Regev Responds

What actually transpired?

The famous meeting between Ben Gurion and the Hazon Ish

An interview conducted by Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Boaz Evron with the fifth President of the State of Israel, Mr. Yitzhak Navon, regarding the meeting of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karlitz [known as the ‘Hazon Ish’].

Ben Gurion about to enter meeting with the Hazon Ish, source: WikipediaBen Gurion about to enter meeting with the Hazon Ish, source: Wikipedia

In an interview with Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA Federation of NY, the interviewer, Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, refers to a famous meeting between David Ben Gurion and the Hazon Ish as a key event in Ben Gurion's assent to the status quo on religious issues. But a review of the meeting's description provided by the only witness who attended it, Yitzhak Navon, suggests the opposite conclusion.

The camel parable offered by the Hazon Ish did not convince Ben Gurion, and his arguments against submission to the dictates of the religious political parties on matters regarding the Sabbath and the like could be read as if they were being said today. There is much of interest in this exchange between these two personalities, which represents the battles over religion and state in Israel since those earliest years. This pivotal issue threatens to keep world Jewry out of Israel today, even though a large majority of Israelis opposes the religious status quo and wants to expand religious freedom and equality of civic burden.


Meeting Background

During that famous meeting, held on October 20, 1952, Yitzhak Navon served as Ben Gurion's personal secretary. He was the only person to accompany him at this meeting and reconstructed the conversation between the two from his memory. [The interview took place on January 29, 1981, and can be found in the State Archives with Navon’s personal textual corrections -]

At the time, the matter at hand was the enlistment of young women into the IDF. The representative of Poalei Agudat Israel (PAG”I) sitting in the government was Minister of Postal Services Benjamin Mintz, and he was fighting against women’s enlistment. It turns out that whenever a delicate question came up for discussion, PAG”I representatives would ask for an extension to consult the "Hazon Ish" (HI). Ben Gurion (BG) asked who this individual was, and Mintz praised him as a teacher of Jewish law and the greatest genius of the generation. BG said he wanted to get to know him. Once the meeting was scheduled, BG declared that he would visit the Hazon Ish. The meeting was scheduled through Minister Benjamin Mintz, and Deputy Minister of Education Kalman Kahane (PAGI) was also involved in setting it. According to the press, the topic of the conversation was to be the Law of Enlisting Young Women.

BG and Navon arrived at the Hazon Ish’s humble apartment in Bnei Brak, which was principally furnished with books of Torah and Jewish law. The issue that the meeting was allegedly intended for, enlisting women, did not arise at all. BG did not utter a single word on this subject. That was not his intention. The conversation went approximately as follows: [Emphasis in original]


The conversation

BG: I came to talk to you about one issue and ask you how religious and non-religious Jews will live together in this land. Jews come from many countries, hundreds and thousands, with different traditions, from different cultures and different worldviews. There are religious and there are non-religious; and the State confronts external danger that the Arabs still want to destroy us. We must make the utmost of all that the different sectors of the people have in common; and there is a great danger that we will explode from within. In addition to all the differences of cultures and worldviews, there is a fundamental problem here: these are Jews and those are Jews, and how will they live together?

We religious people have the heavy burden of Torah study, observance of Jewish laws, and observance of Shabbat and keeping kosher. That is why others need to clear the way for us.

HI: There is a Jewish law1: When two camels come facing each other, and there is a narrow path that has room for only one camel, then the camel that is carrying a load is given the right of way. And the camel that has no load must make way for him. We religious people have the heavy burden of Torah study, observance of Jewish laws, and observance of Shabbat and keeping kosher. That is why others need to clear the way for us.

BG: And non-religious Jews are not carrying a load? And the settlement of the land is not a heavy burden? And the drying of wetlands, the conquering of wastelands, the safeguarding of the State, aren't these a heavy burden? This is a very heavy load. Even Jews who are not completely religious, such as the HaShomer HaTzair (Socialist, Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement), engage in the settling of the land and protecting you.

HI: They are sustained because we learn Torah.

BG: If those young men weren't protecting you, the enemies would have destroyed you.

HI: On the contrary, because of our Torah learning, they can live and work and guard.

BG: I do not discount the Torah, but if there are no living humans, who will study Torah?

HI: The Torah is the Tree of Life, the elixir of life.

BG: Protecting life is also a religious commandment. “The dead praise not the Lord.” In any case, how will we live together?

HI: I see desecration of the Sabbath, cars and trucks on the Sabbath, traveling to the sea instead of praying, studying Torah, and living Jewishly. It is infuriating and shocking to the mind, to see such desecration of the Sabbath like that in our ancestral land.

BG: I don’t go to the sea by truck on the Sabbath, but don’t these workers that work all week deserve a dip in the sea on Saturday? That's their right; you can't force them to study Torah, but they are also Jewish and do many important things – guarding, etc. You can't force them to keep the Sabbath.

HI: We believe that a day will come and everyone will keep the Sabbath and pray.

BG: If they want to, I will not oppose them doing so, but they cannot be forced. There should be neither religious coercion nor anti-religious coercion, every person will live as he sees fit.


Yitzhak Navon added:

And Yitzhak Navon added: They each maintained their positions and repeated them several times, again and again, without coming closer to each other.

After they left, BG said: This is a beautiful, smart Jew with beautiful, smart eyes, [and he is] modest. It’s interesting where his power and influence come from. And how will we live in this country? The ‘Ingathering of the exiles’ Is not a simple thing. There are many things that can break up our society, but that is the most important question. This is a more serious danger than any external enemy.



  1. See details about this Talmudic quote and further background here:

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