Re-examining the life of David Ben-Gurion

Ben-Gurion was a divisive leader, an uninspiring and humourless speaker, but still a revered and visionary giant to many Israelis and Jews.

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In August 1906, a 19-year-old Polish Jew called David Gruen boarded a ship in Odessa and came ashore at Jaffa nine days later. He headed for Petah Tikvah, one of the first Zionist settlements in Ottoman Palestine. Gruen, who later changed his surname to Ben-Gurion, would often reminisce about his arrival – and his repulsion at the Arab boatmen and stevedores who greeted the new immigrants in their promised land.

Exactly 30 years later, when an Arab strike erupted in Jaffa in protest at Britain’s pro-Zionist policies, Ben-Gurion exulted at the prospect of establishing a new Jewish port in nearby Tel Aviv, and predicted that it would mean a state, too. He had long been convinced that there was no chance of peace with the country’s Arab majority. “We want the Land of Israel to be ours as a nation,” he concluded. “The Arabs want the land to be theirs – as a nation.”

Tom Segev’s biography of the founding father of Israel is a deeply researched and insightful work. Segev is the most readable of the taboo-breaking group of Israel’s “new historians”. He has not just thrown new light on the 1948 war of independence and the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, but on the entire history of the intractable and asymmetrical conflict that still moulds the lives of both Jews and Arabs.

Zionism was in its early days when Ben-Gurion was growing up. It was a minority movement among East European Jews who faced routine anti-Semitism and murderous pogroms. It was viewed with hostility by traditional Orthodox communities, by the socialists of the Bund, the Jewish labour organisation, and of course by communists. The vast majority of those who were able to emigrate opted for the US or Britain.

Both in his native Plonsk and in Palestine the young labour activist insisted on speaking Hebrew not Yiddish. His principal political ambition was to replace Arab workers with Jewish ones – and he was shocked when two comrades were killed by Arabs in Galilee. By the time of the Arab strike and rebellion in 1936 he was head of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency. The following year he accepted the recommendation of Britain’s Peel Commission to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

It still took another decade for the Jewish state to be achieved. Segev argues convincingly that Ben-Gurion’s apparent callousness in the face of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust reflected not only a sense of hopelessness but also the unshakeable conviction that a secure future could be guaranteed only by a Jewish majority and sovereignty,  “at any cost”.

From 1945 Ben-Gurion backed illegal Jewish immigration and covert arms purchases for the Haganah militia that defended Jewish settlements, but he was consistently pragmatic, playing a double game. He even toyed with the idea of extending Mandatory rule in order to postpone the war that loomed with the surrounding Arab states. That came the day after he signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948; a few days later he became Israel’s first prime minister.

Segev’s work is underpinned by six previous books and he has drawn on masses of archival material, some of it never available before. He excels at combining a densely sourced and detailed narrative with trenchant judgements on the existential issues Ben-Gurion was involved in, often contradicting the leader’s self-serving version.

On the ever central “Arab question”, his inescapable conclusion is that Ben-Gurion’s Zionism determined everything. The very few Palestinian leaders he ever met were unequivocal in rejecting any material benefits from Jewish-driven economic development. “He gave Zionism preference over peace,” Segev writes, “just as he had given it preference over socialism.” In 1948 he did not issue explicit orders for the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine but “the spirit of the message conveyed by the commander-in-chief was sufficient”.

Ben-Gurion was a short man, a divisive leader, an uninspiring and humourless speaker but still a revered and visionary giant to many Israelis and Jews. He is brought down to size by revelations about extra-marital affairs and mood swings, but humanised by his interest in ancient Greek and Buddhism, and by his private doubts. He loathed Chaim Weizmann, the patrician Anglophile leader who dominated Zionist diplomacy from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 onwards, and his successor as prime minister, Levi Eshkol. Segev compares Ben-Gurion to Lenin, but a “non-Communist Zionist Bolshevik”.

In office, save for a brief pause, until 1963, he presided over the Suez Crisis, as well as the sensational capture and trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and the establishment of Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona. In 1973, shortly after that year’s war with Egypt and Syria (one of the wounded was his own grandson), Ben-Gurion ended his days in kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev desert, “spiteful and cantankerous, resentful and insufferable”, but living the Zionist dream until the end. This is an exemplary critical biography of a hugely influential political leader who, the author concludes, “people believed in… because he believed in himself”. 

Ian Black’s latest book is “Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017” (Allen Lane)

State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion
Tom Segev
Apollo, 876pp, £30

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone