An extract from a play by A.B. Yehoshua. Translated by David Janner-Klausner and adapted for stage by Amy Rosenthal.
In 1934, David Ben-Gurion and Zeev Jabotinsky, respectively the charismatic leaders of the Labour Zionist and the Revisionist wings of the Zionist movement, met in a London hotel room and then in a Golders Green flat. The hope was that by talking they could resolve their differences and agree on the character of the future Jewish state and – under the shadow of the Nazis – the timetable for its establishment. They failed, never to speak again. Jabotinsky died in exile in 1940, while Ben-Gurion became the founding Prime Minister of Israel in 1948.
The novelist, essayist, and playwright A.B. Yehoshua, a leading figure in the renaissance in Israeli letters, turned this encounter into a remarkable play. The UK premiere of Can Two Walk Together? – a rehearsed reading of David Janner-Klausner’s English translation – was held in London in May 2012 under the auspices of the UK New Israel Fund.
In this extract, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky are meeting for the third and final time. They joke about Jabotinsky’s novel The Five, and Ben-Gurion fries them some eggs, before they fall into an urgent discussion of how and when to establish the Jewish state in the face of European antisemitism and Arab opposition. Writing in The Independent, the journalist Donald Macintyre noted ‘the momentousness of the debates’ which touch on ‘the ideological division…which still reverberates in today’s failure to achieve consensus within Israel on how to end its conflict with the Palestinians.’Fathom would like to thank A.B. Yehoshua and David Janner-Klausner for granting permission to reproduce this extract. All rights remain with the author and translator.
Jabotinsky: Slow down, slow down before you explode again (places a cautious arm on Ben-Gurion’s shoulder) will you tell me in confidence what Berl and you thought of the first chapters of my novel?
Ben-Gurion: I enjoyed it; I was amused to think that the Duce can be lovesick. As for Berl, though, he found it profoundly disturbing.
Jabotinsky: Disturbing? Why?
Ben-Gurion: Because these imaginary assimilated Jews whom you placed in turn-of-the century Odessa are so free, so liberated, so self-confident and especially so well-loved and accepted by the gentile surroundings, that Berl is convinced they will meet a bitter end.
Jabotinsky (astonished): A bitter end?
Ben-Gurion: Yes. He thinks that you are plotting a reversal later in the novel and that the joy and happiness of the five will end in doom and destruction.
Jabotinsky: Is this what Mr. Katzenelson said?
Ben-Gurion: Beyond this he did not elaborate.
Jabotinsky: Amazing… The man has incredible intuition…
Ben-Gurion (very surprised): But why should they be doomed…? You are the author and you control their fate. Why would you choose to be cruel to them?
Jabotinsky: It is not me who is cruel, Ben-Gurion, it is history that is cruel. The next chapters will bring the revolution that was suppressed in blood; the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin followed by World War. You know better than most that when the gentiles revolt and fight, the Jews always pay a higher price than anyone else.
Ben-Gurion (silent. He then carefully picks up a page from the pile on the table and browses): And still, in the chapter you are writing now, will you allow Marussiah to finally succumb to the author’s loving advances?
Jabotinsky (laughs): The love of the author? Not the author my friend but the narrator. The author stands before you and has no need for the love of a fictional character he has created. He has his own loving and beloved woman to whom he has strived to be faithful for many, many years.
Ben-Gurion: Correct, not the author but the narrator…
Jabotinsky: The narrator of “The Five” will never capture Marussiah’s heart. She will leave her gentile lover and eventually marry the dull pharmacist chosen for her by her parents… and finally… in the end… (hesitates) she will be set alight by her kitchen stove.
Ben-Gurion: Alight? In the kitchen? Why are do you wish her such a terrible ending?
Jabotinsky: (Impatiently) That’s enough now! I apologise. I got carried away, an author should never give away the plot. The more so as the characters will often ignore his will – but enough of my novel, touched and surprised as I am by your concern. We have not arranged this final meeting to debate prose, but to discuss the ominous future that confronts us all. I suggest that now that you comrades in the Federation of Labour are planning to reject our little agreement about trade unions and ending labour unrest, if reports from Tel Aviv are to be trusted, and let me remind you that I predicted just that when we signed it in Rutenberg’s hotel room, well we should at least use this final meeting to agree the rules of engagement in the battles that will now rage in the Zionist Federation.
