The Prime Ministers: A Man – Neither Hercules nor Perfect

The industrious life of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father, reads like a polyphonic novel whose depths are never exhausted.

A person’s life is a puzzle; a good biography an attempt to solve it. Like the moon, there is a bright side to every life, there for all to see; but also a dark side, crawling with secrets, hidden even from the person, beyond their self-awareness. The hidden forces of this dark side often drive a person’s conduct, and thus a biographer’s job must go beyond simply recounting the protagonist’s deeds and misdeeds. A biography should be a deeper venture, a more rigorous attempt to discover the dark side of the protagonist’s story, in order to shed light on the connections between the concealed and revealed aspects of the life in question.

Every great piece of art is infinite. When the last notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony fade out, the deeply moved listener is drawn back to its opening movement—and unwittingly finds oneself listening once again to the whole piece, from beginning to end. When the wave of sound dies away once again, the listener is left with an unanswerable question: What was the nature of this tempestuous sea that lured you into its depths and spun you around, hurling you atop its mighty waves—only to wash you ashore on the banks of reality, forsaken and bereft after that blizzard of impressions, imaginings, emotions, and thoughts that stormed through you? And only one desire throbs within you: to plunge back into the sea, to indulge, again and again, in the journey into its depths, until it washes you ashore once more—to regain your strength before the next dive.

I experienced something similar on reading the closing sentence of Tom Segev’s monumental biography, A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion, a quote from the man himself: “If we do not remain decent, we will not remain here.” This last sentence transported me back to Ben-Gurion’s first quoted statement in the book, recalling a formative experience from his youth: “We would swim and speak Hebrew.” And I found myself rereading, re-immersing myself in this infinite book, which casts a light into the darkest corners of Ben-Gurion’s character and life—a life defined by the constant tension between the elation of boldness and exhilaration, and the depths of desperation and anxiety—and ends with an ominous insight that seems tailor-made for our day and age: if we do not remain decent, we will not remain here.

This bold pronouncement was not uttered by a philosopher of morality, but by a seasoned and venerable statesman, a leader who time and again faced the possibility that any mistake on his part would spell catastrophe for the nation that had placed its fate in his hands. Whether or not Segev’s intention, his book gradually transforms from the biography of an individual to the biography of a nation in the making—a nation in such disarray that it is at a loss to define itself: is it Hebrew? Israeli? Jewish? And what do all these labels mean? Perhaps none of them truly capture the essence of the people who have emerged and developed across this stretch of land over the last 120 years.

A nation is defined by the language it speaks, its mother tongue. Italians are Italians because their mother tongue is Italian. So too the French, Poles, the English, Greeks, Russians, Hungarians, and Lithuanians. A nation is its language, and a language is its nation. That language expresses the richness of its spirit, the depths of its soul. The borders of a national territory often correspond with the area where the national language is spoken; conversely, a national territory is not necessarily a state. Sometimes it is a state in the making, sometimes a stateless state of being. In central Europe, there was a non-state whose proper name should have been “Yiddishland.” The inhabitants of Yiddishland spoke Yiddish. Yiddishland’s territory extended across Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia, Galicia, and Bukovina. A Yiddishlander from the Romanian city of Iași would have had no trouble communicating with a Yiddishlander from Kaunas in Lithuania, or from Białystok in Poland; both spoke Yiddish, the mother tongue of Yiddishland before it was destroyed. David Gruen, the child who would one day become David Ben-Gurion, was born and raised in Yiddishland. Segev takes every opportunity to note how, well into adulthood, Ben-Gurion would erupt in his mother tongue in moments of anger or excitement.

This is why Ben-Gurion’s memory—of youths from the Polish, Yiddishland city of Płońsk, swimming in the Płonka river and speaking not Yiddish or Polish, but davka Hebrew—carries such a profound meaning. This word, davka, deserves explanation: a Hebrew word appropriated from Aramaic and turned into a symbol of the Hebrew spirit, with no real parallel in any other language, it indicates contradiction or unexpectedness, often with a confrontational or disdainful attitude. Davka: the essence of the new Hebrew spirit; a Hebrew of youthful rebellion awakening from a long, holy slumber to emerge as the language of free thought and daily life; a Hebrew in search of a territory. If there is one word that holds the key to the puzzle that is Ben-Gurion’s animated and animating character, it is precisely this davka.

