A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion
by Tom Segev
Published by Head of Zeus 2019, pp.804
This is a long but inspiring account of the life and times of David Ben- Gurion. It is a “Jewish journey” like no other. Its dramatis personae cross the stage of Jew- ish history during the tragedies of the 20th century — in 1946, Ben-Gurion met Ho Chi Minh, who suggested that Ben-Gurion form a government-in-exile on Vietnamese territory.
Tom Segev’s panoramic account periodically refers to several boyhood friends from Plonsk at the turn of the century who formed a Zionist youth group — Ezra. One became a dentist in New York, another a successful Hebrew novelist in Israel and yet another, a founding father of the Hebrew republic. Significantly, it was to these friends that Ben-Gurion returned in his last years when he was lonely, mourning a wife, politically marginalised and losing his memory.
Most political episodes in Ben-Gurion’s life have been expanded in a pleth- ora of books and it is the details of the inner person that provide the main interest in this popular biography.
Born David Yosef Gruen, Ben-Gurion probably took his name from Yosef Ben-Gurion, a first-century leader, murdered by zealots for his plain speaking. Gruen was also an admirer of the poet- ry of Micha Berdichevsky, who wrote under the pseudonym of Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Gurion was tough, a loner, often ruthless, certainly erratic and self-cen-tred, but obsessively directed towards securing “a state at any cost”. He made sure that the historic moment to declare a state in May 1948 did not slip away.
Segev recalls Ben-Gurion’s hatred of Menachem Begin’s Irgun, in particular its killing of the two British sergeants. And he cites Ben-Gurion’s own lack of remorse over “Jews shooting Jews” during the Altalena affair. When the British hanged the Irgun fighter, Dov Gruner, Ben-Gurion admired his idealism, but blamed those who had sent him — they were “enemies of the Jewish people”.
He was as ruthless in dealing with his left-wing adversaries in disbanding the Palmach. He made a point of not taking any direct responsibility for the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs from Ramle and Lod while inferring that it was necessary. Yet he was appalled at the mass looting by Jews in 1948 — “an outbreak of the Jewish community’s most primitive instincts”. He was often ill — as a result of his great responsibilities, not least in sending young men to death in battle.
Ben-Gurion was a self-educated man who tried to learn from history how to manipulate the present. This meant reading and collecting books – on which hespentmostofhismoney.Inlaterlife, his purchases got so out of hand that Marcus Sieff, of Marks and Spencer, took care of this literary bill until the Israeli government paid the tab.
Ben-Gurion had a 40-year-long affair with Rivka Katznelson — and there were other women in his life. His long-suffering wife, Paula, took care of domestic needs but early in their relationship wrote to her often absent husband: “Your letters come more seldom… have you found new attractions?”
Tom Segev’s majestic biography will become mandatory reading for those who seriously wish to learn about the rise of Israel.
Jewish Chronicle 25 October 2019