Essay: David Ben-Gurion's Changing Views Towards Arab Nationalism Between 1918 and 1948

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¶ … Nuanced Face of Zionism

It is hard to think of the words "Middle East" and "nuance" as having anything to do with each other -- much less to conceive of a nuanced position between Zionism and Arab nationalism. But there have been times in the decades since the founding of the state of Israel that political leaders have tried to craft positions that acknowledged the complexity of the competing claims of Jews and Palestinians. David Ben-Gurion was one of these leaders whose views on Arab nationalism reflect a sophisticated understanding of the ways in which different narratives about geography must each be heard, if not given perfectly equal weight.

Ben-Gurion's ideas about Arab nationalism and the appropriate relationship between Jews and Arabs developed over the decades in which he was a major player in the political life of Israel. His dedication to Zionism (which is often itself interpreted to be a far less nuanced position than it is for many) has its roots decades before the founding of Israel. The complete story of his understanding of the role of Israel in the Middle East is beyond the scope of this paper, but some measure of it must be included to provide the necessary background to understand how as a mature politician he continued to develop his position on Arab nationalism.

Early Dedication to Labor Movement

Ben-Gurion emigrated from his native Poland to Palestine in 1906, although he was deported by Ottoman officials during World War I. He went to the United States during the war years. He returned to Palestine in 1918 and in 1921 became the secretary of the Histadrut, the General Organization of Jewish Workers in the Land of Israel. Ben-Gurion's early work in Palestine was focused on the labor movement, which was central to early efforts to create a Jewish state. Although we may see the founding of Israel in primarily political terms from our position in the twenty-first century -- for the formalization of Israel's existence as a state is certainly the single discrete action that marks the locus of conflict in the region -- there are other ways of conceiving of the beginnings of the Jewish state.

Ben-Gurion and other early Zionist leaders understood that economic claims and organization were important -- and even vital -- ways of creating the basis for a Jewish state. While the idea of Israel as a recognized nation had tremendous idealistic appeal, Ben-Gurion and his contemporaries understood that there had to be a substantial amount of pragmatic organization as well as the idealism of the movement, as summarized below:

Ben-Gurion and his party struggled to have the Jewish working class in Palestine, organized in the highly centralized Histadrut, assume the role of state-building vanguard in the Zionist project by taking charge of immigration and settlement and creating its own network of economic enterprises in agriculture, industry, construction, and distribution, and its own social, educational, and cultural institutions.

Lockman argues that Ben-Gurion's push to organize Jewish workers and employers paralleled his push to disenfranchise Arab workers as he fought to require Jewish employers to hire only Jewish workers -- even though the wages paid to Jewish workers were higher than those paid to Arab workers.

It should be noted that Ben-Gurion, although driven at this period in his life by idealism, was not naive. He understood, for example, that the policy of Jews hiring only Jewish workers and paying them more than Arab workers could work toward creating a sense of Palestinian nationalism. Teveth quotes Ben-Gurion as saying in 1914:

"...this hatred originates with the [Palestinian] Arab workers in Jewish settlements. Like any worker, the [Palestinian] Arab worker detests his taskmaster and exploiter. But because this class conflict overlaps a national difference between farmers and workers, this hatred takes a national form. Indeed, the national overwhelms the class aspect of the conflict in the minds of the [Palestinian] Arab working masses, and inflames an intense hatred toward the Jews."

What Lockman argues is certainly a legitimate perspective (that Ben-Gurion ignored the reality of Palestinian identity), but Pearl (2008) argues that this is an overly stark view of Ben-Gurion's view (as well as the perspectives of some of his contemporaries). Pearl argues that the position that Lockman outlines (and he is not alone in this) is in many ways taking a teleological approach -- arguing back from the present to the past. Pearl (as I will explore below) will argue that it is essential to examine contemporary documents and commentaries from throughout the course of Ben-Gurion's life to understand his developing position.

Ben-Gurion's beliefs about Arab nationalism were relatively constant from the time he emigrated as a young man to Palestine (before he was deported and then returned) through the early 1930s when the Nazis gained power in Germany. His work with the Histadrut helped create the shape of what would become Israel -- an entity that was connected on economic, cultural, and political levels. Ben-Gurion's beliefs during this period can be seen in retrospect to be idealistic almost to the point of irrationalism given everything that has followed.

And yet it is also important to underscore the fact that Ben-Gurion was even in his early days aware of Palestinians as possessing basic human rights. In 1918 he wrote: "Palestine is not an empty country . . . On no account must we injure the rights of the inhabitants."? It may seem very hard for us from our current historical perspective to understand how Ben-Gurion could hold both of these beliefs, but to argue this is to overlook the complexity and ambiguity inherent in the process of the founding of Israel. Ben-Gurion and other early Zionists had no template upon which to build and their understanding of the situation on the ground would necessarily have been in flux and mutable as the situation itself changed.

Different Assessments of Nationalism

During this phase Ben-Gurion believed that Zionism was a just philosophy -- and not simply just for Jews. He believed that Zionism would benefit the entire region and have essentially trickle-down effects for Arabs in the area in addition to the direct benefits to Jews. In particular he believed that Arabs would welcome Jewish immigrants to the area. Ben-Gurion argued that Jews would be drawn to immigrate because of a sense of nationalism (or something close to this) and that -- parallel to this -- Palestinians did not have a sense of nationalism or belonging to the land. (In effect, during this period Ben-Gurion was making an argument that precisely refuted the arguments of Arab nationalists, positing that even on a local level Arabs did not have a sense of connection to each other and that it was Jews who would cleave together because of connections that overrode familial links.) As the Jewish population increased in the Middle East through immigration, Jews would feel these pan-religious bonds more and more strongly. Thus immigration and Jewish nationalism would work in an iterative fashion, with increased population leading to increased levels of dedication to the idea of a Jewish state.

While in general Ben-Gurion believed that Palestinians did not have a strong sense (or even) any sense of nationalism, he did consider the possibility that Palestinians did have a sense of nationalism that they could still bribed to leave the land. While Ben-Gurion believed that force could be necessary, he also (up through 1933 when the Nazis took power) that there might be the possibility of a "transfer" of the Palestinian people from their land. In such a "transfer" Palestinians would be willing to accept some form of payment in exchange for the land, which they would then willingly cede to Jewish immigrants.

Naivete? Or the Desire for Ethnic Cleansing

A harsh description of this dynamic follows. It is important to consider this perspective even though it is in fact the kind of teleological argument that I referred to above. While Ben-Gurion's assessment of the state (or non-state) of Palestinian nationalism may have been fundamentally inaccurate, this does not mean that this was not his authentic position at the time. Neff argues that Ben-Gurion was acting out of essentially genocidal impulses since at the time of a Zionist conference in Basel in 1897, "Arabs represented 95% of the population of Palestine and owned 99% of the land. This pair of facts ensured that from the very roots of Zionism "dispossession of the Palestinian majority, either politically or physically, would be an inevitable requirement for achieving a Jewish state."

Since Palestinian Arabs were by far the majority throughout the period up to Israel's establishment as a Jewish state in 1948, the Zionist state could emerge only by denying the majority its rights or by becoming the majority either through immigration or in reducing the number of Palestinians by ethnic cleansing?

Neff writes that "It was not only land that was needed to reach Zionism's goal, but land without another people in the majority."? This is true, but Ben-Gurion's vision of the replacement of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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