At fourteen, David Gruen founds a group called “Ezra.” Its purpose, writes Segev, “was to promote the use of Hebrew as a spoken, everyday language.” Young David, who had lost his mother at the age of eleven and grew up with a stepmother whom he called Mume, “aunt” in Yiddish, had adopted Hebrew as his mother tongue. As a consequence of this decision, he becomes the leader to the dozens of youth members of this Hebrew society.

The loss of a parent at a young age, and the painful void left in its wake, are formative experiences that can shape how an entire life unfolds. Was the urge to lead an attempt to compensate for the absence of a mother figure? Motherlessness recurs in the book as a pit that gapes open time and again in Ben-Gurion’s life. It is a cavity that consumes his relationships, even with longtime companions—including his wife Paula, who repeatedly recasts herself in the role of caring mother.

During his time in Sde Boker, when Paula goes off to Tel Aviv, the seventy-year-old Ben-Gurion does not express the torment of a man who misses the woman he loves, but rather something closer to the sadness that has descended upon the rooms of an orphanage: “After you left, it became very sad. I feel as if the house is empty; a thick cloud covers the sky.” The book cites Yitzhak Navon’s report that sometimes, on trips outside Sde Boker, ” he would put his head in her lap and nap, while she placed her hand on his head and stroked him fondly.” This is the very image of a mother and child. Segev adds that “sometimes, she talked to friends about how much he hurt her and broke out in tears.” What grievance could this be? “Was it that she fulfilled the role of a caring mother, but was denied the love of a grown man for a grown woman? The man of her life turns to her for motherly devotion – but goes elsewhere for womanly love.” Segev only mentions these affairs in passing, as nothing more than a footnote to Ben-Gurion’s life story. He resists the temptation of stooping to cheap gossip in one shade or another of grey.

If Ben-Gurion’s first leadership experience was to adopt Hebrew, and to elevate it to the status of mother tongue; was this an attempt to fill the void left by his mother, which nurtured his ambition to lead? Did his adoption of Hebrew as a mother tongue give birth to the adoption of Hebrew’s homeland? Herzl, utterly foreign to the Hebrew language, was willing to accept Uganda as an alternative to the land of the Hebrews, the adopted homeland of Abraham the Hebrew. When this news reaches young David Gruen, he protests against the father of political Zionism, who was prepared to relinquish the mother of Zionism, the homeland of the Hebrew language.

The twenty-five chapters of Segev’s book, depicting 191 events in Ben-Gurion’s industrious life, read like a fascinating, polyphonic novel. In his human dimensions, his weakness and fortitude, the protagonist walking through its pages recalls the archetypical characters of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, Dostoevsky’s Demons, or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Unlike linear works with a clear beginning, middle, and end, the nature of polyphonic books such as these is that their depths are never exhausted. One of the defining features of a complex work of art is that it is but part of a continuum, a snaking river with endless forks and intersections: even when it ends, nothing is said and done.

As in other polyphonic masterpieces, a number of leitmotifs can be identified in Segev’s biography of Ben-Gurion. They recur, in different guises, across the life journey that Segev reconstructs, highlighting ebbs and flows in the protagonist’s turbulent narrative. One of the most prominent leitmotifs is Ben-Gurion’s idealization of motherhood and motherly love, as the height of perfection, the absolute value of a person’s life. There is something about the deification of motherhood in Ben-Gurion’s inner world that brings to mind Anna Metterza, Leonardo Da Vinci’s depiction of motherly love through the female trinity. Mary, sitting on the lap of Saint Anne, extends a hand to the infant Jesus, gazing toward his mother whilst innocently playing with a sacrificial lamb, representing absolute innocence. The lamb, which carries on its back the sins of all humankind, is also facing the Virgin Mother and her mother, Saint Anne. The mother gives love, and receives it in return; she is the mother of forgiveness who absolves humankind of all its sins.

