Summoned by the Lion
When writer Amos Oz was a young soldier-kibbutznik, he had the audacity to respond to one of David Ben-Gurion’s published philosophical reflections. That earned him a call to a memorable “conversation” with the Old Man.
When I met David Ben-Gurion, he was not only prime minister and minister of defense but was thought of by many as the “great man of his day,” the founder of the state, the great victor in the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign. His enemies loathed him and ridiculed the cult of personality that surrounded him, while his admirers already saw him as the Father of the Nation, a sort of miraculous blend of King David, Judah Maccabee, George Washington, Garibaldi, a Jewish Churchill and even the Messiah of God Almighty.
Ben-Gurion saw himself not only as a statesman but also—maybe primarily—as an original thinker and intellectual mentor. He had taught himself classical Greek so as to read Plato in the original, had dipped into Hegel and Marx, had taken an interest in Buddhism and Far Eastern thought, and had studied Spinoza so thoroughly that he considered himself a Spinozist. (The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, a man with a razor-sharp mind, whom Ben-Gurion used to enlist as his companion whenever he raided the great bookshops aof Oxford for philosophy books when he was already prime minister, once said to me: “Ben-Gurion went out of his way to depict himself as an intellectual. This was based on two mistakes. The first, he believed, wrongly, that Chaim Weizmann was an intellectual. The second, he also believed, wrongly, that Jabotinsky was an intellectual.” In this way, Berlin ruthlessly killed three prominent birds with one clever stone.)
Every now and again Ben-Gurion filled the weekend supplement of Davar with lengthy theoretical reflections on philosophical questions. Once, in January 1961, he published an essay in which he claimed that equality between human beings was impossible, although they could achieve a measure of fraternity.
Considering myself a defender of kibbutz values, I penned a short response in which I asserted, with due humility and respect, that Comrade Ben-Gurion was mistaken. When my article appeared, it provoked a great deal of anger in Kibbutz Hulda. The members were furious at my impertinence: “How dare you disagree with Ben-Gurion?”
Only four days later, however, the gates of Heaven opened for me: The Father of the Nation descended from his great heights to publish a long, courteous reply to my piece; extending over several prominent columns, it defended the views of the “great man of his day” against the criticisms of the lowest of the low.
The same members of the kibbutz who only a couple of days earlier had wanted to send me away to some re-education institution because of my impertinence now beamed delightedly and hurried over to shake my hand or pat me on the back: “Vell, you’ve made it! Your name will be in the index of Ben-Gurion’s collected writings someday! And the name of Kibbutz Hulda will be there too, thanks to you!”
But the Age of Miracles had only just begun.
A couple of days later came the phone call.
It didn’t come to me—we didn’t have telephones in our little rooms yet—it came to the kibbutz office. Bella P., a veteran member who happened to be in the office at the time, ran to find me, pale and trembling like a sheet of paper, as shaken as though she had just seen the chariots of the gods wreathed in flames of fire, and told me as though they were her dying words that the Prime-Minister-and-Minister-of-Defense’s secretary had summoned me to appear early the next morning, at six-thirty precisely, at the minister of defense’s office in Tel Aviv, for a personal meeting with the Prime-Minister-and-Minister-of-Defense, at David Ben-Gurion’s personal invitation. She pronounced the words “Prime-Minister-and-Minister-of-Defense” as though she had said “The Holy One Blessed Be He.”
Now it was my turn to go pale. Firstly, I was still in uniform, I was a regular soldier, a staff sergeant in the army, and I was half afraid that I had broken some rule or regulation in embarking on an ideological dispute in the columns of the newspaper with my commander-in-chief. Secondly, I didn’t possess a single pair of shoes apart from my heavy, studded army boots. How could I appear before the Prime-Minister-and-Minister-of-Defense? In sandals? Thirdly, there was no way in the world I could get to Tel Aviv by half past six in the morning: The first bus from Kibbutz Hulda didn’t leave till seven and it didn’t get to the central bus station till half past eight, with luck.
So I spent the whole of the night praying silently for a disaster: a war, an earthquake, a heart attack—his or mine, either would do.
