Ben-Guri­on: Father of Mod­ern Israel

Ani­ta Shapi­ra; Antho­ny Berris, trans.
  • Review
By – March 12, 2015

In this brief but sat­is­fy­ing biog­ra­phy of David Ben-Guri­on, Ani­ta Shapi­ra, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty and win­ner of the Israel Prize, focus­es on Ben-Gurion’s unswerv­ing deter­mi­na­tion to found a Jew­ish state. In the forty-two years from his arrival in Pales­tine in 1906 to the estab­lish­ment of the State of Israel in 1948, Ben-Guri­on had one mis­sion and, in face of near­ly insur­mount­able obsta­cles, achieved it.

Shapi­ra charts Ben-Gurion’s path through the var­i­ous polit­i­cal and social move­ments in the prestate years, one of the many Zion­ist activists vying for posi­tion. What dis­tin­guished Ben-Guri­on was his unre­lent­ing effort to move toward his goal. Even as the pos­si­bil­i­ty reced­ed dur­ing the inter­war years, with Britain pur­su­ing its inter­ests in the Mid­dle East at the cost of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, Ben-Guri­on clung to hope, and it was in Britain at the out­break of World War II that he drew inspi­ra­tion from Win­ston Churchill’s lead­er­ship and ral­ly­ing of British pub­lic opin­ion. I am amazed by the lev­el-head­ed­ness and inner con­fi­dence of this won­der­ful nation. Noth­ing shakes its belief and con­fi­dence in ulti­mate vic­to­ry,” he wrote to his wife, Paula, in May 1940, adding, a few months lat­er, I would like the Yishuv and the Jew­ish peo­ple to learn this les­son from Britain.”

On a brief trip to the Unit­ed States at the end of 1940 to ral­ly Amer­i­can Zion­ists, an effort that yield­ed no imme­di­ate results, Ben-Guri­on for­mu­lat­ed his post­war vision — a Jew­ish state that would offer refuge to the mil­lions of Jews flee­ing Europe; cru­cial to this goal was Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion. One of Ben-Gurion’s vital insights was that the Unit­ed States would emerge as the major world pow­er at the end of the war, a posi­tion that put him in con­flict with Chaim Weiz­mann, the high­ly respect­ed and acknowl­edged leader of world Zion­ism. Shapi­ra notes that dur­ing the peri­od from 1942 through 1953 it was Ben-Gurion’s pre­science and uncan­ny abil­i­ty to make the right deci­sions at the right times that deter­mined mod­ern Israeli his­to­ry. Ben-Guri­on fore­saw the pow­er of Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion and finan­cial sup­port, he deter­mined that the Jew­ish state would be the home of the Holo­caust sur­vivors strug­gling in dis­placed per­son camps, he made mil­i­tary prepa­ra­tions for the war with the Arab states that he knew was inevitable and cre­at­ed an army to fight it, he worked on the for­ma­tion of a civ­il state, and he steered the state firm­ly — if some­what auto­crat­i­cal­ly — through its for­ma­tive years. He grap­pled with the waves of immi­gra­tion, forg­ing a nation­al iden­ti­ty and cre­at­ing a viable state.

Like Churchill, Ben-Guri­on lived beyond the years of his great­est accom­plish­ments, and they did not bring the chal­lenges he had so bril­liant­ly met. Shapi­ra presents a bal­anced pic­ture of his lat­er years after his unex­pect­ed retire­ment in 1953 and his return as prime min­is­ter in 1955 until 1963, a crit­i­cal peri­od that estab­lished Israel’s pres­ence in the Mid­dle East but end­ed in bit­ter con­tro­ver­sy. The last decade of his life in Sdeh Bok­er was a lone­ly one, marked by the death of his wife and polit­i­cal acrimony.

Shapi­ra suc­cess­ful­ly brings Ben-Guri­on to the fore dur­ing the com­plex and con­flict­ed prestate and ear­ly state­hood years, avoid­ing some of the details of inter­nal polit­i­cal skir­mish­es that could have bogged down her nar­ra­tive. Some notable events — the bomb­ing of the King David Hotel, the shelling of the Altal­e­na, the ter­ror­ist attacks on British forces — are giv­en lit­tle men­tion, and some of Ben-Gurion’s short­com­ings — his treat­ment of Israeli Arabs, his weak per­son­al rela­tions — are not broad­ly dis­cussed. Shapi­ra hoped to show the per­son­al side of this pri­vate and dri­ven man —self-edu­cat­ed, tem­pera­men­tal, a vora­cious read­er who amassed a library of 18,000 books, dis­tant but often moved by emo­tions he did not express, hard on his oppo­nents and dif­fi­cult even with his few friends — and draw­ing on her own research and on Ben-Gurion’s files and let­ters, which she quotes to good effect, she gives read­ers an informed and well-paced pic­ture of the man who changed Jew­ish history.

Relat­ed content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions