On March 25, 1955, a wedding was held at Patish, a moshav near the border with Gaza. All the members of the community were dressed in their holiday best. Kerosene lamps illuminated the improvised dance floor in the backyard of the Kalami family home and cast their light on the young, beautiful faces of the revelers.
But uninvited guests crashed the celebration. A squad of fedayeen terrorists from the Gaza Strip broke up the wedding by throwing grenades in every direction before opening fire on the wedding guests.
19 people were injured. 22-year-old Varda Friedman, who had come to Patish to help out as a social worker, was murdered.
When David Ben-Gurion arrived two days later to show support for the moshav, he was shocked to see some of the residents packing up their belongings, clearly preparing to leave their homes that no longer felt safe.
After spending more than a year in retirement from political life, he had come back to serve as Defense Minister. In his own eyes and in the eyes of many Israelis, he was still the leader of the young country, though for the moment, he was no longer Prime Minister.
Ben-Gurion felt responsible for what had happened when facing the newly-arrived immigrants who had settled in Patish. He knew and understood that the state was responsible.
“Look at these Jews,” he said at the time to the journalist Moshe Zak. “They’ve come from Iraq, Kurdistan, North Africa…they’ve come from countries where their blood is worthless, where it’s permissible to abuse them, torture them, beat them, to be cruel towards them. They’ve gotten used to being helpless victims of the gentiles. Here is where we must prove to them that their blood is no longer worthless; that the Jewish people have a state and an army that won’t allow them to be slaughtered again; that their lives and property are worth something. We need to make them stand upright, instill in them the feelings of sovereignty and pride. We need to show them that those who rise up against them will not escape punishment, because they are citizens of a sovereign country that is responsible for their lives and their safety.”
Those who were around Ben-Gurion said that the murder was a watershed moment for him. Was this the straw that broke the “Old Man’s” back? Was it the fact that he himself had spent the last two years living on a kibbutz in southern Israel and better understood what these infiltrations meant for the lives of those who lived there? Or was it Varda Friedman herself – the esteemed sergeant who chose farm work over a military career and didn’t hesitate when she was called on to help the new immigrants in Patish – whose death touched his heart?
A few days later, in Jerusalem, he worked vigorously to promote a plan that he thought was the only logical solution for the situation: Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, without taking into account what the superpowers and international organizations might think, including the United Nations. IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and many members of the Mapai political party mobilized to assist him.
Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, on the other hand, was strongly opposed to the plan.
Sharett, along with most of the government, feared it would attract fierce international criticism. They feared economic sanctions, diplomatic delegitimization of Israel, and diplomatic isolation. They believed that without UN Resolution 181, the State of Israel could never have been established.
Ben-Gurion thought otherwise.
He was never in favor of political isolation. When the “United Nations Special Committee on Palestine” was established in May, 1947, Ben-Gurion appeared before the committee’s members, speaking with historic and national fervor, while still expressing respect and appreciation for the UN.
However, when Israeli interests collided with the national or international interests of the superpowers, he argued that Israelis needed to learn to work for themselves and that no one else would fight for them.
After the murder in Patish, during a meeting of the government on the 29th of the month, Ben-Gurion spoke and explained his theory in great detail. You can understand how Sharett felt about the Defense Minister based on his journal entry that day:
“[Ben-Gurion] spoke for about an hour. To the extent that he rolled out his analysis, the tension around him increased until, when he read out the proposal to expel the Egyptians from the Gaza Strip, this no longer came as a bombshell but rather as a solution to a riddle that most of the people had already guessed. The reasoning was poignant and made a great impression but I was once again startled by his narrow-mindedness – as if he stopped at fixing his eyes on one point only, without seeing the vast territory surrounding it – and his short-sightedness – as if he decided to determine that the operation itself was the final goal and not to delve deeper into the consequences that would come from it.”
After Ben-Gurion’s speech, a sharp debate developed between Prime Minister Sharett and his Defense Minister. The debate reflected not only their disagreements about the subject being discussed, but also the gap between the worldviews of many parts of the Israeli public: Should the State of Israel, which seemed almost like a helpless baby opposite the various superpowers, simply be grateful to the world in general and to the UN in particular for granting Israel the right to live in and govern this stretch of land, or should it ignore all the background noise and rely only on its own power?
A month later, Ben-Gurion would speak eloquently in front of an IDF parade, and offer an expression of his worldview that would remain with us for years afterwards:
“It is not in the global arena but rather from within that Israel will be strengthened and stand…these are the things that will determine our destiny more than any external factor in the world. Our future is not dependent on what the gentiles will say but rather what the Jews will do!”
But now, in that long and emotional government meeting, his intense feelings inspired him to coin a new, perhaps less elegant and somewhat more catchy turn of phrase:
“Definitely not!” he exploded at Sharett, who for his part had spoken about the UN’s role in the establishment of the state.
“Only the daring of the Jews established the state, not some decision by that Um-shmum.”
In Hebrew, the acronym או”ם used to designate the UN is pronounced um, or more precisely, oom. Therefore, “Um-shmum!” is akin to saying “United Nations-shmoonited nations!” in English.
More than disdain, the expression “Um-shmum” expressed great disappointment with the United Nations. Ben-Gurion had always believed that cooperation between great democracies was the key to prosperity – both in Israel and around the world.
“As a member of the Jewish people I say: With all due respect to the institutions of the United Nations and its members, until Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation’ is fulfilled, and as long as our neighbors plot to destroy us, we won’t have security unless it’s through our own strength…There is no nation more fervent than us in following the principles laid down in the foundation of the UN – but the UN whose success and authority we wish for is currently only an ideal. And the Security Council acts out of bias and glaring discrimination…in our region, acts of murder and sabotage, robbery and trespassing by our neighbors are becoming more and more frequent, and we must put an end to it – even if no one else wants to or is able to do so.”
Almost 70 years later, Ben-Gurion’s words echo the same question that follows us to this very day. Perhaps it has become even more acute: How are we possibly supposed to best protect the security of our country and its citizens against the backdrop of international diplomatic pressure? Even today, Israel faces bias, discrimination, and antisemitism in international institutions, on university campuses, and on social networks, as we are simultaneously trying to defend ourselves against the immediate threat of our enemy.
The photos that appear throughout this article are from the Ben-Gurion House Archive and are available digitally as part of a collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.