Monday, August 13, 2012

David Ben Gurion shows empathy, honesty and political grit

It's a bit embarrasing, actually, that a blog of the Israel State Archives has been running for more than a month with hardly any mention of David Ben Gurion. Can you imagine a blog about football (or soccer) which never mentioned Pele, or a blog about Hollywood with nary a mention of, say, Charlie Chaplin or Greta Garbo? (I'll bet no-one has ever compared Ben Gurion to Garbo).

So here's a letter by Ben Gurion. It's not one of the weighty ones, in which he defined Israeli society for generations. On the other hand, it is rather startling. On May 10th 1962, Ben Gurion was responding to a letter from Drora Levitin, whose soldier brother, Amnon Lifschitz, had recently been killed. Levitin's letter was bitter and angry, and Ben Gurion must have responded in his own words: no staff writer would have dared put the letter's sentiments into the mouth of the prime minsiter. Come to think of it, not that many leaders would have used such words themselves, either. It's a profoundly human letter, but there are no apologetics in it, nor any weasel words or cliches.

Dear Drora,

I read your letter with a shudder and deep sorrow. I empathize with you, and although I can't say I share your pain for the loss of your brother Amnon Lifschitz - that would be an insincere exaggeration - while reading your letter I nonetheless felt the brunt of your pain and sorrow.

Nor can I say that there is no basis for your bitterness. Not all your complaints are justified. When you ask "if it's just that able-bodied soldiers serve in Sarafend or Sdeh Dov [two "safe" bases near Tel Aviv] because they have important fathers," you aren't justified. I cannot explain in this letter why some soldiers are based here and others there. No-one can say all the arrangements in the army are ideal and that there's no room for improvement. There's no such thing. Yet some soldiers need to be in Sarafend, and when there's need to send them elsewhere they go, and sometimes they don't all return alive. Yet they get sent, and they go.

I have focused on that particular sentence in your letter, because in your all too natural grief you said something about our soldiers which they don't deserve. There are no soldiers in the army who are preferred because of their fathers. In saying this I am not angry at you, because I understand the deep grief which speaks from your throat. Yet I must disagree, because you are wrong.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about most of the other things in your letter.

What I can say to your complaints - and there's no need for you to apologize for writing "in pain and bitterness" - is that we don't yet live in an ideal system that would have prevented your brother's tragic death. We're doing our best, with some success, but we're still very far from where we'd wish to be...

You're fully correct on one point: the bereaved mother deserves consoling words, though what words might I say that would console her? I know a bit about mothers' hearts, and there is nothing - except the existence of the nation - which perturbs me more in my work as minister of defense than the pain mothers may suffer in this or that action we must take...

I know I can't argue with you. I must regard these matters rationally, and that I can't demand of you; as a bereaved sister, I cannot require you to apply cool logic. Nor, I'm afraid, will I be able to mitigate your pain; such pain isn't to be mitigated.

I haven't responded to all your complaints; but I'd wish to remove your anger at the army and the soldiers. We have nothing more precious than this army, because our existence depends on it. I regret this. I wish we could live surrounded by peace, and not need this army, but that's not the reality. If our army isn't ideal - no army is - we needn't be ashamed of it. Believe me, dear Drora, even you, a bereaved sister, have nothing to be ashamed of by our army.


D. Ben Gurion

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