Ben-Gurion (silent, pensive): You return to Paris tomorrow?
Jabotinsky: Yes, to my own Babylonian Exile. And where will you be heading?
Ben-Gurion: I am heading home, to Tel Aviv.
Jabotinsky: Alas, Tel Aviv. Alas, Jerusalem they haunt my dreams, but one moment, before we delve into our last argument, you are still my guest and it would be bad to contest a hungry rival. Come and have a look, our hostess left us various dishes here…
Ben-Gurion: No, no, I am not hungry and certainly not for this cooked food (hesitates momentarily) although I wouldn’t say no to a slice of bread… simple bread…
Jabotinsky: Just bread…?
Ben-Gurion: Well, perhaps with some kind of egg…
Jabotinsky (bemused): An egg? Of all things? What sort of egg?
Ben-Gurion: Fried, maybe an omelette if that were possible…
Jabotinsky: (embarrassed) An omelette? Of course, but how… I mean… to be honest I am a man who loses all his stature upon setting foot in a kitchen, opening a tin of sardines makes me as proud as if I had personally erected a steel bridge over the Volga…
Ben-Gurion: Have no fear, I will do the frying. In my days in Sejera we had this huge frying pan and I would make omelettes for the whole crowd. Because, when Paula lets me, I can display a rare talent for frying accurately, turning over just at the right moment, making sure the eggs are neither burnt nor dry but nor are they runny and watery. Do you think we can rustle up a few eggs in this place?
Jabotinsky: (enthusiastically) Of course we must find some eggs and you can display your hidden talent for frying, although I would dare say that it is not just eggs that you fry to perfection – you do the same in politics, tossing people and ideas from side-to-side without ever burning a single one. (Puts on an apron. They go to the corner of the kitchen, light a large flame in the stove, which must be visible to the audience. The sound of beating eggs is clearly heard. Ben-Gurion is at the stove while Jabotinsky is sitting at the large table, watching Ben-Gurion in silence, both amused and beguiled.)
Jabotinsky: While the omelette is cooking I have a rather strange question for you. Let us assume that we have our Jewish State and its Prime Minister, whoever that may be, invites you to be a member of the Cabinet. Which Ministry would attract you the most?
Ben-Gurion: (cooking utensil in hand) I would start a Ministry of Identity.
Jabotinsky: A Ministry of Identity? Is there such a thing?
Ben-Gurion: No, but it will be essential in the Jewish state. We need more than a Ministry of Education and Culture which gathers textbooks at random, we should have a Ministry to heal and straighten out our poor old Jewish identity, which has become crippled and diseased by centuries of exile. And at the heart of it I would of course plant the words of the Prophets.
Jabotinsky: That would be a role to relish; it would be original and bold and would also tempt me, although I might straighten the warped Jewish identity rather differently to you. This is why, on reflection, if I were invited by the Prime Minister to join this cabinet I would choose an easier role than yours.
Ben-Gurion: That being?
Jabotinsky: Secretary of Defence, Minister of War.
Ben-Gurion: Minister of War? You of all people Jabotinsky? The poet, the author, the orator… (All this time the stove is on, steam is rising and there is a smell of scorching)
Jabotinsky: Yes, because my wars would be for shorter and more efficient than any wars waged by you Socialists.
Ben-Gurion: In what way?
Jabotinsky: Fewer dead, fewer injured, less destruction not only on our side but also on the enemy’s.
