Yitzhak Ben Aharon died May 19, 2006 at the age of 99. His death evoked an effusion of praise. Israeli President Moshe Katzav declared, "Israel has lost one of its builders and shapers of its social character." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that "the State of Israel has lost one of its giants, a true Zionist and honest ideologue, who for decades did not hesitate to express his unique and insightful views." Israel's Vice Prime Minister and Minister for the Development for the Negev and Galilee, Shimon Peres, said that: "One of the spiritual fathers of the Israeli labor movement has left us."
The praise could not hide the fact that Ben Aharon had been somewhat prematurely mummified by leading Israeli politicians, who tried to paint him as a venerated relic of a bygone age. Chiefly Labor party leaders were unhappy with his views about labor and the occupation.
Ben-Aharon was a patriot and a leader of workers. In 1935 he traveled to Nazi Germany to try to organize Zionist activity and immigration for the Hechalutz movement. He was arrested and deported by the Gestapo. He volunteered for the Jewish Brigade in 1940 and served as a Major in Greece, where he was captured and held by the Nazis as a POW until 1945. He returned to Palestine and managed to get himself arrested by the British in 1946.
Ben-Aharon was a political leader in the Israel Labor movement almost from the day he arrived here in 1928, leading workers' councils, becoming Secretary General of Mapai, joining the Mapam party and eventually serving in the Knesset, in two governments, and as Secretary General of the Histadrut. In 1963, when the Labor movement was still near the height of its unchallenged power in Israel, he published an article entitled "The courage to change before disaster," arguing that labor Zionism would need to unite and reform or else be swept from power into oblivion. As he wrote, so it came to pass.
He fought with Golda Meir, Yisrael Gallili and others regarding the occupation and settlement. In 1973 he published an article calling for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, an idea that was reviled at the time. Much later, several others were to claim paternity of this concept, including Haim Ramon, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
As leader of the Histadrut labor union, he angered Labor party stalwarts because of his quaint notion that a Labor Union and a Labor part should represent the interests of the workers. The Labor party disregarded his assaults, only to be forced to agree to reform the Histadrut after it had lost most of its power and influence. When the Likud came to power in 1977, replacing the Labor government, Ben Aharon famously remarked, "If that is the will of the people, then the people must be replaced."
At the age of 99 he undertook to support Amir Peretz in his seemingly hopeless bid to become head of the Israel labor party. Peretz's platform embodied many of the same stands that Ben Aharon had taken. Peretz won the primary elections.
Another founding father of Israel is gone, underlining the somewhat unflattering contrast between current leadership and that of earlier generations.
Now that is too late, Labor party leaders might want to rethink their view of Ben Aharon. The record shows that on key issues, he was not a relic who was behind the times. Rather, he was way ahead of the party consensus, seeing processes that were developing and offering remedies that were ignored until it was too late.Ami Isseroff
See: Biography of Yitzhak Ben Aharon
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Replies: 1 Comment
Could someone clarify this quote about "changing the people" after the 1977 election. YAakov Ahimeir claims that he was the reporter who interviewed Ben Aharon at the time and what he said was merely that "if this was the will of the people I'm not prepared to honour it" --and thus resigned.. Yet every obit on the web and elsewhere quotes this 'saying." Does anyone know what is the source of this apparent mistake? I'd like to know asap since I'm preparing an obit for my own newspaper
Mordechai Beck, Tuesday, May 30th
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