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Former Tel Aviv professor lectures on Israel’s first prime minister

Anita Shapira, head of Rabin Center, discusses Israel’s founding leader for Watson event

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Anita Shapira, former Professor in the Study of Zionism at Tel Aviv University and head of the Rabin Center, led a discussion on the life and legacy of Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion Wednesday afternoon at the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs.

Shapira opened her lecture by highlighting Ben-Gurion’s choice of his burial location as emblematic of his historical presence. Instead of lying alongside leaders of the state, such as Zionism founder Theodor Herzl, Ben-Gurion asked for his grave to be on a cliff just south of the Sde Boker Kibbutz in the Negev. His gravestone was to be inscribed only with the date of his birth, death and a phrase stating the year he immigrated to Israel. While some may be inclined to see this isolation and simplicity as a sign of humility in the face of death, Shapira began her talk by asserting otherwise.

“In Jewish tradition … the highest of all is the one who’s untitled name is sufficient,” she said. “Not mentioning deeds on his gravestone was intended to say his name is sufficient, and the rest will be told in the history books.”

Professor of History Omer Bartov, who introduced Shapira, said he chose Shapira to speak for her ability to present historical figures with empathy.

“She doesn’t write militant history, she writes biographies,” he told The Herald. “Something that humanizes leaders, even leaders like Ben-Gurion. I think there is a strength in doing what she does.”

Shapira gave listeners a taste of her narrative style when she spoke about Ben-Gurion’s modest upbringing in Poland, then part of the Russian empire. Raised with little financial security, he was inspired by the first Russian Revolution. Soon after, Ben-Gurion found his ideological homes in Zionism and Socialism, she said.

“He was a young man without a purpose until he discovered politics,” Shapira said. “He possessed a sense of historic responsibility which guided him through his most difficult times.”

Shapira highlighted Ben-Gurion’s “miraculous decade” as the years between 1941 and 1952, which include the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. She credits him for the success of voting for independence, which was not a foregone conclusion at the time.

Bartov questioned Shapira’s praise of Ben-Gurion’s accomplishments in the context of Palestinian refugees.

“I want to ask a question a little bit around the elephant in the room,” he said. “Ben-Gurion’s greatest accomplishment is the establishment of the state of Israel. And that greatest accomplishment was the greatest catastrophe for the Palestinians. How did he understand this?”

Shapira responded to Bartov by saying that Ben-Gurion “established the state, he didn’t start the war,” and that the historical context made it so Ben-Gurion did not deeply consider the reality for Palestinians.

“Nobody thought that this was something abhorrent,” she said. “I am sure that in his heart of hearts he thought about it, but at that time, he, as others were, (was) so busy with other things that this was pushed aside.”

David Steinfeld ’20 found this answer to be the most memorable moment of the talk.

“I was interested in how she defended him in his decision around independence,” Steinfeld said. “It’s definitely interesting how she framed it in the perspective of the time period where that sort of method to deal with population transfer was accepted.”

Shapira said she hopes students in attendance gained a new outlook on Ben-Gurion’s political contributions.

“I hope students got a perspective … of the feeling of the first years of the Jewish state and of the struggle to establish statehood and how important it was at that time for the Jewish people,” she told The Herald.

The event was part of the Watson Institute’s Israel-Palestine Distinguished Lecture Series.