1937 Ben-Gurion letter

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The 1937 Ben-Gurion letter is a letter written by David Ben-Gurion, then head of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency, to his son Amos on 5 October 1937. The letter is well known to scholars[1] as it provides insight into Ben-Gurion's reaction to the report of the Peel Commission released on 7 July of the same year. It has also been subject to significant debate by scholars as a result of scribbled-out text that may or may not provide written evidence of an intention to "expel the Arabs" or "not expel the Arabs" depending on one's interpretation of whether such deletion was intended by Ben-Gurion.

The original handwritten letter is currently held in the IDF Archive.[2]


Peel Commission Report partition proposal. The red line shows the proposed Jewish State.

The letter was originally handwritten in Hebrew by Ben-Gurion, and was intended to update his son, Amos, who was then living on a kibbutz, on the latest political considerations. In the letter, Ben-Gurion explains his reaction to the July 1937 Peel Commission Report by providing arguments for why his son should not be concerned about the recommended partition of Mandatory Palestine. The Commission had recommended partition into a Jewish State and Arab State, together with a population transfer of the 225,000 Arabs from the land allocated to the Jewish State.[3][4] Ben-Gurion stated his belief that partition would be just the beginning.[5][6] The sentiment was recorded by Ben-Gurion on other occasions, such as at a meeting of the Jewish Agency executive in June 1938,[7] as well as by Chaim Weizmann.[6][8] In the letter, Ben-Gurion wrote:

"Does the establishment of a Jewish state [in only part of Palestine] advance or retard the conversion of this country into a Jewish country? My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning.... This is because this increase in possession is of consequence not only in itself, but because through it we increase our strength, and every increase in strength helps in the possession of the land as a whole. The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country".[9]

The Peel Commission had allocated the Negev desert to the Arab state on account of the very limited Jewish settlement in the region.[3][4] Ben-Gurion argued in the letter that the allocation of the Negev to the Arab State would ensure it remained barren because the Arabs "already have an abundance of deserts but not of manpower, financial resources, or creative initiative".[9][10] Ben-Gurion noted that force may need to be used to ensure the Jewish right to settle in the area since "we can no longer tolerate that vast territories capable of absorbing tens of thousands of Jews should remain vacant, and that Jews cannot return to their homeland because the Arabs prefer that the place [the Negev] remains neither ours nor theirs."[9][10]

Disputed text[edit]

Extract of the letter showing the disputed text at the top.

Benny Morris, in his 1988 The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 quoted from Ben-Gurion's letter in the paragraph discussing the Negev: "We must expel Arabs and take their places...", having taken the quote from the English version of Shabtai Teveth's 1985 Ben-Gurion and the Palestine Arabs.[2] Criticism from Efraim Karsh later discussed the scribbled-out text immediately before the wording, which, if included, would reverse the meaning of the quote.[11]

Morris later explained, "The problem was that in the original handwritten copy of the letter deposited in the IDF Archive, which I consulted after my quote was criticized, there were several words crossed out in the middle of the relevant sentence, rendering what remained as "We must expel the Arabs". However, Ben-Gurion rarely made corrections to anything he had written, and the passage was not consonant with the spirit of the paragraph in which it was embedded. It was suggested that the crossing out was done by some other hand later and that the sentence, when the words that were crossed out were restored, was meant by Ben-Gurion to say and said exactly the opposite ("We must not expel the Arabs....')."[2]

As to the general tenor of the critique, Morris later wrote that "the focus by my critics on this quotation was, in any event, nothing more than (an essentially mendacious) red herring – as elsewhere, in unassailable statements, Ben-Gurion at this time repeatedly endorsed the idea of 'transferring' (or expelling) Arabs, or the Arabs, out of the area of the Jewish state-to-be, either 'voluntarily' or by compulsion. There were good reasons for Ben-Gurion's endorsement of transfer: The British Peel Commission had proposed it, the Arabs rebelling in Palestine were bent on uprooting the Zionist enterprise, and the Jews of Europe, under threat of destruction, were in dire need of a safe haven, and Palestine could not serve as one so long as the Arabs were attacking the Yishuv and, as a result, the British were curtailing Jewish access to the country."[2]

Ilan Pappe, in his 2006 article The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, published as a preamble to his later book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, quoted Ben-Gurion as having written, "The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war". In the first edition of the full book the inverted commas were around only the words "The Arabs will have to go".[12] It was later stated by Nick Talbot that the second part of the sentence, mistakenly originally published in inverted commas, was a "fair and accurate paraphrase" of the sources Pappe provided, a July 12, 1937, entry in Ben-Gurion's journal and page 220 of the August–September 1937 issue of New Judea.[13] Pappe's error was first pointed out by Benny Morris in 2006, and taken up by advocacy group CAMERA in 2011.[13][14][15] The Journal of Palestine Studies wrote in 2012: "This issue is the more cogent in view of an article (by a CAMERA official) that claims that the quote attributed to Ben-Gurion (as it appears in the JPS article) is a complete fabrication, a 'fake'. Even taking into account the punctuation error, this contention is totally at odds with the known record of Ben-Gurion's position at least as of the late 1930s."[1] CAMERA had provided the original, handwritten letter by Ben-Gurion and charged not only that the pertinent phrase had been incorrectly translated but also that the article incorrectly interpreted the context of the letter.[14]