And at four-thirty I polished my boots for the third time, put them on and laced them up tight. I wore well-pressed civilian khaki trousers, a white shirt, a sweater and a windbreaker. I walked out onto the main road, and by some miracle I managed to get a lift and made it, half fainting, to the minister of defense’s office. This was located in a courtyard at the back, in a charming, idyllic little Bavarian-style cottage on two floors, with a red-tiled roof, covered with a green vine, which had been built in the nineteenth century by German Templars, who created a tranquil agricultural colony in the sands north of Jaffa and ended up being thrown out of the country by the British at the outbreak of World War II.
The gentle-mannered secretary ignored my shaking body and strangled throat; he briefed me, with an almost intimate warmth, as though plotting with me behind the back of the divinity in the next room:
“The Old Man,” he began, using the affectionate nickname that had been in common use since Ben-Gurion was in his fifties, “has, you understand, how shall we say, a tendency these days to get carried away by long philosophical conversations. But his time, I’m sure you can imagine, is like gold dust. He still deals with virtually all affairs of state himself, from preparations for war and relations with the Great Powers to the postal workers’ strike. You will, of course, beat a tactful retreat after twenty minutes, so that we can somehow rescue his diary for the rest of the day.”
There was nothing in the whole wide world that I wanted better than to “beat a tactful retreat,” not after twenty minutes but right away. The very thought that the Almighty himself was here, in person, just behind that gray door, and that in another minute I would be in his power, almost made me faint from awe and dread. So much so that the secretary had no alternative but to push me gently from behind into the Holy of Holies.
The door was closed behind me, and I stood there, silently, with my back against the door I had just come in by, and my knees were shaking. King David’s office was an ordinary, sparsely furnished room, hardly bigger than one of our modest kibbutz living rooms. Facing me was a window, covered with a rustic curtain that added a little daylight to the electric light. On either side of the window stood a metal filing cabinet. A large glass-topped desk stood in the middle of the room, taking up about a quarter of its area; on it there were books, magazines, newspapers, and various papers and folders, some open and some closed. On either side of the desk there was a bureaucratic gray metal chair, of the sort you could see in those days in every administrative or military office, and they were always inscribed, on the underside, with the words “Property of the State of Israel.” There were no other chairs in the room. An entire wall, from ceiling to floor and from corner to corner, was taken up by a huge map of the whole Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf. Israel, the size of a postage stamp, had been marked out with a thick line. Another wall had three shelves loaded and piled with books, as if someone might suddenly be seized here with an urgent reading frenzy that brooked no delay.
In this Spartan room there was a man pacing little steps, his hands clasped behind his back, his big head thrust forward as though to butt. The man looked exactly like Ben-Gurion, but there was no way he could actually be Ben-Gurion. Every child in Israel, even in kindergarten, in those days knew in his sleep what Ben-Gurion looked like. But since there was no television yet, it was obvious to me that the Father of the Nation was a giant whose head reached the clouds, whereas this impostor was a short, tubby man whose height was less than five foot three.
I was alarmed. Almost offended.
Nevertheless, during the two or three minutes of uninterrupted silence that felt like an eternity, with my back still pressed against the door in terror, I feasted my eyes on the strange, hypnotic form of this compact, powerfully built little man, something between a tough, patriarchal highlander and an ancient, energetic dwarf, who was restlessly pacing to and fro, sunk in thought, remote, not bothering to give the slightest indication that he was aware that somebody, something, a speck of floating dust, had suddenly landed in his office. David Ben-Gurion was about seventy-five at the time, and I was barely twenty.
He had a prophetic shock of silvery hair that surrounded his bald patch like an amphitheater. At the lower margin of his massive brow were two bushy gray eyebrows, beneath which a pair of sharp gray-blue eyes pierced the air. He had a wide, coarse nose, a shamelessly ugly nose, a pornographic nose, like an anti-Semitic caricature. His lips, on the other hand, were thin and indrawn, but his jaw looked to me like the prominent, defiant jaw of an ancient mariner. His skin was rough and red like raw meat. Under a short neck his shoulders were broad and powerful. His chest was massive. His open-necked shirt revealed a hands-breadth of hairy chest. His shamelessly protruding belly, like a whale’s hump, looked as solid as if it were made of concrete. But all this magnificence terminated, to my bewilderment, in a dwarf-like pair of legs that, if it were not blasphemous, one would be tempted to call almost ridiculous.
I tried to breathe as little as possible. I may have envied Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who managed to shrink himself into a cockroach. The blood fled from my extremities and collected in my liver.
