power & politics avi shilon
Israel or Bust A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion
By Tom Segev
(Translated from Hebrew by Haim Watzman)
(Head of Zeus 804pp £30)
This is without doubt one of the best biographies to have been written about David Ben-Gurion, perhaps the most interesting Jew of the 20th century. The historian and journalist Tom Segev manages to hold the reader’s attention for almost seven hundred pages (not including the endnotes), despite the fact that the life of Israel’s founding father and first prime minister is well known from many earlier biographies.
Segev’s literary prowess, together with his impressive archival research and his use of telling anecdotes, makes A State at Any Cost compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand Ben-Gurion and Israel during its formative years. The book also demonstrates why Ben-Gurion continues to be relevant today. Positions he adopted during his periods as prime minister (1948–53 and 1955–63) are still commonly held among the Israeli public, whether consciously or otherwise. In the wake of September’s general election, which was marked by the efforts of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to incite public opinion against Israel’s Arab population, it is fascinating to read how Ben-Gurion, the leading left-wing Zionist of Israel’s first two and a half decades, told his Cabinet in 1956 that the Arab population must remain under military rule, since ‘an Arab is first and foremost an Arab’.
Ben-Gurion was a complex character and his statements were often contradictory. His anti-Arab remarks were mirrored by comments about his own people that sometimes bordered on the anti-Semitic. Some of his deeds shared the same characteristic. During both the Israeli War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign of 1956, when Israel fought alongside Britain and France against Egypt, BenGurion sought to expand Israel’s borders. Yet after the Six Day War of 1967, he was one of the first figures to suggest that it would be better if Israel returned most of the territory it had occupied, since the state could have no future without peace in the region.
Ben-Gurion was born in 1886 in Płońsk, Poland (then part of Russia), and emigrated to Palestine on his own at the age of twenty. From the moment he arrived in the country, he set about trying to establish socialist-Zionist political organisations. In 1930 he managed to unite several labour parties under his own leadership, forming Mapai, which in various incarnations would dominate the Yishuv and then the Knesset until 1977. (The Labor Party, Mapai’s heir, continued to be one of Israel’s two main parties, alongside Likud, until the mid-2000s. In the recent election it won just six seats.)
Despite opposition from left and right in the Zionist movement, Ben-Gurion decided to accept the idea, proposed in 1937 by the Peel Commission, of partitioning Palestine. On 14 May 1948, it was he who proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel in front of a portrait of Theodor Herzl at the Tel Aviv Museum. He played a dominant role in the war that followed, encouraging the Israel Defense Forces to expel as many Palestinians as possible, though he never issued an explicit order to this effect. By the time the war ended, there were only around 100,000 Arabs left in Israel, out of a previous population of almost 800,000. Some Arabs fled in fear of the Zionists, while others were directly expelled.
Ben-Gurion also oversaw the successful campaign for mass Jewish immigration to Israel, leading the Jewish population to swell from 700,000 at the time the state was established in 1948 to 1.2 million just two years later. He had no compunction about misleading the US government concerning Israel’s construction of a nuclear reactor, something to which the Americans were opposed, and he also took command of shaping the curricula in Israeli schools.
Ben-Gurion with Golda Meir, 1962
Segev cogently describes Ben-Gurion’s actions at these junctures, while also highlighting his failure to act decisively to help save Jews during the Holocaust.
However, Segev’s main focus is BenGurion the person. The character that emerges is different from the one presented in previous biographies. After losing his mother at the age of eleven, Ben-Gurion became a melancholy youth, commenting in a letter to friends, ‘I don’t know why I am sometimes so sad.’ As prime minister, he showed a propensity for violent mood swings, alternating between euphoria and sadness. Segev quotes from Ben-Gurion’s diary and letters, in which he refers to episodes of ‘depression’, ‘despair’ and ‘loneliness’. Reading this, I was reminded of a suggestion raised after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 US presidential election that the Democrats had taken his words literally but not seriously, while his supporters had taken them seriously but not literally. Segev, like the Democrats, shows a tendency to adopt an excessively literal approach when interpreting BenGurion’s written remarks. In my opinion, every time he complained of ‘despair’, he was not necessarily implying that he was utterly without hope, but rather seeking to convey, in an exaggerated manner, a mood of disappointment.
Segev’s Ben-Gurion is a man who neglected his wife and three children and pursued affairs with more than a few women. In one case, the author provides detailed
Literary Review |november 2019 10