In his 1998 book (revised 2004) on the Zionist transfer policy regarding the Palestinian Arabs, Rabbi Chaim Simons addressed earlier conflicting opinions .[16] In the section devoted to Ben Gurion's letter to his son, Simons contrasts the various interpretations of the letter and the significance of the ruled out portion. In doing so he notes Shabtai Teveth's use of the abbreviated version in the English version of his book - "We must expel Arabs and take their place". This he contrasts with a version that includes the ruled out phrase: "In the Hebrew version of his book, however, four Hebrew words have been added making it read, 'We do not want and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place'". Simons suggests that the ruled-out version should not be used because: "... these same additional four words (together with the previous two and a half lines) are in fact crossed out in Ben-Gurion’s handwritten letter! In the published edition of this letter, the Editor (and, according to Shabtai Teveth, with the consent of Ben-Gurion) completely omitted this sentence!" He then describes the conflicting interpretations of Morris and Karsh, plus Teveth's critique of Morris' opinion. Simons also criticised Karsh's view that "Ben-Gurion had constantly and completely opposed the transfer of Arabs". He sides with Morris' view who he writes "gives a number of examples of how Ben-Gurion supported the transfer of Arabs from Palestine, and he wrote: 'But at no point during the 1930s and 1940s did Ben-Gurion ever go on record against the idea or policy of transfer. On the contrary, Ben-Gurion left a paper trail a mile long as to his actual thinking, and no amount of ignoring, twisting and turning, manipulation, contortion, and distortion can blow it away." Simons continues by providing his own evidence that Ben-Gurion favoured the Transfer of Arabs, dating back to 1938.



  • Letter from David Ben-Gurion to his son Amos, written 5 October 1937, Obtained from the Ben-Gurion Archives in Hebrew, and translated into English by the Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut
  • Ben Gurion, David (1971), Letters to Paula, Vallentine Mitchell, p. 153, ISBN 9780853031390. Translation of Mikhtavim el Polah ve-el ha-yeladim (1968), by Aubrey Hodes
  • Teveth, Shabtai (1985), Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: from peace to war, Oxford University Press, p. 189, ISBN 9780195035629

Scholarly reviews[edit]


  1. ^ a b JPS 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d Commentary magazine
  3. ^ a b OFFICIAL COMMUNIQUE IN 9/37 Archived 2015-06-12 at the Wayback Machine: Summary of the Report of the 'Palestinian Royal Commission'
  4. ^ a b Report, p. 389–391
  5. ^ Morris, Benny (2011), Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1998, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, p. 138, ISBN 9780307788054 Quote: "No Zionist can forgo the smallest portion of the Land Of Israel. [A] Jewish state in part [of Palestine] is not an end, but a beginning.... Our possession is important not only for itself... through this we increase our power, and every increase in power facilitates getting hold of the country in its entirety. Establishing a [small] state... will serve as a very potent lever in our historical effort to redeem the whole country".
  6. ^ a b Finkelstein, Norman (2005), Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-semitism and the Abuse of History, University of California Press, p. 280, ISBN 9780520245983
  7. ^ Quote from a meeting of the Jewish Agency executive in June 1938: " [I am] satisfied with part of the country, but on the basis of the assumption that after we build up a strong force following the establishment of the state, we will abolish the partition of the country and we will expand to the whole Land of Israel". in Masalha 1992, p. 107; and
    Segev, Tom (2000), One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, Henry Holt and Company, p. 403, ISBN 9780805048483
  8. ^ From a letter from Chaim Weizmann to Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, High Commissioner for Palestine, while the Peel Commission was convening in 1937: "We shall spread in the whole country in the course of time... this is only an arrangement for the next 25 to 30 years". Masalha 1992, p. 62
  9. ^ a b c Letter as translated by the Journal of Palestine Studies
  10. ^ a b Masalha 1992, p. 66.
  11. ^ Karsh 2000, p. 46-51.
  12. ^ The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 23, quote "Ben-Gurion himself, writing to his son in 1937, appeared convinced that this was the only course of action open to Zionism: "The Arabs will have to go," but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war."
  13. ^ a b Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, University of Exeter Gives Pappé a Pass on Invented Ben-Gurion Quote, February 3, 2012, Quote: "Talbot then states that the second half of the quote attributed to Ben-Gurion ("but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war") was a "fair and accurate paraphrase" of the sources he provided in Ethnic Cleansing – Ben Gurion’s diary entry and the article in New Judea – the latter of which recounts a speech Ben-Gurion gave."
  14. ^ a b "Journal of Palestine Studies Compounds its Ben-Gurion Error". Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. 9 April 2012. Retrieved 18 May 2012.: Quote:
  15. ^ Jadaliyya, Journal of Palestine Studies Responds to CAMERA: David Ben-Gurion and the Transfer of Arabs, 27 March 2012
  16. ^ Simons, Chaim (2004). "A Historical Survey of Proposals to Transfer Arabs from Palestine 1895 - 1947" (PDF). p. 30. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 January 2017. Retrieved 12 July 2017.