A State at Any Cost

By – December 16, 2019

Craft­ing a biog­ra­phy of David Ben-Guri­on, uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­nized as the founder and archi­tect of Israel, would be a daunt­ing task for any writer. Tom Segev, a lead­ing Israeli his­to­ri­an and jour­nal­ist, address­es this chal­lenge head-on in his intro­duc­tion to A State at Any Cost. Ben-Gurion’s writ­ing alone con­tains mil­lions of words. Segev rec­og­nizes that these sources pro­vide only a por­tion of what is need­ed to ade­quate­ly and accu­rate­ly por­tray the essence of this larg­er-than-life father of the Jew­ish state. In tack­ling this chal­lenge, the author brings togeth­er an extra­or­di­nary num­ber of both auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and bio­graph­i­cal mate­ri­als to pro­duce a beau­ti­ful por­trait of a chal­lenged and chal­leng­ing leader, whose Zion­ist dream was achieved through a dis­parate mix of a bold vision and a tire­less march through the intri­ca­cies of statecraft.

The author’s analy­sis of Ben-Guri­on deeply probes the com­plex­i­ty of his char­ac­ter and the depth of his intu­ition about Zionism’s future. Ben-Guri­on was in the Unit­ed States for the greater part of World War I. It was there, shares Segev, that Ben-Gurion’s youth came to an end; he mar­ried and acquired self-con­fi­dence. In the process, he came to under­stand the huge pow­er of the cap­i­tal­ist Unit­ed States, the advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of its con­sti­tu­tion and gov­ern­men­tal struc­ture, and the good and bad aspects of the Amer­i­can melt­ing pot.” While Ben-Guri­on would be deeply dis­ap­point­ed by the half-heart­ed Zion­ism he would find in Amer­i­can Jew­ry, notes Segev, it was through his expe­ri­ences in the Unit­ed States that Ben-Guri­on would rec­og­nize that Zionism’s future lay in the strength and wealth of Amer­i­can Jewry.

Fol­low­ing the estab­lish­ment of the state, Ben-Gurion’s lead­er­ship tran­si­tioned smooth­ly from head of the Jew­ish Agency for Israel to prime min­is­ter as he con­tin­ued to car­ry an almost unbear­able load.” In out­lin­ing Ben-Gurion’s sched­ule for just one day, Segev shares how the prime min­is­ter would shift between nego­ti­a­tions for the pur­chase of tanks, a review of the grow­ing Nazi threat in Argenti­na, aspects of the ongo­ing bor­der dis­putes with Jor­dan, the deci­sion to bring the Jews of Yemen to Israel, and the request of Roni Baron, a preschool­er who wrote about the chal­lenges of get­ting to school. The prime min­is­ter wrote back to the preschool­er and explained why he could not con­done her trav­el­ing to school in her uncle’s army vehi­cle. In these vignettes, Segev brings Ben-Gurion’s char­ac­ter to life and makes his efforts on behalf of Israel and the Jew­ish peo­ple deeply per­son­al and poignant.

Segev’s biog­ra­phy takes its read­er from Ben-Gurion’s teenage years in Plon­sk, Poland, through his death short­ly after the Yom Kip­pur War. It shares in vivid detail his pro­found dis­ap­point­ments and unques­tion­able tri­umphs. It pro­vides a can­did, often unflat­ter­ing, look into Ben-Gurion’s lim­i­ta­tions and laps­es in judge­ment, both per­son­al and polit­i­cal, includ­ing his affair with a much younger Rega Klapholtz. A State at Any Cost is an engag­ing, enter­tain­ing, and at times a sur­pris­ing por­trait. While it shares an unvar­nished sto­ry, Segev’s book also radi­ates a deep appre­ci­a­tion for one of Israel’s most rec­og­niz­able and beloved father figures.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions

Since his death in 1973 there have been count­less biogra­phies and his­tor­i­cal insights writ­ten about the sem­i­nal his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of David Ben-Guri­on. Yet, in A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Guri­on, Tom Segev (as trans­lat­ed from Hebrew by Haim Watz­man) makes a sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion to the under­stand­ing of this inspir­ing, and deeply com­plex, man and the total­i­ty of his life and its his­tor­i­cal impact. Metic­u­lous­ly researched and expert­ly framed, A State at Any Cost takes the read­er beyond the sur­face of Ben-Gurion’s life, and explores the motives, the rela­tion­ships, and the con­se­quences that shaped the man, and that ulti­mate helped shape the mod­ern state he found­ed. While it isn’t easy to look at a life as con­se­quen­tial as Ben-Gurion’s with­out mak­ing crit­i­cal judg­ments, Segev’s approach deliv­ers a deep look at a life in con­text, but with­out cri­tique, allow­ing the read­er to look at Ben-Gurion’s life as a prism through which one can under­stand the com­plex times in which he lived and led.