Locked Up in Alabama

The Return of the Debtors’ Prison,” by Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville [April 14], mentions so many injustices that I describe in my book Calla Lilies: A True Story of Four Sisters and Their Struggle to Survive Abuse, Addiction, and Poverty in America. The sisters, from Tuscaloosa, have a similar story to tell. It is not quite as bad as in Harpersville, but these women have repeatedly experienced debtors’ prison, which is exactly what I call it.

When arrested for misdemeanors like traffic tickets, they end up “sitting it out” in jail to pay for their fines and court costs. At least, unlike in Harpersville, fines can be paid off through jail time, sometimes lasting months. When will we learn that there are constructive ways of changing unacceptable behavior that do not destroy self-esteem and push people deeper into poverty?

Kay Corbett
clifton, va.

We were traveling through Alabama, commenting on how often the speed limits changed. We came out of a 65 mph zone and into—a $175 ticket for going 30 mph over the limit! Spend it well, Alabama. You won’t get another chance at me.

Ben-Gurion Changes His Tune

Bernard Avishai writes in ”Truman’s Folly?” [April 14] that American Jews “typically” make no meaningful distinction between “the Zionists who wanted non-Hebrew-speaking people out of their work spaces and those who wanted non-Jews out of their country.” He then proceeds to claim that most American Jewish readers will therefore wrongly and “readily” assume that David Ben-Gurion was “being disingenuous, or merely tactical, when, by turns, he opposed Vladimir Jabotinsky’s call for a Jewish state at the 1931 Zionist Congress, then sought association with an independent Arab federation in 1934, then accepted a Jewish mini-state after the Peel Commission.”

American Jews and others who are aware of the dichotomy between what Ben-Gurion often said privately and what he said publicly would be correct in readily drawing the conclusions that Avishai dismisses. Ben-Gurion asserted during a meeting of the Jewish Agency executive on June 7, 1938, that there was a need to “build up a strong force following the establishment of the state,” and that then “we will abolish the partition of the country and…expand to the whole land of Israel.” This would not be achieved by “moralizing and ‘preaching sermons on the mount’ but by machine-guns, which we will need” (cited in David Hirst, Beware of Small States).

As Gabriel Piterberg writes in his masterly The Returns of Zionism, “where Ben-Gurion differed from Jabotinsky was in his view that it was unwise openly to define the reality in Palestine as a conflict between a settler-national movement versus an indigenous one until the Yishuv [the Palestinian Jewish community] became ineradicably solid. The class formula was an expedient rationale for stalling, crafted as it was in a language perfectly appropriate to Ben-Gurion’s institutional position as secretary-general of the Histadrut [the principal Zionist labor organization]. For Ben-Gurion such language was expedient; he dropped it like a hot potato as soon as he could.”

Ralph Coury
Professor emeritus of history
Fairfield University

New Haven

Avishai Replies

Ben-Gurion said many things, but neither Professor Coury nor I needs to rummage through the minutes of 1938 Jewish Agency meetings to see that Ben-Gurion came to the conclusion that a Jewish state would seek to establish itself by force of arms and demand the entire land of Israel. As I noted in my review, the arming started in earnest in 1938, and the demand for the whole land was incorporated into Zionism’s Biltmore Resolution of 1942.

What Professor Coury will not see is equally obvious, however. By 1938, after two years of the Arab Revolt, Ben-Gurion understood that Palestine’s million or so Arabs would violently resist any kind of Jewish national home, even the teeny land offered by the Peel Commission; and that they would also oppose any new Jewish immigration. Even more clear, and terrifying, after the Munich Agreement was Hitler’s intended expansion into territories where European Jews lived. By 1938, that is, Ben-Gurion supposed the Yishuv would have to fight for its life, with or without a British shield, and would have to resettle 2 million to 3 million Jews fleeing or surviving the Nazi menace.

For Coury to speak about Ben-Gurion’s intentions without seeing how they might have been changed by such shocking events is tactless. The assumption that Ben-Gurion was just another Jabotinsky—masking his maximalist intentions with proletarian rhetoric—begs so many questions (why he did not simply join Jabotinsky, who was, after all, his commander in the Jewish Legion; why his movement and Jabotinsky’s acted so differently on various British offers; to say nothing of Jabotinsky’s forced secession from the WZO) that the historian advancing it could hardly be thought “masterly.”

Men make history, Marx said, but not just as they please. As I also noted, Ben-Gurion would change his approach again when he offered partition in 1946—arming still—after coming to terms with yet another horror: that most of the people he thought he’d have to resettle were dead, and the Arab world remained steadfast in opposing even the immigration of the 100,000 displaced Jews in European camps.

Bernard Avishait

And… a 25-Year Shelf Life!!

You owe your readers and long-term supporters (such as myself) an explanation for that dreadful advertisement for “survival food” in The Nation. Was it supposed to be an April Fools’ joke?t
Isabel Marcust


Re “Art and Revolution in Cairo,” by Jenna Krajeski [March 31]: the second co-founder of Beirut, the Cairo-based art initiative and exhibition space, is Jens Maier-Rothe. Beirut invited visual artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan to do a show following Maier-Rothe’s collaboration with him at the AVA Gallery in New York City in March 2012.