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Israel’s George Washington

REVIEW: Anita Shapira’s ‘Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel’

Ben Gurion
David Ben-Gurion / AP
• December 6, 2014 5:00 am

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It’s difficult for an American to identify with Ben-Gurion, a humorless socialist who admired Lenin. To Americans of his time, Ben-Gurion would have sounded less like a candidate for the Jewish State’s first leader than as a poster child for stronger immigration laws. To add insult to injury, he was tactless and socially awkward.

Many books have been written about Ben-Gurion but given his decades-long dominance of the Zionist scene, there’s always room for one more. Anita Shapira is professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, well-known for her biographies of historical figures hailing from Israel’s left, the best of which is probably that of Berl Katznelson, a prominent Zionist leader in his time who is virtually forgotten today. She has now provided an easy to read, compact, well-organized—if superficial—account of the political development of the man she calls "Father of Modern Israel." The English translation from the original Hebrew is excellent and translator Anthony Berris deserves special mention.

Shapira says that one of the reasons she wrote the book is because she wanted to tell something of Ben-Gurion’s "private persona," which she feels has been given short shrift in other biographies. In this, it cannot be said that Shapira is successful. As she admits, "Ben-Gurion tended not to display his feelings, and tracing his inner self is difficult." Surprisingly she does not make use of insights of those who knew him well, as for example Golda Meir’s observation that Ben-Gurion did not like the company of others, a surprising trait in a politician.

But Ben-Gurion is in any case more interesting as a politician, and Shapira reveals him as a man of rigid determination and tenacity, a strong and dominating personality.

Ben-Gurion, due to his short stature, is often said to have cast a long shadow. Shapira, too, can’t resist this cliché. What she doesn’t say is how long Ben-Gurion stood in the shadow of others—notably Vladimir "Ze’ev" Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann. Ben-Gurion cast a sorry figure next to these stars in the Zionist firmament, both of them cultured, charming, and charismatic. Even in 1940, Shapira notes, "His [Ben Gurion’s] prestige was far lower than Weizmann’s, both in the United States and elsewhere."

Ben-Gurion was born as David Green in 1886 in the backward Polish town of Plonsk, then part of the Russian Empire, and lived on a street called Goat Alley. His father called himself a lawyer but wasn’t. His mother, whom he loved deeply, died when he was 11. "Nothing in his origins, his birthplace, or his education hinted at future greatness," Shapira writes.

In one respect at least, Ben Gurion was born with a head-start. His was a family of Zionists and he learned Hebrew literally on his grandfather’s knee. The Zionism stuck and in 1905 he joined the new Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) party, which combined Zionism and socialism. In 1906, he immigrated to the Land of Israel. Only a month after landing, he attended a conference of the then still tiny Poalei Zion, where he was elected conference chairman.

Early on Ben-Gurion showed little of the political perspicacity with which he was later credited. He seized on the idea that the best avenue for Zionist aspirations was to win over the Ottoman Turks, a mission impossible, and sought to create a Jewish force to fight within the Turkish army in World War I. Even Shapira can’t defend this. "Turkish officials’ hostility toward the Jews should have shown Ben-Gurion that Zionism’s only hope was to get rid of the imperial government in Palestine," she writes.

The Turks dismissed Ben-Gurion’s overtures and exiled him from Palestine. He ended up in America where he married Paula Munwess, a blunt-speaking nurse with even fewer social graces than he. When, thanks to the efforts of Vladimir Jabotinsky, an all-Jewish Legion was formed as part of the British Army, Ben-Gurion joined up and shipped off to Palestine. In the Legion he met the aforementioned Berl Katznelson and together they agreed to unite the Zionist workers parties. It would take 11 years to complete the task.

In 1921 Ben-Gurion became secretary-general of the Histadrut, which he helped turn into a massive, all-encompassing labor federation. It had its hand in just about everything, and was rightly described as a state within a state. While it dominated Israel’s economy, it was not run by businessmen but by political elites. As its goal was full employment, poorly performing parts were propped up.

It was the near-death of Labor Zionist institutions that spurred Ben-Gurion onto the international stage. In 1927, the World Zionist Organization, hitting hard times, slashed the budget for Labor’s institutions, targeting in particular socialist icons like the kibbutzim. Ben-Gurion and Katznelson came up with an audacious solution: Take over the World Zionist Organization. Incredibly, they succeeded.

It was the 1933 elections to the 18th Zionist Congress that were critical to Labor hegemony. Ben-Gurion threw himself into the campaign in Eastern Europe, going from rostrum to rostrum in the quest for votes. With that victory, Ben-Gurion was squarely on the path to becoming Zionism’s preeminent leader.

It was in the 1940s that Ben-Gurion really came into his own. He was convinced a Jewish state was in the offing and that the Arab states would attack it. Shapira describes this as one of his "astonishing intuitions." It sounds more obvious than astonishing, so it is surprising to read that the Haganah, the Jewish defense force which Ben-Gurion controlled through the Jewish Agency, thought Ben-Gurion had "gone mad" when he talked about the need for "divisions, tanks, and aircrafts."

To build up the military of the soon-to-be-formed state, Ben-Gurion organized the "Sonneborn Foundation," named after industrialist Rudolf G. Sonneborn, in whose home the first meeting was held in 1945. The wealthy Jews who gathered there agreed to buy surplus U.S. military equipment and ship it to Palestine. Ben-Gurion said the Sonneborn Foundation was one of his three greatest achievements. The other two were moving to the Land of Israel and declaring statehood in 1948.

While Shapira’s book, unlike such embarrassingly fulsome biographies as that of Robert St. John, cannot be called hagiographic, it also treads gingerly when it comes to criticism. Although Ben-Gurion was deeply flawed, those flaws are not on display here. For example, Ben Gurion’s success in those key 1933 elections for the World Zionist Organization was tainted by his shameless exploitation of the murder of Labor leader Chaim Arlosoroff at the height of the campaign. Ben-Gurion pinned the death on his political opponents, the Jabotinsky-led Revisionists. Much has been written about this murder and it is clear that Arlosoroff was killed by Arabs. Labor’s margin of victory would have been much smaller absent these accusations, and might not have happened at all. Shapira chooses not to go into the matter.

Perhaps Ben-Gurion’s most controversial decision was to destroy the Altalena, an arms ship used by the underground Irgun during Israel’s War of Independence. Shapira frames the Irgun in this event as a dissident force that refused to cede to the new state’s authority. But the Irgun recognized the new state’s authority from the start, which is why it informed Ben-Gurion that the Altalena was coming. The Irgun’s goal was not to undermine the state but to bring much-needed arms to fight the Arabs, and save their besieged men in Jerusalem. Even Ben-Gurion, much later, admitted that he may have been wrong.

Shapira might also have addressed Ben-Gurion’s dubious economic legacy. She does say that Ben-Gurion "had always claimed that he did not understand economics." Israel’s economic development suffered for decades under the system established by his longtime minister of trade and industry Pinchas Sapir. As late as 1983 (many years after Ben-Gurion had left power) one economist noted that Israeli resources were allocated by "a complex political process based on negotiations, threats, favors, pressures, and concessions between the government on the one hand and competing elites from industry, labor, agriculture, etc. on the other." It was crony capitalism on a scale that current practitioners might envy.

Whatever his failings, Ben-Gurion is generally viewed by Israelis as their country’s George Washington. As such, they overlook his flaws. Shapira also overlooks them. In this, she is a typical Israeli.

Published under: Book reviews, Israel