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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A State at Any Cost

The Life of David Ben-Gurion

Tom Segev; Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



On a cold January day in 1940, David Ben-Gurion rode down to the Kalia Hotel by the Dead Sea, where, at the lowest land point on the globe, he devoted some thought to the way he would appear in the book that some future biographer would eventually write about him and his colleagues, founders of the State of Israel. He imagined a “young, intelligent, and good biographer.” Obviously, that biographer would discern the founders’ “weaknesses, flaws, and shortcomings”: none of them had been “ministering angels and seraphs and cherubs,” Ben-Gurion wrote. But would he be able also to respect them and grasp the historic significance of their achievements? Would he perhaps even realize how much he’d missed by coming to know them only after their deaths?1 Ben-Gurion was often preoccupied with death.

Like national leaders in other countries, Ben-Gurion worked diligently to shape the historical narrative of his time and of himself. When Israel was ten years old, he imagined an archaeologist excavating the country’s artifacts three thousand years hence. The archaeologist might uncover a chronicle of the War of Independence of 1948 and learn from it about Israel’s victory. But what if he instead found scraps of newspapers from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, telling of an Arab victory? Who would the archaeologist of the year 4958 believe, Ben-Gurion wondered?2

Ben-Gurion’s diaries, articles, books, letters, and speeches comprise millions of words; he spent many hours writing nearly every day. “Sometimes I’m amazed by how much I have written,” he once remarked.3 Much of what he wrote was aimed at gaining the sympathy of future generations. He also tried to influence what others would write. When Israel’s Ministry of Defense decided to publish an official history of the 1948 war, Ben-Gurion demanded that the book underline his efforts to obtain the arms that made victory possible. “Guns didn’t fall from heaven,” he told the author. Of another book, written and edited by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers who were no great admirers of his, he wrote: “The editors desecrated the War of Independence and thousands of the fallen.”4

An avid reader of biographies, he often tried to piece together the motives of their authors. “Plutarch apparently did not like Marius,” Ben-Gurion wrote regarding one of the books he took with him to Kalia, “and did not stint at humiliating and vilifying him, but for all that was unable to obscure his admirable manly character.”5 Gaius Marius was a Roman general and statesman who could have aroused Ben-Gurion’s interests because of the inner contradictions of his character, with its frequent and sudden upswings and downturns.

On a few occasions he cooperated with biographers who acclaimed him as the founder of Israel. But there were others as well. At the beginning of 1967, a controversy broke out over the entry devoted to him in the Hebrew Encyclopedia. The author was the work’s editor in chief, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a professor at the Hebrew University and an old adversary. “I think that [Ben-Gurion] is the biggest catastrophe that ever happened to the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” Leibowitz told the daily newspaper Ma’ariv; the entry he wrote took this view. Ben-Gurion put on a show of equanimity. “I don’t care what Professor Leibowitz wrote,” he responded, “but I care what I do, whether it’s good or bad.” But, in fact, he was furious. “Leibowitz is consumed by hatred,” he wrote to the encyclopedia’s publisher; he was Gaius Marius and Leibowitz Plutarch. He was quite naturally pleased when, a few years later, a sculptor told him about plans to erect a “Pantheon” in Haifa that would display busts of the great men of the nation: statesmen, writers, artists, military leaders, scientists, athletes, and others. “I told him that I liked the idea,” Ben-Gurion wrote. “But I’ll say no more than that.”6

According to Golda Meir: “It was our heartfelt prayer that this man enter history in all his splendor, and it is painful that that is not coming to pass. Sad for him and sad for us.”7 Biographers of Ben-Gurion find themselves confronted with a huge amount of archival material that can affect their evaluation of the man, for good and for bad. As a whole this material demonstrates Ben-Gurion’s forcefulness, merits, and achievements, but also his limitations, weaknesses, and failures.