The first words that broke the silence came in the piercing, metallic voice that we all heard virtually every day on the radio, and even in our dreams. The Almighty shot me an angry look, and said:
“Nu! So why aren’t you sitting! Sit!”
I sat down in a flash on the chair facing the desk. I sat bolt upright, but only on the edge of the chair. There was no question of leaning back.
Silence. The Father of the Nation continued to pace to and fro with hasty little steps, like a caged lion or someone who was determined not to be late. After half an eternity, he suddenly said:
And he stopped. When he had walked away as far as the window, he whirled around and said: “Have you read Spinoza? You have. But maybe you didn’t understand? Few people understand Spinoza. Very few.”
And then, still pacing to and fro, to and fro, between the window and the door, he burst into a protracted dawn lecture on Spinoza’s thought.
In the middle of the lecture, the door hesitantly opened a crack and the secretary poked his head in meekly, smiled and tried to mumble something, but the roar of a wounded lion was unleashed on him: “Get out of here! Go! Do not disturb! Can’t you see that I’m having one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in a long time? So be off with you!”
The poor man vanished in a flash.
So far I had not uttered a single word. Not a sound.
But Ben-Gurion, it turned out, was enjoying lecturing on Spinoza before seven o’clock in the morning. And he did indeed continue for a few minutes without interruption.
Suddenly he stopped in the middle of a sentence, his breath on the back of my petrified neck, but I dared not turn around. I sat rigid, my tightly pressed knees forming a right angle to my tense back. Without a hint of a question mark in his voice, Ben-Gurion hurled at me: “You haven’t had any breakfast!”
He did not wait for an answer. I did not utter a sound.
All of a sudden Ben-Gurion sank out of sight behind his desk like a large stone in water; even his silvery mane vanished from view.
After a moment he resurfaced, holding two glasses in one hand and a bottle of cheap fruit drink in the other. Energetically, he poured a glass for himself, then he poured one for me and declared:
I drank it all, in a single gulp. Down to the last drop.
David Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, took three noisy swallows, like a thirsty peasant, and resumed his lecture on Spinoza.
“As a Spinozist I say to you without a shadow of doubt that the whole essence of Spinoza’s thought can be summed up as follows. A man should always stay composed! He should never lose his calm! All the rest is hair-splitting and paraphrase. Composure! Calm in any situation! And the rest—frippery!” (Ben-Gurion’s peculiar intonation stressed the last syllable of each word with something like a little roar.)
By now I could not take the slur on Spinoza’s honor any longer. I could not remain silent without betraying my favorite philosopher. So I summoned up all my courage, blinked and by some miracle I dared to open my mouth in the presence of the Lord of All Creation, and even to squeak in a small voice:
“It’s true that there is calm and composure in Spinoza, but surely it’s not right to say that that’s the whole essence of Spinoza’s thought? Surely there’s also…”
Then fire and brimstone and streams of molten lava erupted over me from the mouth of the volcano:
“I’ve been a Spinozist all my life! I’ve been a Spinozist since I was a young man! Composure! Calm! That is the essence of the whole of Spinoza’s thought! That’s the heart of it! Tranquillity! In good or in evil, in victory or in defeat, a man must never lose his peace of mind! Never!”
His two powerful, woodcutter’s fists landed furiously on the glass top of the desk, making our two glasses jump and rattle with fear.
“A man must never lose his temper!” The worlds were hurled at me like the thunder of judgment day. “Never! And if you can’t see that, you don’t deserve to be called a Spinozist!”
At this he calmed down. He brightened up,
He sat down opposite me and spread his arms out wide on his desk as though he was about to clasp everything on it to his breast. A pleasant, heart-melting light radiated from him when he suddenly smiled a simple, happy smile, and it seemed not only as though it was his face and his eyes that smiled but as though his whole fist-like body relaxed and smiled with him, and the whole room smiled too, and even Spinoza himself. Ben-Gurion’s eyes, which had turned from a cloudy gray to bright blue, scrutinized me all over, with no thought for good manners, as though he were feeling me with his fingers. There was something mercurial about him, something restless and ferocious. His arguments were like punches. And yet when he suddenly brightened without warning, he was transformed from a vengeful deity to a delightful old grandfather, radiating good health and satisfaction. A seductive warmth gushed from him, and for a moment he displayed the charming quality of a cheeky child with an insatiable curiosity.