Assuming that the absence of a mother figure was the very essence of deprivation in Ben-Gurion’s psyche, his elevation of Hebrew to the role of a substitute mother explains something of his attitude towards the biblical canon, the fount and origin of the Hebrew language. Ben-Gurion sees the bible as a work of literature by Hebrew authors and editors—not a work of divine inspiration, given by God to His people. Segev cites Ben-Gurion’s comment that had the Bible indeed been God’s work, the first Hebrew book hardly would have served as a testament to the spiritual greatness of the people. It was not God, the primordial father, that Ben-Gurion missed; rather, it was a human mother. This may also explains Ben-Gurion’s fascination with Buddhism, a way of life rooted entirely in the sphere of human connections. Buddhism does not rely on a divine presence, nor does it recognize any such entity as the foundation of its principles. The same could be said of Ben-Gurion’s interest in Spinoza’s philosophy, which posits that substance is not the product of divine creation but an eternal given. According to Spinoza, immanence is not coded into substance by a transcendental programmer inhabiting a noumenal sphere; rather, it is the very sphere itself.

Hence Ben-Gurion’s pragmatic approach to the role of religion in the spiritual existence of a people, and to Israel’s religious political parties specifically. Rather than entangling himself in theological debate, Ben-Gurion reached pragmatic compromises, imposing a clear give-and-take in every case. The religious parties declare to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, that the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the various institutions of the Yishuv represent them; Ben-Gurion, in return, signs the infamous “status quo” agreement with representatives of the Ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel. In this agreement, he commits to maintaining the relation between religion and state as under the British Mandate—which itself had adopted the customs of the Ottoman Empire. But on the other hand, he rejects the demand to ban the importation of pork—an aficionado, himself, of pork delicacies—the establishment of a religious university, and the request to open parliamentary assemblies of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, with a prayer. He also refuses to ban private transportation on Shabbat, to establish separate units for religious soldiers, to discontinue autopsies, or to exempt religious soldiers from the oath of allegiance to the State. But at the same time, however, he agrees to prohibit retail transactions and public transportation on the Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, and grants the religious establishment full jurisdiction over the marital affairs of the future state’s Jewish citizens.

Alongside his pragmatic approach to the religious political establishment—whom he preferred to keep close as political allies, rather than confront as zealous rivals in the opposition—Ben-Gurion was uncompromising about his own personal spiritual life. Segev invokes Ben-Gurion’s self-description: someone who was meant to be a philosopher, ended up a statesman, but nevertheless remained a lifelong avid and obsessive reader. A more accurate description would be to say that when he was in need of rest, he found it in compulsive reading. When in the United Kingdom, he was capable of traveling from London to Blackwell’s, in Oxford, just to immerse himself in its floors of books. He would read both ancient and contemporary philosophy, delving into the works of Popper, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, alongside Plato in the original Greek. Similarly, he insisted on reading Cervantes in Spanish, with the help of Yitzahk Navon, his private secretary—who noted Ben-Gurion’s Yiddish intonation. It often seemed as if this unruly, ravenous appetite for books replenished his soul, left exhausted and depleted from the day-to-day demands of statesmanship.

The spiritual and mental exhaustion that pervaded Ben-Gurion’s life appears to have been rooted in his awareness that no omnipotent entity stood between the existence of the State of Israel and the ever-present threat of its destruction; only the sound decision-making of its prime minister. Ben-Gurion knew that any international or regional escalation could lead to Israel’s demise. He was keenly aware of the country’s small dimensions, and feared the development of nuclear weapons by any of Israel’s enemies could mean the obliteration of Tel Aviv in one swift blow—in essence, the destruction of Israel in its entirety. This steadfast man was not made of steel, nor of teflon. As Segev’s book unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Ben-Gurion’s oft-stated desire to retire his leadership role was not the result of mental weakness. Rather, it came from his deep sense of personal responsibility for the fate of the nation, whose survival depended on him making not even a single mistake.

Hence his constant dread of the erosion of human capital in the Israel of the 1950s and 60s. Time and again, he requested competency assessments of Israeli youth and newly drafted soldiers. This existential dread, of a decline in the skill and expertise of the population amidst the constant flow of immigration, had troubled Ben-Gurion already from the eve of Israel’s establishment. As the British Mandate, set to last thirty years, approached its expiry date of 1948, it became apparent that the United Nations General Assembly would be obliged to decide on the Partition Plan. It was equally apparent that Palestinian Arabs, with the support of the Arab League, would reject this plan.

