London, 1934 — two of the great Zionist leaders, Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky — meet to discuss the character of the future Jewish State
Jabotinsky: (pouring for him) Careful. This is very strong vodka sent over by a priest in the Urals. Only this can stoke the fires of my soul when I’m writing.
Ben Gurion: Since when does your soul need stoking with vodka to produce another attack on me and my party? I though your writing was effortless.
Jabotinsky: True, attacking you and your party I can do in my sleep. But look, this is Russian, not Hebrew (shows him the papers) and it belongs to my alternative universe, my novel. My solace and refuge from the bickerings of the Jews.
Ben Gurion: (looking at the papers) May I? This is the novel itself…? The Five?
Jabotinsky: How do you know about “The Five”?
Ben Gurion: Berl Katzenelson read some chapters in a Russian magazine and ordered me to study them before our meeting. He wanted me to have an insight into your soul.
Jabotinsky: Ordered? Berl Katzenelson can order you?
Ben Gurion: Definitely. Berl may be a year younger than me but he holds a spiritual and moral authority over me. He’s a teacher, guide and true brother who seeks no power for himself, and even when he disagrees with me or votes against me, I’m always sure of his confidence in my leadership. Amongst your followers, have you anyone like Berl?
Jabotinsky: Sadly, my followers are too keen to follow. Too faithful, too unquestioning. I have to be my own “Berl”.
Ben Gurion: What about Uri Zvi Greenberg? He may have defected from my labour movement but I still admire his poetry.
Jabotinsky: Uri Zvi Greenberg isn’t a moral or a spiritual authority. He’s a hysterical, humourless man still haunted by the trauma of the trenches. And I’ll let you in to a secret – unlike you, I’m not keen on his poetry. As a rule I don’t think poets and authors are useful in public life, in the end their concern is for books and poems and scholarship. Take care of Berl, he’s a precious asset. He was in the Jewish Brigade I founded, in the Great War. We had our disagreements, but I’ll always value him as a man of truth worth.
Ben Gurion: You know, although Berl objects to me making a secret deal with you, he still supported our agreement against all its opponents. He’s even more concerned than I am by the prospect of a civil war in Eretz Yisrael.
Jabotinsky: I’m afraid of that too, but if you insist on maintaining your stranglehold on Zionism, we have no option but to liberate it forcefully from your grip.
Ben Gurion: Our stranglehold? How? By building settlements and factories? Establishing kibbutzim?
Jabotinsky: Slow down, slow down. (places a cautious arm on Ben Gurion’s shoulder) Will you tell me what you and Berl thought of my first chapters?
Ben Gurion: I took it lightly; it amused me that the Duce could be lovesick. But Berl found it profoundly disturbing.
Jabotinsky: Disturbing? Why?
Ben Gurion: Because if these imaginary, assimilated Jews in your turn-of-the-century Odessa really are so liberated and confident, so well-loved and accepted in their Gentile surroundings, Berl is convinced they’ll meet a bitter end.
Jabotinsky: A bitter end?
Ben Gurion: He thinks you’re setting us up for a reversal later, when all their joy and levity will end in doom and destruction.
Jabotinsky: Is that what he said? What intuition…
Ben Gurion: (surprised) But how can they be doomed? You’re the author, you control their fate. Why would you choose to be cruel?
Jabotinsky: Ben Gurion, it’s history that is cruel. The next chapters will bring the revolution; the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin followed by the World War. You know better than most that when the Gentiles revolt it’s the Jews who pay the price.
Ben Gurion is silent. He picks up a page from the table, browses.
Ben Gurion: And will Marussiah finally succumb to the author’s loving advances?
Jabotinsky: (laughs) Not the author, my friend, the narrator. The author doesn’t need the love of a fictional character. He has his own beloved woman to whom he has striven to be faithful for many years.
Ben Gurion: All right, the narrator…
Jabotinsky: The narrator will never capture Marussiah’s heart. She’ll leave her Gentile lover and marry the dull pharmacist chosen by her parents… and finally, in the end… she will be set alight by her kitchen stove.
Ben Gurion: Set alight? How can you give her such a terrible ending?
Jabotinsky: (impatient) That’s enough now! I got carried away. An author should never reveal his plot before it’s written. Half the time the characters ignore his will anyway. But we didn’t arrange this final meeting to debate prose. If reports from Tel Aviv are to be trusted, your comrades are planning to reject our little agreement, just as I predicted in Rutenberg’s hotel room. So we should use this meeting to define the rules of engagement for the battle that will now rage in the Zionist Federation.
Ben Gurion: (pensive) You return to Paris tomorrow?
Jabotinsky: Yes. Where will you be heading?
Ben Gurion: Home, to Tel Aviv.
Jabotinsky: Alas, Tel Aviv…Jerusalem…they haunt my dreams. But before we dive into our last argument, you’re still my guest and it would be wrong to contest a hungry rival. Come, have a look, our hostess left us a few dishes…
Ben Gurion: No, I’m not hungry, not for cooked food. I wouldn’t say no to a slice of bread.
Jabotinsky: Just bread…?
Ben Gurion: Well, perhaps with an egg of some sort…
Jabotinsky: An egg? What sort of egg?
Ben Gurion: Fried, maybe an omelette if that’s possible…
Jabotinsky: (embarrassed) To be honest… in the kitchen I’m completely helpless. Opening a tin of sardines makes me as proud as if I had personally erected a steel bridge across the Volga.
