with most of mankind as it is organized in the United Nations-because of Jerusalem. Only a blind man does not see that the sources of this conflict are not political, economic or military alone, but also ideological.” (pg 3)
Ben-Gurion noted that many of Israel’s allies, including Latin American nations, France, and Czechoslovakia (then a Soviet puppet state which had supplied Israel with most of the weapons the IDF used in the War of Independence), aligned with the Arab nations’ call for the internationalization of Jerusalem. Catholic nations, Muslim countries, and Communist states, which generally have little in common, all united in support of the internationalization of Jerusalem.
Why? How come even countries that generally supported Israel opposed Jewish-Israeli control over Jerusalem? According to Ben-Gurion, Israeli control over Jerusalem challenged Catholic, Muslim and communist worldviews, and was therefore discomfiting to most of the world. Ben Gurion wrote:
“The Jewish nation is not only a national and political entity. It incorporates within itself a moral will, and has borne a historic vision ever since it appeared on the stage of history; and the will and vision of the Hebrew nation have nothing in common with even one of the three great world views which joined together in the General Assembly of the United Nations over the question of Jerusalem-not with the Christian-Catholic, not with the Moslem, not with the Communist, and not even with the [other] world-views that have contended for world domination in the chronicles of mankind from early times until today.” Even those who supported Israeli independence out of a commitment to justice and humanitarianism and/or to advance their own geopolitical interests saw Israeli control over Jerusalem, a city which is holy to billions of people around the world, as indicative of a higher level of Jewish ascendancy, which they opposed because it challenged their own worldviews.
Ben-Gurion argued that we cannot understand either the adversities the Jewish people have faced, nor our survival and victories in the face of these adversities, until we recognize the uniqueness of the Jewish people’s worldview and the “spiritual, moral and intellectual struggle” which our people have been involved in for all our history and will be involved in “until the coming of the messianic age” (which Ben-Gurion believed in, although his vision of it was very different from the religious messianism we are familiar with, since he was an agnostic.)
We’re used to remembering Egypt and Babylonia as brutal empires that threatened the Jewish people and nation by attacking and subjugating us. Our understanding of these empires is accurate but incomplete because we forget that, in their times, these empires were centers of culture, literature and science. Egypt and Babylonia were enemies and oppressors of the Jewish people, but they were also superpowers and cultural centers, and therefore some Jewish people wanted to join or emulate them. Ben Gurion writes: “Everything which remains from the true prophets points to great spiritual efforts not just to stand up against foreign rule, but also to stand up against the foreign spiritual influence which these powerful nations imposed upon a nation that was small and weak, politically and militarily, but exceptionally gifted in terms of spiritual strength and moral independence. The Israeli nation, of which we are the inheritors, was not the only people in the land of Israel and its environs which was faced with this double pressure. Several Semitic nations whose language was Hebrew (as can be seen clearly from Canaanite Phoenician writings and from those of Mesha, king of Moab) lived in Israel. But not a trace remains of these nations because they were unable to stand up to the cultural pressures of their mighty neighbors, and thus were absorbed by them without leaving footprints. The Jewish people battled and was victorious, and it makes its appearance once again as a liberated nation, in a corner of the world where it first stepped on the stage of history four thousand years ago.”
This passage illustrates the primacy of the spiritual and moral battle. Militarily, we lost our battles with the Babylonians and were exiled by them. We lost our military battles with the Romans and were exiled by them. But though subjugated politically we retained our moral and spiritual independence. We also continued to be one people, united by our shared mission to serve God through Torah-based faith and religious practice, by a shared understanding of history and ethics, and by love and longing for the land of Israel. Until recently, Jews usually lived in semi-autonomous communities. Though usually politically disempowered and despised by the non-Jewish societies that dominated and surrounded us, and almost always vulnerable to antisemitic violence, plunder and expulsion, most Jews throughout the history of the diaspora lived in Jewish worlds-within-worlds of extraordinary beauty and variety. Even though their very lives were in the hands of rulers and populations that hated them, they were usually able to live by the principles of Jewish faith, morality and religious practice; when they were religiously persecuted, they accepted death or exile rather than betray God and give up the spiritual-moral independence of their people.
Jews have, of course, changed a lot over the past few centuries. According to Ben-Gurion, “the ancient Jewish outlook was intuitive and theocratic”. Today, the average Jew, in the US or Israel, despises theocracy. While many Jews today value intuition, few of us rely on it to the exclusion of science or logical reasoning. In the medieval period, many Jews integrated elements of the Greek philosophical worldview into their own perspective, and in the modern era most Jews have embraced the scientific method as a key driver of the journey towards truth and many Jews have played an important role in scientific progress. Nonetheless, the Jewish people continue to bear a unique worldview.
Obviously, not every Jew has survived- physically or spiritually -in the face of the many pressures, enticements and tortures which have sought to destroy us as a people. But the Jewish people itself, the primary target of all these pressures, enticements and tortures, has survived. Today, we have a great opportunity and responsibility, because now it is our turn to write the next chapter of the Jewish story.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or the ASUCLA Communications Board.