Jabotinsky: Because as Minister of War I would let no Jew or Arab harbour false illusions. Nor deceive ourselves or our enemies with hollow words and false promises, promises that the Arabs neither care for nor believe. I would not bother offering them a compromise they could never accept, a compromise that you or I would never contemplate if we were in their place. I would speak to them clearly and honestly, without guile and self-righteousness. They need to know our real intentions, where we stand and where we shall remain for all eternity. They are neither fools nor knaves nor deluded as some of your friends who espouse the Brotherhood of Nations may fancy. From the instant that our Zionist feet touched the ground of Eretz Yisrael, their motherland, they have known us and our intentions for precisely what they are. Like some posturing virgin we persist in denying, obfuscating or hiding the fact that from its very inception the Zionist Movement carries in its womb the embryonic Jewish state. To no avail: the Arabs have spotted this long ago and that is why as they awake from the four-hundred years of Ottoman-induced slumber they will ensure this embryo will die together with its birth mother. And that is why we must rush to deliver the Jewish state otherwise for all the rhetoric, this baby will either die in the womb or will be delivered stillborn to the hands of the English, or may eventually be born a monster.
Ben-Gurion: A monster???
Jabotinsky: Yes, indecision, ambivalence, procrastination and especially Jews, religious extremists and others who are enemies of Zionism but will take part in a delayed birth – they will turn the newborn into a monster. That is why we need a state, Ben-Gurion, a state and nothing else. And as soon as possible. We must name it, loud and clear. Not that meaningless phrase, a national home, not autonomy under Arab sufferance, and certainly not an abstract and impotent so-called spiritual centre. We may never have the chance to be a protectorate of the British Empire which may be here today but will crumble to dust tomorrow. A state, Ben-Gurion, an independent sovereign state with borders that are clearly charted. A state that erects a wall of iron and steel between itself and its neighbours and enemies. Yet, within it – generosity and respect for all, civic equality, religious and national equality for all its citizens. An outward facing wall of steel but inwardly a marble facade covered in velvet and embellished with uplifting images of vision and hope.
(Ben-Gurion does not reply. He slides the omelette from the frying pan onto a tray, divides it in two, places each half on a plate and starts to eat hungrily. Then he suddenly stops, throws down his knife and fork, wipes his mouth and speaks with tremendous irritation)
Ben-Gurion: There is no such thing as inside and outside Mr. Jabotinsky, no such thing as steel on the outside but marble and velvet on the inside. You have been away from Eretz Yisrael for so many years that you have lost touch with reality. The Arabs in Eretz Yisrael awoke a long time ago and you have no power to build the wall that will separate them from their brethren in the Arab world so that you can pour kindness and welfare upon them. We in the workers parties are trying, slowly but surely, to create a careful separation between them and us in the towns and in the countryside, by securing Jewish labour in Jewish enterprises and in particular by building separate Jewish settlements in remote and uninhabited areas, settlements which you despise in a wilderness that you have never visited. Yes Sir, another acre, another goat and possibly even another sheep, but the time is not yet ripe for a Jewish state. If we induce this tiny premature infant as you call it and proclaim it to be alive and independent, the Arabs will destroy it before the very eyes of the English who will not lift a finger, because a premature unilateral birth will absolve Britain from its responsibility for our security. Yes Jabotinsky, you have been away for many years and are ignorant of present realities.
Jabotinsky (getting up, furious): And you Ben-Gurion? For years you have distanced yourself from the European Jewish reality and you have become alienated. You have made some speeches here and there but you have no grasp of this new nationalistic antisemitism, this post-Christian, secular and totalitarian antisemitism that is poisoning the air and threatening mass destruction. And that is why when you and your friends finally decide that the time is right to bring the Jewish state into the world you will be too late because not enough Jews will survive to defeat your enemies. You will be the midwife to a stillborn baby that will be tossed into the rubbish bin of history.
Ben-Gurion: You speak with such cruel pessimism.
Jabotinsky: It is the reality that is cruel. You have no idea about the Diaspora. If we do not force the termination of the Diaspora,
the Diaspora will rise up and devour its Jews.
Ben-Gurion: A leader cannot be this pessimistic. A leader must be concerned and disturbed but cannot allow himself to be controlled by pessimism. We did not come to Eretz Yisrael only to wallow once again in the pessimistic pleasures offered up to us by the fate of the Jews.
Jabotinsky: It is easy for you; you have already re-cast your identity. You have no need for a Ministry. You have turned from being a Jew to being an Eretz Yisraelite, a Palestinian.
Ben-Gurion: Quite possibly I am now an Eretz Yisraelite and that is why I see the world and judge it from the perspective of this small patch of land.