“Ben-Gurion was a man who did not change,” said one of his acquaintances. From the start, he exhibited ideological devotion and awed those around him.8 The Zionist dream was the quintessence of his identity and the core of his personality, and its fulfillment his greatest desire. “The revival demands human sacrifices of us,” he wrote in Hebrew when he was eighteen years old. “And if we, the young people who suffer the pain of our nation’s ruin, are not swift to sacrifice ourselves, we are lost.”9 He believed that to the end of his life. He saw himself, and was seen by others, as an incarnation of history. His thinking was systematic and methodical, and even when he contradicted himself, the impression was that his pronouncements reflected extended, profound, consistent, unwavering, and considered judgment. He presumed to know what to do in almost every situation.

He very much wanted to be a leader and aspired to everything that leadership offers: the realization of a dream that was for him self-fulfillment, responsibility, power, and a place in history. He frequently evoked the Bible and Jewish destiny, but realized that achieving the dream of a Jewish state required exhausting labor and tiny, often exasperating steps forward. Many shared his vision, but few of his colleagues were as addicted to politics as he was, and from such a young age. Few of them were as diligent as he, or as able to grasp details. These characteristics made him an indispensable leader, although not an omnipotent one.

The drama of his life included threatening Jewish capitalists in his Polish hometown with a pistol, spending hours in the basement of a bookstore in Oxford, herding sheep in the desert, imbibing the scent of power in the White House, and waiting for Lenin to appear in Moscow’s Red Square. He engaged in politics, made fateful decisions, sent people into war, stood over the bodies of fallen paratroopers, was captivated by the magic of Niagara Falls, and sought peace under the oldest oak tree in Palestine. He wrote fine accounts of all these episodes, often revealing a poetic emotionalism that few associate with him.

But of all the thousands of images that record his life, none captures its essence and gives better expression to his personality than that filmed on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv on the afternoon of Friday, May 14, 1948. It shows a short man with a mane of white hair bounding out of an official-looking black Lincoln. His wife, Paula, who had gotten out of the car before him, precedes him toward the stairs leading up to the municipal art museum. A crowd surrounds the building. Ben-Gurion wears a dark suit and a tie held in place with a silver pin. In his left hand he bears a homburg and a thin briefcase is under his arm. He looks more like a seasoned attorney than a daring revolutionary. Upon exiting the car he slams its door shut. An anonymous young man in the uniform of a country that does not yet exist stands by the car, but seems to have trouble deciding what he ought to do. Ben-Gurion halts in front of the young man and suddenly arches his back and shoots his right hand to his forehead in an energetic and stately salute. For a second he seems to identify the confused boy with the heroes of Jewish history.

Sixty-two years old at the time, he looks older, and a bit roly-poly. A few minutes later, he would proclaim the establishment of the State of Israel and oversee the signing of its Declaration of Independence. He was soon to become the new country’s first prime minister and to lead it through the challenges of its initial period, for close to fifteen years. He runs up the stairs as if to make sure that the historic moment would not slip away from him.

* * *

The week before the declaration of the state had been a busy one. He’d worked hard, worried much, and slept little. He’d spent most of his time in the company of army commanders. Some of them were dissatisfied and even voiced political rebellion. The ongoing war for Palestine had begun half a year previously and taken a heavy toll. Jerusalem had long been under siege, with its approaches blocked; several Jewish settlements had been compelled to surrender to Arab forces. Some military operations had failed; there were already fifteen hundred Jewish dead, most of them soldiers.10 Ben-Gurion jotted down a long list of questions that awaited his decision, among which was “Should Arabs be expelled?”11

By this time, tens of thousands of Arabs from all over the country had become homeless. Many Arab houses in a number of cities, among them Haifa and Jaffa, stood empty. It was the first stage of the Nakba. Ben-Gurion had never been closer to achieving his life’s goal—a Jewish majority in an independent state in Palestine.

