In her valuable new biography, Shapira (Emerita, Humanities/Tel Aviv Univ.; Israel: A History, 2012) provides a concise appraisal of a founding father of the nation that was once only the dream of generations.
More than anyone, it was David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) who forged the state of Israel into a homeland and an independent democracy in an inhospitable Middle East. However, Israel’s first prime minister and first minister of defense wasn’t an easy man to deal with. Born in Poland, he arrived in Palestine at age 20 imbued with Zionistic zeal and ready to assume an agricultural life, but the study of law seemed more suited to his vision of a Jewish homeland. So, supported by his father and without knowledge of Arabic or Turkish, he went to Istanbul to learn Ottoman law. He also traveled to London and New York. Returning to Palestine, he became leader of Mapai, the workers’ party, and spokesman for the Yishuv, the community of Jews during the British Mandate. Shapira reports the workings of his convoluted dealings with the formidable leaders of the nascent state during the Yishuv—these convoluted goings-on may confound readers not well-versed in the subject. After World War II and the Shoah, Ben-Gurion managed the influx of survivors fighting against British forces for admission to the Holy Land. When the U.N. voted for partition, Ben-Gurion was quick to announce the declaration of statehood and the birth of the new nation. Father of Israel’s Defense Forces, he knew there would be a war for survival with every surrounding Arab nation. In the end, he achieved his abiding goals: a return to the land, a social framework and Hebrew as the language of Israel. The old lion’s powers eventually faded. He lived out his life, among his books, in a kibbutz in the Negev desert.
A brief but full-color biography of an essential leader.