Israeli Contributions to Jewish Ideas about Leadership

The Bible can be read with many different lenses.  One of the most fruitful approaches is to read the Bible for its great ideas and stories about leadership.  Moses, to take one example, is arguably the greatest leader in the history of the world.  Studying his words, his struggles, his relationships reveals a world of wisdom in the effort to understand leadership.

David Ben Gurion, founding father and our first Prime Minister, added a lot to the Jewish repertoire on leadership.  Reflecting on his words and deeds teaches us a lot about what makes for strong leadership.  First and foremost—a leader has to have the big picture and a great sense of timing.  He or she must be able to sense the moment—to “smell” the moment.  Moses knew when it was time to leave Egypt.  He knew when it was time to ascend Mt. Sinai and when to descend.  Here is one of the greatest “good timing” stories in world history:

In the spring of 1948 the Provisional Cabinet had to decide what to do when the British left Palestine.  The big question was—do we or do we not declare statehood?  Ben Gurion seemed to be the only one who knew what to do.  He knew the time had come but his fellow ministers didn’t know what to do.  Meanwhile the situation on the ground was getting worse by the day.  Moshe Sharett returned from the U.S. with the painful news that Secretary of State Marshall warned Sharett that the Jews better not declare statehood.  He argued that if they do they will be wiped out and that the United States will not rescue them.  Golda Meir came back from Jordan with the terrible news that the king had changed his mind—in the event of a declaration of statehood Jordan would invade.  This was especially worrisome because Jordan had the best trained army in the Middle East, having been trained by the British.  Ben Gurion told Golda and Sharett that they must tell the other ministers everything.  Everyone must know what the Jews faced.  They gave their reports.  A debate was held.  Ben Gurion pushed for a yes vote—it was time.  Two thousand years of exile and powerlessness was enough.  The vote was six to four in favor of statehood.  The state of Israel was born.

A leader has to understand and clarify his or her vision and teach that vision to others.  Here is Ben Gurion speaking to Israeli youth in the summer of 1944: “No parallel exists in the history of any nation to the unique fate of the Jews, to our career which has been sui generis not merely since the beginning of the exile but even before, when we lived in our own land.  Ours was a tiny nation inhabiting a small country, and there have been many tiny nations and many small countries, but ours was a tiny nation possessed of a great spirit, an inspired people that believed in its pioneering mission to all men, in the mission that had been preached by the prophets of Israel.  This people gave the world great and eternal moral truths and commandments.  This people rose to prophetic visions of the unity of the Creator with His creation, of the dignity and infinite worth of the individual (because every man is created in the divine image), of social justice, universal peace, and love—‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’  This people was the first to prophesy about “the end of days,” the first to see the vision of a new human society.”

A leader has to have faith in people.  In an interview in 1964 Ben Gurion said, “And faith in my fellow man makes me confident that…They (the Arabs) must ultimately give way to the growing aspiration throughout the human race for educational and economic progress, for more freedom, for the full expression of the individual personality.  Liberal governments will replace the current dictatorships and their concern for the interests of their people will bring them to co-operate with their like-minded Israeli neighbor.”

A leader must not be naïve.  Ben Gurion continues: “The change, I am sure, is inevitable.  But the process is likely to be slow and painful; and in the meantime Israel will continue to be subjected to siege, pressure, and threat—and will continue to take the appropriate safeguards.”

A leader must generate hope: “Why then do I think that eventually there will be a change?  Because of my reading of history and because of faith in my fellow man.  History has shown us the absurdity regarding patterns prevailing at any particular moment of time as fixed and immutable.  Nations which have been at each other’s throats one moment have fallen on each others’ necks as peaceful partners a moment later, or five, ten, fifty, or hundred years later.  This has happened at the dictate of history, geography, or common need—or, as in our case, all three.  And it has happened when the pace of the world was much slower.  Today, with the pace of change so rapid, and change itself so revolutionary, hopeful advances in the Arab-Jewish relationship may come even sooner than I think.”

Perhaps most crucial of all a leader must offer people a great challenge, a mission, and along with it a big picture: “Now in the time when we have gained free and sovereign control over all the lands and resources of the state, we have to confront the greatest difficulty—the curse of nature—the barrenness of the greatest part of our soil.  The state, the nation, the youth, the men of science, must now confront the supreme test in the history of our progress towards independence and the renewal of our sovereignty.  Only through a united effort in planning by the state; by a people ready for a great voluntary effort; by a youth bold in spirit and inspired by a creative heroism; by scientists liberated from the bonds of conventional thought and capable of probing deep into the special problems of this country, shall we succeed in carrying out the great and momentous task of developing the south and the Negev.”

A visit to Ben Gurion University in the Negev—now possible by train from Tel Aviv—will reveal what happens when great leadership sets its mind and heart to something.  His spirit lives on in the thousands of young people moving south and parents who are doing whatever they can to get their kids into the university which bears his name.

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