The previous night he had worked on the final version of the Declaration of Independence. There had been several drafts. Moshe Sharett (then still Shertok), Israel’s foreign minister–designate, had collated them into a single version. “I composed a perfect draft,” Sharett later related. “I cast the Declaration in the form ‘whereas this and whereas that and whereas the other thing,’ and then came the conclusion: therefore!” He thought that such a structure created “inner suspense.” But Ben-Gurion didn’t want a rental contract—he wanted an impressive and powerful historical declaration that would ring for generations to come. He took it home and pretty much completely rewrote it. Sharett never forgave him.12

Ben-Gurion’s version put an emphasis on the Zionist narrative of Jewish history. The first two sentences diminished the contribution of Diaspora Jewry: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.” Sharett’s version had begun with the Jewish exile; Ben-Gurion’s rewrite stressed the independence that had preceded the destruction. He underlined the identity of the Jews who had settled in Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century, himself among them: “pioneers and ma’apilim [immigrants who entered Palestine in defiance of restrictive British legislation].” This closely tied the Zionist enterprise to the labor movement. Sharett had cited the United Nations resolution on Palestine of November 29, 1947, which called for the creation of Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. Ben-Gurion suppressed the fact that the resolution stipulated a partition of Palestine between the two peoples. The Declaration promised equal rights for all and a constitution. The new country was to be a “Jewish state,” but no one really knew what that meant, Ben-Gurion included.

The ceremony was organized hastily, so that it could end before the Sabbath began. The whole thing was almost canceled at the last minute because of a disagreement over whether God should be mentioned in the text. The representatives of the religious parties insisted on it; several members of the left opposed it. Ben-Gurion persuaded everyone to agree to the words “Rock of Israel.” The calligraphy could not be done in time for the ceremony, so the signatories inscribed their names on the bottom of a blank piece of parchment.13 Ben-Gurion viewed the declaration as a step toward a time two thousand years in the past, reestablishing Hebrew independence. He had good reason for optimism in signing the document, but in his diary he wrote that he felt like a mourner among celebrants—the state had not yet been assured. “States are not served to peoples on golden platters,” he said, using a Talmudic expression. Ben-Gurion could also put it in simpler words: “The State of Israel will be no picnic.”14 His pessimism was a defense against illusion. “I have discerned the worst case that can happen,” he once said. “I have done that all these years. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine, but you need to be prepared for the worst. A human being is not a rational creature; you don’t know what forces are impelling him, what might arise at certain moments.”15 He expected the armies of the surrounding Arab countries to invade Israel in order to destroy it. He believed that the Israelis could win; he also believed in his ability to lead them to victory. And he believed that the cost would be worth it. He termed the establishment of the state “recompense for the slaughter of the millions” in the Holocaust.16

After the ceremony, he returned to the Red House, as military headquarters were called, not far from the beach. He was handed disturbing bulletins from several fronts. During the night he was woken twice, once to be told that President Harry Truman had recognized the state and once to be taken to a radio studio so that he could broadcast a speech to the United States. Egyptian planes appeared in Tel Aviv’s skies during the broadcast and explosions could be heard. “At this moment they are bombing Tel Aviv,” Ben-Gurion told America. When he went home, he wrote this in his diary: “People in pajamas and nightgowns peered out of every house, but there was no evidence of disproportional fear.” He recalled his time in London during the Blitz, and seems to have expected that Tel Aviv would also live through its finest hour. Cognizant of the power of words to make history, he sought twenty years later to correct the impression that Tel Aviv’s inhabitants were not sufficiently brave by inserting into the original diary entry the words “I felt: they will endure.”17

He did not take credit for founding the state, justifiably so. Israel came into existence at the end of a process that had begun thirty years previously, when the British resolved to assist the Zionist movement in establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine. Ben-Gurion led this process for a generation, in particular during the decade preceding independence. He had been in politics for forty years, beginning at almost the moment that he arrived in Palestine. He was involved in nearly every aspect of its Jewish community’s life. His first political article, published when he was twenty-four years old, placed him in the ranks of the struggle. From that point he strove to achieve and maintain a position of national leadership. Those who were his seniors, first and foremost Berl Katznelson, in addition to several possible rivals, died one after the other. The death of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, his great nemesis on the right, and the decline of Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization, whose mantle as the senior Jewish statesman Ben-Gurion sought to inherit, left him almost unopposed in the worldwide Zionist movement as well.

