The Basel Congress of 1946 was the scene of high drama, great rhetoric, and fateful decisions. But for me the most memorable moment was when David Ben-Gurion’s wife, Paula, flustered and fuming, strode into the basement of the convention hall where Mapai was holding its caucus. She marched over to Arieh Bahir of Kibbutz Afikim, a loyal Ben-Gurionist, and said in Yiddish, “Arieh, er is meshugge gevoren!” (Arieh, he’s gone mad.)
“Where is he?” Arieh asked.
“In the hotel,” Paula said.
Bahir turned to me. “Come on, let’s go,” he said.
We made our way over to the Drei Konige Hotel, which was where Herzl stayed during the First Zionist Congress in 1897 and where that famous picture of him looking pensively out over the Rhine was taken. We climbed the stairs to Ben-Gurion’s room and knocked on the door. No answer. Bahir turned the knob and walked in. I followed gingerly behind.
“Shalom, Ben-Gurion!” Arieh said.
Ben-Gurion didn’t bother to turn round. He was packing his suitcase, determined to turn his back on Basel. Eventually he asked, “Are you coming with me?”
“Yes,” replied Bahir without hesitation. “But where are you going?”
“I am going to create a new Zionist movement,” Ben-Gurion said. “Nothing will come of this congress. The leaders are paralyzed by fear and inertia.”
I had incredible chutzpah. Ben-Gurion hardly knew me, but I said, “Yes, we’ll go with you. But I’ve got a request. Speak to the delegation this evening.” He agreed, and we went back with him to that tension-filled basement.
That congress in Basel was in many ways the defining moment for Zionism and for Ben-Gurion. Our picture of the Shoah, as the Holocaust was called in Hebrew, was complete by then, in all its ghastly details. During World War II the information available had always been only partial and sporadic. We did not have a full picture, in real time, of the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen the Jewish people.
Soon after the war ended, Ben-Gurion had gone to visit the camps — both the Nazi death camps and the displaced persons camps, where the survivors were being held by the Allied armies. As chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, he was escorted personally by General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander. Eisenhower made a very deep impression on him. All his life, and whatever the tensions that arose between them, Ben-Gurion never stopped praising him. He would on many occasions recall (as Barack Obama did in his speech at Buchenwald in 2009) how Eisenhower had forced the local Germans to visit the liberated camps and see for themselves the piles of corpses and the skeletal survivors. In his speech Obama quoted Eisenhower as saying at the time that he was concerned that humanity would forget what had been done in these places, and he was determined to never let that happen. Ben-Gurion was hugely impressed and moved by this act of Eisenhower’s, both for its humanitarian quality and for its historic significance.
Ben-Gurion returned to Jerusalem shocked to his core, both by what he had seen in the camps and by a more thorough understanding of how the reaction of the rest of the world had contributed to the fate of Europe’s Jews. Not only had the Allies failed to save them; not only had they failed to bomb the death camps or the railway lines; but British warships had kept the gates of Palestine shut to any Jews who managed to escape from the European hell. His conclusion was stark and unequivocal: We must have our independent state at once.
That was the underlying issue of conflict at the congress: le’altar, to establish a state immediately, as Ben-Gurion demanded; or to wait, as Chaim Weizmann, the venerable president of the World Zionist Organization, advocated…
The opposition to Ben-Gurion wasn’t only from the political parties on the left and from the Revisionist and religious parties on the right. It also came from within his own party. The so-called Gush, the tough Mapai machine politicians, were with Ben-Gurion, including people like Shraga Netzer and his wife, Dvora. But many people in Mapai supported Weizmann, who still looked to Great Britain, despite everything, to support the Zionist cause. Levi Eshkol, as usual, was in the middle. Golda Meir was initially against partition. It was she who had chaired that crucial session in that Basel basement. She ran it with an iron hand. But in the end she sided with Ben-Gurion. By dawn the party was with him.
The third and crowning phase of Ben-Gurion’s remarkable career of Jewish leadership was at hand. For 13 years, from 1922 to 1935, as secretary-general of the Histadrut, he had built up and led the Labor Zionist camp in the Yishuv. For the next 13 years, as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, he had led the fight for immigration and independence, both at home and on the world stage. Now he was about to embark on 13 extraordinary years of constructing and consolidating the Jewish state, in war and in peace.
Shimon Peres is president of Israel. He's the author, most recently, of "Ben-Gurion: A Political Life," written in conversation with David Landau, former editor of Ha'aretz. The book is part of the Jewish Encounters series, published by Nextbook Press and Schocken. Reprinted courtesy of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Random House, Inc.