The eminent Israeli journalist and historian chronicles the life of a driven leader who galvanized others to the exhausting, relentless pursuit of a state of Israel.
Born in Poland, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was, from an early age, laser-focused on the creation of a Jewish state, and he was often perceived as heartless, especially—tellingly—by those closest to him. Segev (Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends, 2010, etc.) attributes this quality to the loss of his mother after another childbirth when he was 11, a trauma that colored all relationships Ben-Gurion had henceforth, especially those with women. Yet he also had an educated father who conducted legal business with Christians and established an early Zionist society in his Polish village which clearly influenced his son. The author clearly captures the relentless, rather oblivious quality of Ben-Gurion’s personality as well as his quixotic side. He left for Warsaw as a teen, before his close group of boyhood friends did, and while he was confident he would gain entrance to a technological school—in order to learn skills to aid the new Jewish state—he lacked the essential ambition to complete the work. Instead, he immersed himself in the socialist labor alternative to Zionism, the Bund, and honed his leadership skills. As a leader, he traveled to America and the European capitals, drumming up support for the Zionist cause. The rise of Hitler and Nazi aggression changed everything, and Ben-Gurion regarded the tragedy not in terms of numbers of Jews murdered but rather as a setback for gaining settlers for the state. The 1948 declaration of the Jewish state signaled a celebration for everyone except Ben-Gurion, who knew it meant war and the sacrifice of Jewish lives. Essentially, he sanctioned the policy of forcible removal of Arab villagers during the war of independence; afterward, he noted, “an Arab is first and foremost an Arab.” For him, there was no compromise, and the fortress mentality still festers to this day.
A fair portrait of a difficult, hard-nosed character who, like him or not, had enormous impact on 20th-century events.