Two men, David Horowitz and Abba Eban, are sent to a fateful meeting with Azzam Pasha, the secretary-general of the Arab League. The meeting takes place in London, through the mediation of the British Jewish journalist Jon Kimche. The representatives of the Yishuv tell Azzam Pasha that Jewish presence in the Middle East is a given. Sooner or later, the Arabs will have to come to terms with it. The Jews seek an agreement with the Arabs, and are willing to make sacrifices. They suggest a treaty between the future Jewish state and the Arab League. In order to assuage Arab concerns regarding Jewish expansion, the treaty would include guarantees on the Jews’ part, backed by the United Nations. They further suggest an agreement of economic cooperation between the two future states in the wake of the British mandate. Azzam Pasha flatly refuses. “The fate of nations is not dictated by reason or logic,” he says, adding:

Nations do not let the world off the hook. You will achieve nothing with talk of peace and compromise. If you will attain anything, it will be by brute force. We will try to eradicate you. We succeeded in expelling the crusaders, then again, we also lost Spain. We may very well lose Palestine, but the time for a peaceful solution has long passed. (David Horovitz, On a Mission of a Forthcoming State)

Historian Ezra Nishry’s PhD dissertation, on British foreign policy in Palestine in 1946-48, meticulously uncovers a plan hatched by the British Foreign Office, promoting an Arab invasion of Palestine with British support. According to the plan, following the conquest of Palestine by the Arab armies, the territory would be split between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. Any notion of establishing either a Jewish or a Palestinian state would be abandoned. The Arab countries would carve up the land amongst themselves, and Palestinian Arabs would assume citizenship accordingly. So too the Jews who survived the invasion and chose to stay. A British officer, Brigadier Iltyd Clayton, is appointed to advance the plan. There is no doubt that the secretary general of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League and staying in London at the time, was in on the secret when he met with the representatives of the Yishuv, and rejected their offer for a mutually-agreed partition of Palestine and the peaceful establishment of a Jewish and an Arab state.

The British plan, intended to ensure the continuation of a “British-Arab empire” in the Middle East, became known to the Americans. In a meeting between the British and American foreign ministers, US Secretary of State George Marshall inquired of the fate of the Jews, if the plan were to materialize. Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary, answered that the Jewish Yishuv would likely be annihilated. According to Nishry, the Jewish Agency’s intelligence service was aware of what transpired between the two—which means the plan was also made known to Ben-Gurion.

Segev recounts that shortly before the announcement of the United Nations’ partition plan, Ben-Gurion turned to Colonel Mickey Marcus, the Jewish-American military commander put in charge of the Jewish forces in 1948, requesting a report on the Yishuv’s defense capacity:

Marcus’ report was ruthless. There is not one regiment that can be sent to battle. And not just for lack of equipment. There is not one officer who knows how to mobilize a regiment. Or even a company. The officers do not know their soldiers, nor even who among them knows how to shoot. There is no plan of action for the next month, week, or day. No transportation. No radio transmission. Physical fitness is wanting.

As mentioned above, on the eve of Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948—at which point, the Yishuv had already suffered 1500 casualties in the bloody war against the local Arabs that had been going on for six months—Ben-Gurion was fully aware of a British plan that predicted the Yishuv’s destruction. In such a situation, something more than nerves of steel, or faith in a higher power—which, in any case, he did not have—was needed. It took something altogether different to resist the pressure of allies, both close and far, to postpone the declaration of independence. No one knows what went through Ben-Gurion’s mind that night, when he withdrew to his quarters and decided to announce the establishment of the State of Israel against all odds. Perhaps, during those terrible hours of indecision, he recalled the early Zionist ideologue A. D. Gordon’s words, that “we need people in utter desperation.” A person in utter desperation is someone who dares to jump through a ring of fire, picking that fleeting moment that will not recur. Either way, Ben-Gurion took on a responsibility of superhuman proportions, and decided to announce the establishment of the State of Israel.

This fateful decision, described halfway through Segev’s account, could very well have led to the Yishuv’s demise—a likely scenario, Bevin thought. One might imagine that any subsequent decision was trivial in comparison. But every single decision faced by Ben-Gurion thereafter turned out to be just as fateful.

