I recently reread Winston Churchill’s ‘The Second World War’ after which I reread Michael Bar Zohar’s biography of David Ben Gurion in Hebrew. Not the English translation which fits into 426 pages, but the 3 volume Hebrew edition which is 1604 pages long, not counting notes and bibliography. Both of the narratives are fascinating, and cover much of the same time frames from two very different perspectives. In another book I’d read on the politics of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a comparison of Ben Gurion to Churchill. Since I had read Churchill and learned to respect and admire the man, I thought long and hard about the comparison.
There are two more or less accepted attitudes regarding the influence of individuals on history. The first is that there are certain unique individuals in history who are able, because of their brilliance or amazing talents… sometimes with the help of a charismatic personality, to rally together a great many other people and produce noteworthy changes in human society or change history by invention or war. The second attitude regards the individual as less important. The exponents of this theory see the progress of humanity as great collective social structures which reach certain strategic planes at which time the most fitting candidate takes the lead in the same way that a dominant lion becomes the leader of a pride. They believe that at any specific time, there are a number of candidates who could take it upon themselves to fill the same role.
If we look at historical inventions, for instance, we can see that often the same inventions were created in different places at approximately the same time, without knowledge of one another. On the other hand, if we were to study the history of chess, we would see that throughout, there were always chess champions, but some of them were so much more imaginative, that they are thought to be the greatest of all time. When I looked at these two great men, one of whom led his people through a terrible challenge and saved his country from defeat and destruction, and the other who tried to save his people and failed, but who re-established a nation state that had been vanquished and dispersed two thousand years ago, I saw something that I had missed at first read; something they both had in common.
Both had a vision at an early age and committed themselves to serving their nations in a great way, and they both prepared themselves for the job with severe self discipline. They were both very talented individuals, but more than anything else, they were professionals. That is to say, despite the righteousness of their cause, and their emotional dedication to their goals, they never lost sight of the practical limitations of the circumstances in which they operated. Both of them had to accept choices that were hard for them to live with. They had to be objective about what they could and couldn’t do. They had to accept defeat and continue onward.
I mentioned in my blog of two weeks ago, after-ache, that I had been studying the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. Now there have always been Jews living in Israel, but it was only in the late 19th and the 20th century that relatively large groups started returning to our home country, the country in which we are the indigenous population. First Theodore Herzl, then Chaim Azriel Weizmann and David Ben Gurion worked to reestablish the state of Israel, and convince the nations of the world that we too deserved a homeland. Coming as I do from a minority group within the Jewish people, it was not that difficult for me to be objective about Ben Gurion, our first prime minister here in Israel, and to compare his vision to what we actually got. When I read that biography the first time, I thought he was a great man, but also made some big mistakes. Looking at him now, I am reminded of the many writers who claimed that after they’d created their characters, they just couldn’t force those characters to act in a certain way… the characters had a will of their own.
I now believe that history as it unravels, in ever changing circumstances, has it’s own momentum that won’t be bent by man. We can make the most of circumstances, can use our talents to save a hedgehog or teach a kitten to climb a tree, but even with the help of all of mankind’s wisdom and talent, including the wondrous power of the computer, there’s just no way we can make a hedgehog or a kitten. There was no way he could make Israel the way he wanted and hoped it would be, but he had the capacity to understand what it had to be, and that in itself was a type of genius. He was a midwife to the rebirth of our country, and in my heart I believe there was no one else at the time that could have taken his place. There are many quotes by him to choose from, but here’s two that might be the keys to his success.
In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.
Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.