A Pragmatic Approach

Ben Gurion's attitude toward the Arabs in the Land of Israel

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David Ben Gurion was not only an ideologue; he was also a statesman and nation-builder. Ben Gurion molded the image of the nascent state with a forcefulness unmatched by any other Israeli leader. 

Even before the creation of the state of Israel, through the 1920s and 1930s, Ben Gurion held the reigns of power in the Yishuv (the central authority of early Zionist settlement in Palestine) through his central roles in the Histadrut (the labor union), the World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish Agency. He stood as the head of the Zionist labor movement--the dominant political, social, and cultural stream from before statehood until 1977--and served as Israel's first prime minister.

Shifting Politics

Throughout the long period that Ben Gurion stood in the wheelhouse of the Zionist ship, his tactics and strategy vis-à-vis the Arab question veered according to the shifting political waters. However, several key principles guided his strategy for the nation-in-the-making.

david ben gurionThe scholar Yosef Heller aptly summarizes Ben Gurion's ideological constants in the following points ("The Positions of Ben Gurion, Weizman, & Jabotinsky on the Arab Question," Shapira, Reinharz, & Harris, eds. The Age of Zionism, 2000, p. 213):

1. The Arabs may possess rights of residence, but they do not possess rights of collective ownership over the Land of Israel.

2. Jewish settlement and immigration do nothing to injure or impinge on the interests and status of the non-Jewish residents of the country.

3. The Arabs of the Land of Israel are a small part of the larger Arab nation, and Palestine is but a small holding within the vast Arab world. The Jewish people have no other place that can serve as a platform for national independence. Arab nationalist aspirations can be fulfilled beyond the borders of Palestine.

4. All Zionist policy depends on the "meticulous protection of the civil, political, and the national rights of the Arabs living in the Land of Israel."

Ben Gurion's position, like many others in the Zionist movement, was a position fraught with tensions. Anita Shapira describes Ben Gurion's position in 1936 on the eve of the outbreak of the Arab Revolt:

"The man who had refused in 1924 to deal with the Arab question in its political aspects changed in the early 1930's into a great believer in the possibility of reaching an accord with the Arabs. Now he altered his views once again. He had come to the conclusion that any agreement with the Arabs was dependent on reaching a prior understanding with the British; and such understanding on the part of Whitehall would not be forthcoming until Jews constituted a major force in Palestine" (Shapira, Land & Power, 1992, p .211).

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Scott Copeland

Scott Copeland is an Israeli educator and travel guide. He serves as the program coordinator for the Jerusalem Fellows at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem.