Book Review | The Passions of a Prime Minister, Revealed

Book Review | The Passions of a Prime Minister, Revealed

October 28, 2019 in 2019 November-December, Arts & Culture
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A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion
By Tom Segev
Translated from
Hebrew by Haim Watzman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2019, 816 pp, $40

The big question posed by Tom Segev’s biography of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is this: What quality did people see in Ben-Gurion that made him indispensable, when so many other qualities made him plainly impossible? His personal relationships with other leading Zionists ranged from complicated to hostile. He described Chaim Weizmann, whom he displaced as leader of the movement, as “loathsome carrion” (an epithet drawn from the Book of Isaiah). He likened his rival, the Revisionist Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky, to Adolf Hitler (Jabotinsky said the same about him). He accused his successor as prime minister, Levi Eshkol, of lies, corruption and idiocy. His relationship with Golda Meir was summed up by Yitzhak Navon, Ben-Gurion’s secretary and later president of Israel, this way:

When he seeks her favor, she thinks he is insincere;
when he doesn’t, he’s ignoring her, and there’s no end to it.
Love, admiration, hatred and jealousy merge one into the other,
and the wretched romance of this couple has no remedy.

The romance in Meir’s case was only figurative, but Ben-Gurion’s actual marriage was equally wretched. To his wife, Paula, he could be indifferent, insensitive and frequently unfaithful. He wanted more children. She confided that he had no idea how many abortions she had had to avoid having more.

When his cautious positions under the British Mandate on abetting illegal immigration and launching retaliatory strikes on Arabs threatened to aggrandize his less cautious rivals, Ben-Gurion flipped and became the advocate of what he had opposed. And his greatest successes, seeing Israel through its war for independence and settling Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and North Africa, came only after colossal bungling of both missions. Regarding the former, Segev describes how tensions between Ben-Gurion and his generals ran so high that they led to a “generals’ revolt.” As for settling the immigrants, his government’s poor job of housing the North Africans imbued them with a resentment of the Labor establishment that would ultimately fuel Menachem Begin’s Likud Party in its rise to power.

When Ben-Gurion’s subordinates failed publicly, rather than stand up for them and assume responsibility, he let them take the consequences. When he failed to get his way, he frequently threatened to quit the leadership. One of his many resignation threats came just two weeks before the attack by Arab armies in 1948.

What overrode all of these faults, in Segev’s rich telling of Ben-Gurion’s life, was his single-mindedness. The aim of Zionism was to create a Jewish state; all else, it seems, was tactical detail. He saw the project as one of conquest, not gentlemanly diplomacy. He suffered from no illusions that the land was empty; he sought to achieve a state with maximum land and minimum Arabs, and he saw a population transfer as a valid way to achieve that. For all the public antipathy between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, they emerge from Segev’s book as rivals more divided over tactics than principles (they once met privately and enjoyed one another’s company). This is not the pragmatic center-left Ben-Gurion that many of us grew up on.

Ben-Gurion was also flexible—when necessary. He could accept partition, when that position was unpopular in his own party, if it hastened creation of the state. He pursued such highly controversial policies as championing Israel’s friendship with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s West Germany (in fact, he said later he would have preferred a military alliance) and building Israel’s secret nuclear facility at Dimona because both pursuits strengthened the state. He saw the nuclear strategy, Segev writes, “as sort of atonement for the sin the Jewish people had committed over two millennia, ‘the sin of weakness.’” But strength was not an end in itself—the state was. Although he evidently shared the Zionists’ remorse over being helpless to assist Jews in the Holocaust, he said in 1938, one month after Kristallnacht, “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second, because we face not only the reckoning of these children but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.”

He was also capable of extraordinary change. In retirement, on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, Ben-Gurion opposed Israeli plans for preemptive strikes and seizure of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Such a war, he reasoned, would bring too many Arabs under Israeli authority at a time when Israel’s economy could not absorb enough new Jewish immigrants to maintain a strong Jewish majority. He attached little importance to achieving Israeli control of Jerusalem, a city he associated with “blacks,” his dismissive term for the ultra-Orthodox. But, like so many of his countrymen, once these territories were taken, he became intoxicated with Israel’s new position of dominance and eager for annexation.

How was Israel supposed to reconcile its desire for land with its treatment of the residents of that land? Where were Israel’s borders to be drawn? For that matter, what role would religion play in a state led by secular Jews? Neither Ben-Gurion nor the movement he led provided clear answers, only tactical responses that served for the moment. Segev calls it Ben-Gurion’s “principal weakness” that “he led a movement that never agreed on its fundamental principles.” 

Segev is one of Israel’s most prominent “new historians,” the group of scholars who, starting in the 1980s, took the writing of Israeli history out of the realm of hagiography and into that of cold facts, sometimes unflattering ones. When this book was published in Hebrew last year, it raised Israeli eyebrows on several counts. One revelation: As independence approached, the stalwart Ben-Gurion turns out to have offered the British a partition map that approximated the Green Line as it was ultimately established, as well as a strict limit on Jewish immigration. He even urged Britain to extend the Mandate and remain a colonial power for another five or ten years, offering to defer independence—so great was his fear of Israeli military weakness.

Segev’s documentation of Ben-Gurion’s four extramarital affairs, in particular the account of one longtime mistress who doubted her lover’s capacity for intimacy and his understanding of female sexuality, earned him criticism for crossing the line from biography to tell-all tabloid fodder. However, one benefit of his granular examination of Ben-Gurion’s private life, based on his voluminous diaries and letters as well as the observations of his contemporaries, is as a tonic to cure the delusion that a great leader is one in possession of a robust self-confidence. Privately, Ben-Gurion took note of his frequent bouts of anxiety, physical weakness, insomnia, fear, anger and loneliness. For his entire adult life, he felt a wound of rejection for having been passed over for membership in an early unit of Zionist armed guards (“He thought too much and talked too much,” one member of the group explained). He was a voracious reader and bibliophile, but the scholarly Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Yigal Yadin attributed that to Ben-Gurion’s “very strong sense of inferiority toward people with college educations.” His only taste of university was studying Turkish law when Palestine was still an Ottoman province and the path to a Jewish state appeared to run through Istanbul. Once the world war began, his higher education was over (and soon, so was the Ottoman Empire).

Ben-Gurion’s anxiety recalls Abraham Lincoln’s melancholy, which many today diagnose as depression. Both men achieved superhuman tasks of leadership; both knew the agonies of the human condition firsthand. This portrait of Ben-Gurion is not a work of hero worship, nor does it sell a great man short. “He was one of those world leaders,” Segev writes, “who believed they could change the course of their people’s history. His ideological resolve was unbending, his imagination unbounded. Both told him that everything was possible, and nearly every price seemed reasonable.”

Ben-Gurion’s legacy to his country may include a stack of important unresolved questions that continue to bedevil seekers of a Middle East peace, but they pale beside his greatest achievement, the very establishment of that country against all the odds.

Former NPR senior host Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment.

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