Historian Rips New York Times for Recycling Ben-Gurion 'Myth'

David Ben-Gurion / Getty Images
August 13, 2018

An American-Israeli historian criticized New York Times reporter Max Fisher last week for recycling the "myth" that Israel's founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion fretted over the Jewish state's control of territories won in the 1967 war.

Following Israel's legal declaration that it is the "nation-state of the Jewish people," Fisher penned an article for the paper's front page on July 23 headlined, "Israel, Riding Nationalist Tide, Puts Identity First. It Isn’t Alone." He led the story with the anecdote of Ben-Gurion emerging from retirement following Israel's victory in the 1967 "Six-Day War" to warn, Fisher wrote, "they had sown the seeds of self-destruction" by wresting control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt:

Israel had just won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.

But Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.

However, historian Martin Kramer challenged Fisher's writing last month—and noted Monday Fisher had written a highly similar lede to an article at Vox in 2015—saying on his blog the quote attributed to Ben-Gurion was "debunked." For attribution, Fisher had linked to an article written in 1987 by Conservative American rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. Hertzberg said he heard Ben-Gurion insist to him and other rabbis in 1967 "that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state."

Kramer argued the preserved remarks Ben-Gurion made on July 12, 1967, to the group of American rabbis bore no resemblance to what Hertzberg claimed to have heard:

The problem with this story is that Ben-Gurion never uttered the words Hertzberg attributed to him. The transcript of his speech, delivered to a visiting group of Conservative American rabbis on July 12, 1967, is preserved, and while it may not be complete, it bears not the faintest resemblance to Hertzberg’s account of it. There is no mention of the West Bank or its inhabitants, no mention of urgent withdrawal, no victor’s remorse. When Ben-Gurion wasn’t lauding Israel’s astounding victory, or reminiscing about his own past, he was haranguing the rabbis over Israel’s desperate need for Jewish immigration from America so that it could rapidly settle 100,000 Jews in unified Jerusalem. "Ben-Gurion Calls for Mass Immigration in Conservative Rabbinic Seminar," ran the headline in the Israeli daily Davar two days later. If Ben-Gurion had said anything remotely resembling what Hertzberg claimed he said, that headline would have been radically different.

Moreover, Kramer wrote, the Hertzberg story did not compare to Ben-Gurion's written proposals at the time for what should be done with the captured territories: return land to Egypt and Syria in return for fulsome peace treaties, and return nothing to Jordan. Eventually, Ben-Gurion said the Golan Heights should be annexed by Israel as well.

He also favored autonomy over the West Bank rather than annexation, worrying about the security threat of one million Arabs suddenly being thrust into the Israeli population.

His views until his death in 1973 remained largely the same, hinting at wanting to return territories to Israel's enemies in exchange for peace but finding it a doubtful eventuality. In 1969, he said, "Unfortunately I don’t see any proximate chance for true peace, and thus no room to speak about return of territories."

Kramer's conclusion: Hertzberg's depiction of the Ben-Gurion was a "figment of the rabbi’s imagination."

Fisher responded to Kramer's call-out on Twitter on Aug. 2, saying he had investigated Kramer's claim and stood by his story.

Kramer fired back on Aug. 6, saying in another blog post he did have the correct speech in his original article, posting the Hebrew transcript and noting the date, July 12, 1967, matched. In the speech, Ben-Gurion specifically mentions Hertzberg, saying "I don’t have much to add to the remarks of Dr. Hertzberg." Ben-Gurion made a diary entry on that date as well summarizing his remarks—and mentioning Hertzberg—and made no mention of territorial concessions or Israel's pending self-destruction.

Kramer also debunked Fisher's claims of having corroboration from multiple historical accounts to support his statement that Ben-Gurion was worried about Israeli pluralism:

These "historical accounts" turn out to be a few screen shots of secondary works comprised of unsourced or fragmentary quotes about Ben-Gurion’s territorial desiderata. None has Ben-Gurion warning against "occupation" as a threat to Israel’s "democracy and pluralism." And none qualifies as "immediately after the war." Remember, the point of Fisher’s lede isn’t that Ben-Gurion was willing to trade territory for peace under certain conditions. It’s that Ben-Gurion supposedly warned that Israel would destroy itself if it didn’t retreat, and that he made such a prophecy as early as July 1967. Fisher brings no new evidence for either.

Kramer added the historical record showed Ben-Gurion's thinking immediately after the 1967 war concluded in the form of a press release and could be summarized thusly:

In short: all of Jerusalem and Gaza to Israel, autonomy for the West Bank, the Israeli army on the Jordan river, and the return of territory to Egypt and Syria, but only in exchange for peace treaties. (Soon amended: he took the Golan off the table at the end of August.) In an interview published only three days before the Beit Berl meeting, Ben-Gurion elaborated: the West Bank should be a "protectorate" of Israel, and Israel should run its foreign affairs and defense. Any objective reader must agree that nothing in this program even faintly resembles "giv[ing] up the territories" to avoid "self-destruction."

Kramer acknowledged, as Fisher noted, that Ben-Gurion appeared willing to give up Gaza but by his death had expressed outright support for Jewish settlement in Sinai. In 1970, he wrote "we will make a great and awful mistake, if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem, with a large Jewish settlement, constantly growing and expanding, very soon."

Kramer closed by slamming the Times for serving its readers an "irresistible" story that it had not adequately researched. Moreover, Kramer wrote, it wasn't the first time that story appeared in the Grey Lady either; Anthony Lewis used the story in an opinion column in 1987.