For example, Ben-Gurion’s decision to begin direct negotiations with Germany, when it became clear that the cost of absorbing 700,000 destitute Jewish refugees, over the first three years of Israel’s existence, would reach $2 billion. This was at a time when the state could not even afford to pay for a cargo of wheat, sufficient for only a few scant weeks’ supply of bread, that had arrived in Haifa aboard an Italian ship. The decision to begin negotiating German reparations for the property stolen from Holocaust victims tore the country apart. Menachem Begin almost incited a civil war that could have led to the dissolution of the state, three years after its establishment. An angry mob stormed the Knesset building, hurling rocks at the windows of the parliament. Member of Knesset Hanan Rubin suffered a blow to the head. Terrified MKs suggested that Ben-Gurion mobilize the army, and—if need be—open fire on the raging mob. Ben-Gurion refused. This would spell the end of our democracy, he said.

The decision to establish a nuclear facility in Dimona was similarly fraught. Senior members of the ruling Mapai party and the governing coalition rejected the move to give Israel the absolute tool of deterrence. Ben-Gurion rushed in and out of meetings, some of these secret. One example was his meeting with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, at the latter’s rooms at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York (both were guests there.) Ben-Gurion descended the service stairs from his room on the top floor, avoiding the prying eyes of the press, who had been following the two statesmens’ every move. In this meeting— conducted in French, whispering from ear to ear to evade the likelihood of bugs eavesdropping on the chancellor’s suite—Ben-Gurion manages to extract a promise from Adenauer: a loan of $500 million, to be paid over ten years. The ostensible purpose of this funding is “industrial development in the Negev and the establishment of textile factories in Dimona.” The name of said “textile factory” is omitted; but Adenauer knew full well what this plant, in the middle of the desert, would be producing. When Charles de Gaulle ordered the transfer of French nuclear engineers working in Dimona back to France, and suspended the delivery of uranium to the factory, Ben-Gurion persuades the chancellor to ship Argentinian uranium to Israel. All this while, it should be noted, heavy artillery— MiG aircraft, tanks, cannons, and so on—are being transported—from the Soviet Union to Egypt and Syria. The two are preparing for what looked to be a war of annihilation.

A State at Any Cost discusses almost 200 life events, all involving dramatic decisions tied to the very survival of the State of Israel. Segev succeeds in realistically conveying the sheer magnitude of the burden that would have weighed upon the conscience and the mind of this man, neither Hercules nor perfect. It would not surprise any reader of this book that every now and again, Ben-Gurion would abruptly declare to those in his immediate circle that he no longer had the strength to continue. Time and again he renounced his role, only to reassume it once again—until his ultimate retirement, abandoned by his erstwhile colleagues, a modern-day King Lear of sorts. Segev contemplates the stage of the Shakespearean king’s disintegration that would serve best as an analogy for the life of Israel’s founding father.

Ben-Gurion’s life story, as told by Tom Segev in this turbulent saga, is the story of the Jewish Yishuv: from its early beginnings at the turn of the nineteenth century to the horrors of the Yom Kippur War, itself almost a calamity of biblical proportions. Today, David Ben-Gurion’s words must ring through the halls: “If we do not remain decent, we will not remain here.”

*Tom Segev, A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion, translated by Haim Watzman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 816 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Jerusalem’s New Historians

Dotan Halevy

Three new books make a persuasive case for reevaluating age-old historiographical conventions in the study of late Ottoman Palestine.

Sudden Change or Gradual Transition?

Michael Press

A popular perception of the Arab conquest of Palestine as a period of violent transformation persists, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary.

Known Unknowns: In Search of the Truth at Khirbet Qeiyafa and Masada

Alex Stein

Two new books attempt to get to the heart of archaeological mysteries from the Biblical and Second Temple periods.

Zionism + Concrete

Liam Hoare

Concrete was the material that built the State of Israel - its prevalence from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva to the kibbutz is an expression of Zionism itself.

Three Case Studies of the War in Palestine in 1948

Yoav Gelber

A review of three controversial events and processes during the war in 1948: Deir Yassin, the battle for Kastel, and Jewish refugees.