“And what about you? You write poetry? Yes?”
He winked mischievously. As though he had laid a playful little trap for me. And had won the game.
I was startled again. All I had authored at that time were two or three worthless poems in out-of-the-way quarterlies published by the kibbutz movement (which I hope have crumbled to dust by now together with my miserable attempts at poetry). But Ben-Gurion must have seen them. He was reportedly in the habit of poring over everything that was published: gardening monthlies, magazines for lovers of nature or chess, studies in agricultural engineering, statistical journals. His curiosity knew no bounds.
He also apparently had a photographic memory: Once he had seen something, he never forgot it.
I mumbled something.
But the prime minister and minister of defense was no longer with me. His restless spirit had moved on. Now that he had explained once and for all, in one crushing blow, everything that had been left unexplained in the thought of Spinoza, he started to lecture me with passion about other matters: the loss of Zionistic fervor in our youth, or modern Hebrew poetry, which was dabbling in all kinds of weird experiments instead of opening its eyes and celebrating the miracle that was happening here daily in front of our eyes: the rebirth of the nation, the rebirth of the Hebrew language, the rebirth of the Negev Desert!
And suddenly, again without any warning, in the full flow of his monologue, almost in the middle of a sentence, he had had enough.
He leaped up from his chair as though shot from a gun, made me stand up, too, and as he pushed me toward the door—pushed me physically, just as his secretary had pushed me in some three-quarters of an hour previously—he said warmly:
“It’s good to chat! Very good! And what have you been reading lately? What is the youth reading? Please come and see me any time you’re in town. Just drop in, don’t be afraid!”
And while he pushed me, with my studded army boots and my white Sabbath-best shirt, through the door, he went on shouting cheerily:
“Drop in! Any time! My door is always open!”
More than forty years have passed since that Spinoza morning in Ben-Gurion’s Spartan office. I have met famous people since then, including political leaders, fascinating personalities, some of whom exuded great personal charm, but nobody has left such a sharp impression of their physical presence on me, or of their electrifying willpower. Ben-Gurion had, at least on that morning, a hypnotic energy.
Isaiah Berlin was right in his cruel observation: Ben-Gurion was no intellectual, Plato and Spinoza notwithstanding. Far from it. As I see it, he was a visionary peasant. There was something primeval about him, something not of this day and age. His simplicity of mind was almost biblical; his willpower resembled a laser beam. As a young man in the shtetl of Plonsk in eastern Poland he had two simple ideas: that the Jews must reestablish their homeland in the Land of Israel, and that he was the right man to lead them. Throughout his life he never budged from these two decisions of his youth; everything else was subordinated to them.
He was an honest, cruel man; like most visionaries he did not stop to count the cost. Or perhaps he did stop for a moment and decided: Let it cost whatever it costs.
As a child growing up among the Klausners and all their fellow anti-leftists in Kerem Avraham, I was always taught that Ben-Gurion was responsible for all the troubles of the Jewish people. Where I grew up he was the baddie, the embodiment of all the plagues of the leftist regime.
As I grew up, however, I opposed Ben-Gurion from the opposite angle, from the left. Like many of the Israeli intelligentsia of my time, I saw him as an almost despotic personality, and I recoiled from the tough way he treated the Arabs in the War of Independence and the reprisal raids. It is only in recent years that I have begun to read about him and wonder whether I was right.
There is no simple way of summing him up.
And suddenly, as I write the words “the tough way,” I can see again with perfect clarity the way Ben-Gurion held his glass of cheap fruit drink, which he poured for himself first. The glass was cheap too, it was made of thick glass, and his tough fingers were thick and short as they clasped it like a hand grenade. I was alarmed: If I put a foot wrong and said something that would trigger his rage, Ben-Gurion might well dash the contents of the glass into my face, or hurl the glass at the wall. Or he might tighten his grip on the glass and crush it. That was the awesome way he held that glass. Until he suddenly brightened and showed me that he knew all about my attempts at writing poetry, and smiled with pleasure at the sight of my discomfiture, and for a brief moment he looked almost like a merry joker who had pulled off a little trick and was now asking himself: What next?
“Chapter 52” from A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz, copyright ©1993 by Amos Oz and Keter Publishing House Ltd., translation copyright ©2004 by Nicholas de Lange, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc. This material may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.