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.