He generally respected the basic rules of Israeli politics and tended to position himself in the center of the spectrum. His willingness to pay nearly any price to realize the Zionist vision was on occasion coupled with tactical concessions and pragmatic compromises. He was frequently criticized by colleagues, both those in the opposition and in the governing coalition; sometimes his demands were ignored and his proposals rejected. But, in general, they accepted his leadership. His party saw him as a political and national asset; sometimes his colleagues acted like schoolchildren bad-mouthing a teacher behind his back: “I speak against, but vote in favor, because I trust Ben-Gurion and don’t want to take responsibility,” one of his Cabinet ministers once said.18

Ben-Gurion made many public appearances, answered letters he received, and made himself available to many of those who sought him out, eccentrics and gadflies among them.19 He generally wrote his speeches in advance, but was adept at delivering them in a way that made it look as if he were speaking extemporaneously. Many of his speeches went on for hours; his sentences were long and complex, more fitting for the eye than the ear. His shrill voice and small stature were detrimental to the impression he made. But the whiter his mane, the more Ben-Gurion became a symbol of proper and achievable Zionism.

“When I approach a concrete question—what to do today, tomorrow, I turn into a computing machine,” he once said; at another opportunity he explained: “I approach all Zionist matters scientifically. I always ask in a rational way what can be done.”20 He likened himself to an engineer preparing to build a house. The motivation for building is “aesthetic, religious, and transcendental,” he said, but when it is time to build, “you have to weigh and measure … The same is true with statecraft.”21 In practice, he was often swept up by powerful emotions that steered his actions and dictated his decisions. At times he astounded others with self-righteous eruptions and impulsive obstinacy.22 Such outbursts could be spurred by mental distress that might cause him to lose control of himself. At other times he planned such outbursts in advance. He often took attempts to challenge his leadership as not just a personal insult but an attack on the national interest. In Ben-Gurion, Zionism and ego blended into a single entity. It was not easy to live in the country he led; Israelis were expected to place the needs of the collective before their individual expectations and desires. Every citizen was a soldier in the service of history, and Ben-Gurion was history’s commander.

* * *

Those who knew him, including his wife, Paula, generally agreed that “he doesn’t understand people”; this may have been a tactful way of referring to his self-important egocentrism and his habit of irritably insulting and humiliating others. At times he was a vindictive, deceptive quibbler; on occasion he lied. He had no sense of humor. He was a bad loser and only rarely apologized. One acquaintance said that Ben-Gurion had no real interest in people themselves, only in how he could use them.23

His writings give the impression that he had little interest in the frivolous pursuits of everyday life, but, as often happens, that was not actually the case. Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, who also numbered among Israel’s founders, left to posterity a heavily shrouded secret that she kept to herself for many years. It was unearthed only after her death by researchers at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute. Yanait was also staying at the Kalia Hotel that day in 1940, and she saw Ben-Gurion in the company of a young woman. Yanait knew him well; he frequently fell in love, she remarked.24 It often seemed that he was more in love with love itself than with any specific woman.

Likewise, he was in love with his dream and feared parting from it. “The messianic era is more important than the Messiah,” he said. “The minute the Messiah arrives he will cease to be the Messiah. When you can find the Messiah’s address in the phone book, he’s no longer the Messiah.” At times Ben-Gurion seemed to want his dream to come true and to fear that it would with almost the same intensity. He wanted to achieve Zionism’s goal and feared waking up into the routine life of the future.25 He shared this rumination on the Messiah with a group of writers he summoned for a meeting. He had a tendency to think that his personal dream was one of the great existential questions faced by mankind.

