By Anita Shapira
Yale University Press, £18.99
‘The man possesses the genius of looking at life face to face, of thinking not in concepts but in the fundamental facts of reality”. So wrote Ben-Gurion about Lenin, whom he further described as “a man of iron will who will spare neither human life nor the blood of innocent babes for the sake of the revolution”.
Lenin rather than Ber Borokhov, the ideologist of socialist Zionism, was the seminal figure with whom Ben-Gurion identified.
In the early 1930s, his friend and mentor, Berl Katznelson resigned from the Mapai central committee over a violent attack on a Betar parade in Tel Aviv – but not Ben-Gurion.
Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s leading historians, captures well the character of Israel’s founding father. He exuded little charisma and attracted droves of critics, but would Israel have won its war of independence without him? His relationship with Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, was cool – and, in the shadow of the Shoah, believed that Weizmann’s gradualism and belief in Britain had had its day.
During the Second World War, Ben-Gurion identified with Churchill -– “a courageous, cautious, far-seeing, enterprising leader”. He admired Britain in 1940 but instructed the Haganah to carry out sabotage operations against the British five years later. Watching the celebrations from his London hotel on VE Day, he quoted the prophet Hosea: “Rejoice not, O Israel, unto exultation”. The Nazi decimation of European Jewry reflected reality for Ben-Gurion.
While Professor Shapira skates over Ben-Gurion’s ambiguous statements regarding the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs and describes his successor, Moshe Sharrett as “weak”, the best part of this work is in its reclaiming the halcyon days of the new state in the 1950s. How to implement the impossible task of welding together Jews from a hundred different countries and cultures? Despite the centuries-old yearning to return, Ben-Gurion also realised that the Jews were ill-prepared for statehood.
He demanded that his colleagues hebraise their names – only Teddy Kollek refused. An admirer of the Hebrew writer, Micha Berdyczewski, Ben-Gurion nonetheless opposed both the closing down of a Yiddish theatre at the behest of his education minister and a motion from Menachem Begin’s party that Arabs be prevented from speaking Arabic.
Ben-Gurion was a self-educated man – someone who compulsively bought books. He initiated the translation into Hebrew of Plato, Spinoza, Darwin, Confucius and Kant, and preferred to talk to Isaiah Berlin in Oxford than to dignitaries in London. He predicted that China and India would emerge as great powers but also believed that a future cure for racism would be an injection to change the colour of a person’s skin – white into black and vice-versa.
This is an interesting addition to Yale’s Jewish Lives series – and Shapira rightly characterises the enigmatic Ben-Gurion as both a revolutionary Jacobin and “the helmsman of the state”.
Jewish Chronicle 15 January 2015