Ben Gurion: I’ll do the frying. In Sejera we had this huge pan and I’d make omelettes for the whole crowd. When Paula lets me, I have a rare talent for it; I just flip it at the perfect moment so it’s neither watery or burnt dry. Do you think we can rustle up a few eggs in this place?
Jabotinsky: (enthusiastic) Of course, we must find some eggs and you can demonstrate your hidden talent for frying, although it’s not just eggs that you fry to perfection – you do the same in politics, flipping people and ideas about without burning a single one.
They go to the corner of the kitchen, light a large flame in the stove. Ben Gurion prepares the omelette while Jabotinsky sits at the table watching, amused and beguiled.
Jabotinsky: So I have a question for you. Let’s assume we have our Jewish State and its Prime Minister, whomever he is, invites you to join the Cabinet. Which Ministry would attract you the most?
Ben Gurion: I’d start a Ministry for Identity.
Jabotinsky: Is there such a thing?
Ben Gurion: No, but it will be essential. We need a Ministry to straighten out our poor old Jewish identity that’s been crippled by centuries of exile. At the heart of it I would plant the words of the Prophets.
Jabotinsky: What a bold idea. It would tempt me too, although I might straighten out the warped Jewish identity in a rather different way. So if I were to join this cabinet I’d choose an easier role.
Ben Gurion: That being?
Jabotinsky: Secretary for Defence, Minister of War.
Ben Gurion: Minister of War? You, Jabotinsky? The poet, the author, the orator…
Steam is rising from the stove and there is a scorching smell.
Jabotinsky: Yes, because my wars would be shorter and more efficient than any waged by you Socialists. Fewer dead, fewer injured, less destruction on both sides.
Ben Gurion: How?
Jabotinsky: Because I wouldn’t let a single Jew or Arab harbour false illusions. I wouldn’t offer the Arabs a compromise that they won’t accept. I would speak to them clearly and honestly, without guile. They’re neither wicked nor foolish, as your friends in the Brotherhood of Nations might fancy. From the minute our feet touched the ground of Eretz Yisrael, they’ve known what our intentions are. Like some posturing virgin we persist in denying the fact that from its inception the Zionist Movement has carried in its womb the embryonic Jewish state. But the Arabs spotted this long ago and as they awake from four hundred years of Ottoman-induced slumber they will ensure that this embryo dies, along with its mother. If we don’t rush to deliver the Jewish state, this baby will die in the womb or be delivered stillborn to the English. Or it will be born a monster.
Ben Gurion: A monster???
Jabotinsky: Ambivalence, procrastination, religious extremists from all sides and enemies of Zionism will turn it into a monster. That’s why we need a state as soon as possible. An independent sovereign state with clearly charted borders and a wall of steel before its enemies. But within in: generosity, equality and respect for all. An outward wall of steel but from the inside, velvet-covered marble, embellished with images of hope.
Ben Gurion slides the omelette from the frying pan onto a tray, divides it in two, places each on a plate and starts to eat hungrily. He suddenly throws down his knife and fork.
Ben Gurion: There’s no such thing as steel on the outside and velvet on the inside! You’ve been away from Eretz Yisrael for so long you’ve lost touch with reality. We in the workers’ parties are trying, slowly and carefully, to separate the Arabs and ourselves by securing Jewish labour in Jewish enterprises and building separate Jewish settlements in uninhabited areas. Yes, Sir, another acre and another goat, but the time is not yet ripe for the Jewish State. If we induce this premature infant of yours, the Arabs will destroy it and the English will let them, because then they won’t be responsible for our security. You’ve have been gone too long, you don’t know the situation.
Jabotinsky: And you are completely alienated from European Jewry! You have no concept of the new nationalistic anti-Semitism that’s poisoning the air. When you and your friends finally decide the time is right to bring the Jewish state into the world you’ll be too late – not enough Jews will survive.
Ben Gurion: You speak with such cruel pessimism.
Jabotinsky: It’s reality.
Ben Gurion: A leader can’t allow himself to be controlled by pessimism.
Jabotinsky: It’s easy for you, you’ve already changed your identity. You have no need for your Ministry. You’re not a Jew, you’re an Eretz Yisraelite, a Palestinian.
Ben Gurion: Maybe I am, and that’s why I see the world from the perspective of my small patch of land.
Jabotinsky: The Jews included?
Ben Gurion: Especially the Jews. Whose home are we in?
Jabotinsky: The Yaacobi’s, Shlomo and Edna, dear, loyal friends. Unlike you, I have no machine to arrange my travel and lodgings. I depend on the good will of my friends.
Ben Gurion: So come, instead of walking out on the Zionist movement, join us in a grand coalition. We’ll give you the Ministry of Information, we’ll be partners on other matters. You’ll have inside influence and this “machine” you so admire will look after your travel and lodgings.
Jabotinsky: You may be sincere, Ben Gurion, but I won’t subjugate my views for your purist comrades. You speak for a mere two percent of the Jewish people while I speak for millions in Eastern Europe, in Poland, Lithuania and Galicia, in Austria and Russia… Why should we join you? You join us!
A knock at the door.
Translation by Dr David Janner-Klausner Adapted for stage by Amy Rosenthal
The New Israel Fund celebrates Israel’s 64th Independence Day with the British premiere of A. B. Yehoshua’s new play: Can Two Walk Together? 6.30 pm, Thursday 10 May 2012 at the Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole St, W1 Ticket: £25 Patron Ticket: £45 (incl priority seating)
Book online at www.newisraelfund.org.uk or call 0207 724 2266
The Tel Aviv premiere will take place in May 2012