One day, in September 1948, he took a break from directing the war to make a defense of Plato. It came in response to an article by Yechiel Halperin, a writer and journalist for the daily newspaper Davar. Halperin had claimed that Plato “saw nothing unjust in perpetuating slavery.” In a letter, Ben-Gurion corrected him: Plato makes no mention of slavery in his Republic. “Yes, Plato was an aristocrat,” he wrote, “and his political views were aristocratic, but his intention was an aristocracy in the simple and correct sense of the word, that is the rule of the superior and the good, or as he himself put it, the rule of philosophers, meaning people of absolute truth and absolute justice, who derive no benefit and no advantage from government, who do not even have a desire to govern, but must do so as a human duty.”

Three weeks later, with the war’s final battles still to be fought, he sent Halperin another letter, this one regarding Plato’s Laws. He had always wanted to believe that this dialogue was a forgery, and was sorry when he learned that it was indeed by Plato. In contrast with the humanist spirit that infused the Republic, he felt, the Plato of the Laws viewed life almost like an inquisitor. He tried to explain to himself how that might have happened. “The two books were written at different stages of life,” he wrote. “The Republic was written when Plato was about fifty years old, at the height of his literary and intellectual powers, and it is his best book, philosophically and artistically. The Laws was written in old age, when Plato was already eighty years old and his heart grown hard, his soul ruthless, and his mind angry.” The same thing would happen to Ben-Gurion himself. In his eagerness to defend Plato he added, however: “I am not sure that slavery was the most abominable injustice of those times—it seems to me that wars were worse than slavery (and were also a cause of it), and this injustice remains today.” That was also Plato’s view, he added; he should be appreciated.26 Ben-Gurion was incorrect—slavery is indeed mentioned in the Republic. But Plato’s dialogue served him as a guidebook for state building. He placed a bust of Plato in his study, alongside busts of the Buddha and Moses.27

He sponsored a Bible study class in his home and promoted two concepts to characterize the State of Israel’s moral character and its destiny and duty to itself and the world: the first was “chosen people,” a term coming from the covenant between God and the people of Israel (Exodus 19:5–6); the second was the Jewish people’s commitment to the principles of justice and peace that make it a “light to the nations,” in the spirit of the prophets (Isaiah 49:6). He frequently spoke and wrote about these concepts. He largely saw them in terms of a title he chose for one of his articles on the subject: “Noblesse Oblige.”28 Behaving in a manner that would make Israel a “light to the nations” reflected the country’s vulnerability and dependency on its supporters around the world. But he also made statements to the contrary. “What the gentiles say is less important than what the Jews do,” he declared.29 In practice, he generally gave considerable weight to the regard of other nations. Like most of his countrymen, he was a man of contradictions. He liked to characterize the Israelis with a quote from the Babylonian Talmud: “This nation is likened to dust and likened to the stars. When they decline, they decline to the dust, and when they rise, they rise to the stars.”30 It was a psychic structure that he largely shared, as he was very much aware. “If you were to peruse my diary using the methods of critical biblical scholarship…,” he wrote to Sharett, “you could prove that this diary was actually written by two different people living in two different periods.” He had a capacity for sensitive and courageous self-examination and a willingness to undertake it; this, too, is part of what makes him so fascinating a figure.31

* * *

Many people assisted me in the writing of this book; their names appear in the acknowledgments. It took more than five years to write, and during that time hardly a week went by when Ben-Gurion was not mentioned at least once in the Israeli media. On top of that, four other biographies of him appeared in Israel, along with a shelf of other books in which he is at the center.32 A documentary film based on a previously unknown interview with Ben-Gurion drew large audiences. That is testimony to how much Israelis long for leadership with integrity—as well as the power and drama of Ben-Gurion’s life, and the widespread urge to understand this enigmatic man.

Copyright © 2019 by Tom Segev

Translation copyright © 2019 by Haim Watzman