TOM SEGEV A State At Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion. Reviewed by Renee Bittoun
Tom Segev’s biography illuminates the life and complexities of David Ben-Gurion, a central but divisive figure in Israel’s history.
Ask Jews in Australia their views on Ben-Gurion and you will often get the reply that he is ‘a lion’, ‘a hero’, ‘a great soldier’ – the single-handed creator of the State of Israel. But it’s not so straightforward when you ask Israelis. When I was living on the Tze-Elim kibbutz in the Negev Desert in the late 1960s, David Ben-Gurion was living not too far away at a collective farm called Sde-Boker. He was in his 80s, and had finally retired as on-again, off-again Israeli prime minister. The opinion of my fellow kibbutzniks was more a shrug of the shoulders; the old man was cantankerous, difficult and divisive.
David Ben-Gurion merited all of these views. He was a nationalist, an eccentric romantic, a liberal socialist Zionist and a secular Jew. Shoving others aside, he oversaw the creation and development of the State of Israel and proclaimed socialist values, but remained stubbornly conflicted and exclusionary over the Arab refugee population his state had created. Israeli author Tom Segev’s extraordinarily detailed, heavily referenced biography portrays a complex, driven, and hugely egocentric personality.
Ben-Gurion argued with everyone, friends, colleagues and opponents alike, over every detail of the creation of a Jewish state, right up to its final approval by the United Nations. He vacillated over secular versus religious law for the new state, clashed with survivors over reconciliation with and financial reparations from Germany’s post-Holocaust governments (he was in favour of taking the money, many were against), and agonised over how best to manage Palestinian aspirations, taking first one side and then the other on each of these excruciatingly polarising issues.
Pivoting from one plan to the next, he would either negate the idea of a separate Palestinian state altogether or consider, as he did in 1946, a situation where:
‘Palestine on both sides of the Jordan would become a neutral zone, free from foreign armies, and divided into two states… Neither country would maintain an army, only the forces necessary to maintain internal order. Each would set its immigration regulations for itself. Disputes between the two would be mediated by the United Nations. The Christian holy sites would be under control of the churches.’
This partition plan was never countenanced.
Opponents saw him as a bully – competitive, irrational, and undemocratic – and wanted him out. Sycophantic supporters saw no flaws in his autocratic style and manipulated him to improve their personal status. Arguments frequently ended in screaming matches, with Ben-Gurion stomping out and resigning from whatever position he was holding at the time. This was a routine modus operandi he used all his life, to leave in a huff, sometimes to start a new group or political party with himself at the head.
Born into a religious Jewish family in the small village of Plonsk in Poland towards the end of 1886, David Gruen (later changed to David Ben-Gurion) spoke Yiddish at home and learned to read Hebrew at school. A bored and listless adolescent, he and his childhood friends became enamoured with the Zionist movement and its ideology of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a land that had been in their traditional prayers for centuries.
In 1903, after a brutal pogrom in Russia, the need for a safe Jewish homeland became urgent. At this time Uganda was being seriously considered by Theodore Herzl and the founders of the Zionist movement. Appalled by this proposal, the teenagers of Plonsk vowed to go to Palestine immediately and set up a Jewish state in territory they believed belonged to the Jews by historical right. And off they went and did just that. ‘I was born a Zionist,’ Ben Gurion later declared.
He arrived in a far more Arab country than he had imagined. In his naivety he had expected to meet a ‘different type of Jew’ tilling the soil and self-sufficient, but found that many of the earlier Jewish settlers, unaccustomed to physical labour of any sort, let alone farming, had hired Arabs to do the work for them.
Referencing private letters and diaries, and with unprecedented access to unpublished memoirs, Segev’s biography gives a fair and honest account of an extraordinary man whose position in history is undiminished by the exposure of his weaknesses.
Recollections of multiple scandals are scattered throughout the book. As the head of the first Palestinian labour union, Ben Gurion saw himself as ‘a Zionist Lenin’ but argued against the inclusion of Arab labour. He was implicated in financial fraud relating to monies donated by American Jews in the 1930s, whom he privately believed were soft and below the physical quality required of migrants to populate the new land, just as he felt that the ‘Fallasha’ or black Jews who came from Ethiopia in the 1950s did not have the intellectual attributes he envisioned migrants should have. He voiced the same opinion about the nearly half a million north African Jews who arrived a decade later.
In the 1930s he swore openly at right-wing militarist Zionists (future prime minister Menachem Begin among them), scandalously calling them thugs and Hitlerites. He had multiple affairs, was jealous of, and loathed by, opponents such as the hard-working Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel. He traded peace in the Middle East for Zionism, openly lied about his involvement in legendary military campaigns such as the Suez Canal episode and the Six Day War, and claimed innocence in the abandonment of European Jews during World War II. Some friends and opponents called him out. Ben-Gurion replied:
‘For us, democracy is not just an empty expression, but we have a principle more dear to us than democracy, and it’s the building of Palestine by Jews.’
Democracy, writes Segev, thus became one with socialism and peace—in Ben Gurion’s thinking, it was like the others, ranked under the goals of Zionism.
He was not a hero nor a soldier nor a socialist, but a driven, indomitable individual who enforced his opinions.
Segev’s book is a must for those grappling with the complexities of modern Israel and it squarely debunks the myths of the past, and the myth of David Ben-Gurion. For a fractured and scarred world Jewry at the time, it seems Ben-Gurion was just what was needed; the right man at the right time.
Tom Segev A State At Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion, translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman, Head of Zeus 2019 HB 816pp $49.99
Renee Bittoun is writing her memoirs, ‘I was a Teenage Zionist’.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.