A tale of two Zionists: Ze'ev Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion and the dramatic origins of Israel

A Jewish playwright is staging a conversation that shaped history. He tells Donald Macintyre how it can help to form the future


Two charismatic men born in Eastern
Europe meet in 1934, first in a London hotel room and then
in a Golders Green flat, in an effort to resolve their political differences
in the shadow of Nazism’s
rise. Within 15 years one of them, who
more than once interrupts the electrifying argument  by reciting his own translation into Hebrew
of Edgar Allen Poe’s darkly mysterious poem The Raven, will have died in exile; and the other will be the founding Prime
Minister of Israel.  

The “literary urge” to turn the encounters between the Zionists Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben Gurion into a play, which opens at Tel Aviv’s Cameri theatre on Thursday, was planted in Mr Yehoshua, one of Israel’s most celebrated writers, by an odd discovery; during the meetings Ben Gurion cooked  an omelette for Jabotinsky, a man so impractical that he regarded opening a can of sardines as a triumph. The detail cannot detract from the momentousness of the debates, the ideological division at the core of which still reverberates in today’s failure to achieve consensus within Israel on how to end its conflict with the Palestinians

“Ben Gurion is in my blood,” says Mr Yehoshua, 75,  who as a student  met the then PM in  a “peculiar episode” in 1959.  Ben Gurion was  outraged by a commentator’s claim that a Talmudic rabbi’s pronouncements  were no less authoritative than those of the biblical prophets of Israel. The 22 year old Yehoshua was engaged to scour  the rabbi’s works to help Ben Gurion disprove this fanciful  proposition. Out of his payment - scrupulously made from Ben Gurion’s personal bank account - Mr Yehoshua bought himself a Vespa scooter, which he cheerfully named after the rabbi.

But he adds: “The more time passes I see how he was right about many things including Ben Gurion’s unequivocal, - and ignored - advice to Israel immediately after the 1967 Six Day war to withdraw from the freshly occupied territories as soon as possible. Jabotinsky, by contrast, was the father of the right wing nationalist “greater Israel” camp (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father Benzion who died this month, worked as his private secretary).                

But studying the encounters, he found that the two men also had much in common. Personally, he says, Jabotinsky was a “noble” man, Both were not just secular, as Yehoshua himself is, but “deep secular”-Jabotinsky was even indifferent about whether his body after death should be buried or - a distinctly un-Jewish custom - cremated.  By contrast, these days “we in the peace camp” find their main opponents are religious, both the ultra orthodox, and the religious Zionist settlers, who believe they are in the West Bank by divine right and ordinance,

As he wrote the play Can Two Walk Together? Mr Yehoshua began to wonder whether a Jewish state could have been created during the thirties which might have saved perhaps a million more from the holocaust, as Jabotinsky, foreseeing some of   what lay ahead, believed was possible - if the Zionists had been prepared to do more to force it on the British and the Palestinian Arabs. After the 1917 Balfour declaration  backing  a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Mr Yehoshua   says, whether   “we could establish a state before the holocaust is a very serious question ……. if we had the power to do it. And I don’t blame the British I don’t blame the Arabs. I blame the Jews who did not take seriously the opportunity….”.   

The two Zionist leaders split  irrevocably after the meetings. At one point, Mr Yeshoshua points out, Ben Gurion would even – remarkably - refer to his adversary as “Vladimir Hitler” and as PM avoided bringing his body back to Israel for burial. Ben Gurion was finally in June 1948 obliged to enforce the authority of the infant state by shelling the Irgun ship Altalena when Menachem  Begin, Irgun’s leader and Jabotinsky’s disciple, refused to unload its cargo of weapons. It was a clash between left and right –and arguably between the rule of law and anarchy - that Yehoshua says still “haunts” the search for a two state solution.  

It’s a sign of Mr Yeshoshua’s outlook that the world premiere of the play – a rehearsed reading - was in London last week, the author’s fund raising gift to the UK New Israel Fund, which promotes democracy, equality, co-existence and human rights here. And he believes passionately in a two state solution—but also  that it is now too late to evacuate the West Bank   settlements by force without a “civil war”. “My position today is that we are not able to pull them out [from the West Bank] and the only solution is to give them [the settlers] the   possibility to stay as a Jewish minority in a Palestinian state……..”

Under the startling Yehoshua plan—a version of which was also floated in the past by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad--   those settlers refusing to leave voluntarily for compensation would have to become Palestinian citizens. wholly subject to the new state's laws. If the Palestinians “are serious about peace” then their own security forces, augmented by a European-led international in the Jordan Valley would preserve it. And for the Palestinians it would mean  “getting the maximum territory they want” without “cutting it into pieces” - the “Bantustan” that has for so long seemed to be Israel ’s best offer.    

Despairing of the US’s capacity to be a fair peace broker, he argues that this is now the European Union’s job. “Europe would say ‘Ok…. We are also guilty that we did not prevent the settlements before. But we know this is a trauma for you, if you will start to destroy them” . Instead it would cement the deal Mr Yehoshua envisages with an offer to each state to join the EU, saying “This will be a gift we give to you if you make peace’ This will tempt both sides to do it.” And Mr Yehoshua, who objects to Mr Netanyahu’s continued use of holocaust imagery to depict the Iranian threat, is convinced  the best way to deflect that threat is to make peace with the Palestinians.

Intriguingly, one Israeli politician who has expressed interest in his proposal on the settlers,  he says, is Shaul Mofaz, catapulted into the job of Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister, in coalition formed last week. Mr Yehoshua himself supports the new Opposition leader, Labour’s Sheli Yachimovich - “an honest and courageous person”. But he has discussed his ideas with Defence Minister  Ehud Barak who immediately raised the question of what would then  happen if a Jew was “slaughtered in Hebron? . Mr Yehoshua pointed out to Mr Barak that Israelis have been attacked in Egypt in the past without the peace treaty being unravelled.” I said:  ‘if there are three Jews murdered in Toulouse do you take your Army to Toulouse?.” On whether he is, overall, an optimist about a lasting peace agreement, he is a touch equivocal. At home he is often pessimistic. By  contrast his friends say “‘we have to come to you to get optimism.’ With my wife I can permit myself to be pessimistic. but when I’m around with more pessimistic people then me, I have to encourage them.”   

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