Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel

Yale University Press (Jewish Lives)  2014


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.

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