“David Ben-Gurion’s greatest years were between 1942 and 1953,” said Anita Shapira, author of the latest in Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series of short biographies.
“It seems that his whole life was but a prelude to this period, when he manifested his extraordinary ability to foresee political developments, formulate the tools for responding to them and enlist forces from within the Jewish people to seize the opportunities that presented themselves,” said Shipira, professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, where she was dean of Humanities and held the Ruben Merenfeld Chair for the Study of Zionism.
While there’s no shortage of Ben-Gurion biographies — most prominently, she says, those by Michael Bar-Zohar and Shabtai Teveth – she sought “to sketch his private persona, as well as the long process of his development into a national leader and one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.”
She does this effectively in just 246 narrative pages (in an easy-reading translation by Anthony Berris) that include material from Ben-Gurion’s archives and newly opened Israel Defense Forces files. Several themes recur: Ben-Gurion’s fixation on immigration to provide enough mass for an independent nation; his iron determination toward his goals despite opposition from without and often within; and his difficulty in personal relations, occasional tirades and loneliness.
“People admired Ben-Gurion but did not like him, nor did they accept his authority unquestioningly,” Shapira said. Leading the powerful Histadrut labor union, which he made “a powerful tool for realizing Zionism … every move he made was subject to his colleagues’ criticism, which they never hesitated to offer.”
He bore grudges, could be insensitive and caused leadership crises at critical moments, getting his way with people who feared he might resign, she said. “He was not blessed with charisma” and “was unfamiliar with the art of backslapping and idle chat, and as the years went by, he increasingly cut himself off from people.”
Shapira said that “if democracy means bowing to the will of the people, Ben-Gurion was no democrat. He made no bones about asserting that his role was not doing what the people wanted, but rather what he thought was best for them.” Yet, “he scrupulously obtained government decisions on every important matter and acted accordingly, even when they were not to his liking.”
His best and perhaps only real friend was Berl Katznelson – subject of a Shapira book — who helped him form Histadrut and shape the future state. Katznelson died of an aneurysm 1944, after which Ben-Gurion had “no one he could consult with as an equal.” (Katznelson’s wife, Leah Miron, buried him next to his other great love, Sara Schmuckler, and put her gravesite on his other side in a peaceful spot overlooking the Kinneret.)
Shapira, who is part of this series’ editorial team, covers Ben-Gurion’s life story sufficiently while highlighting the attributes that led him to become what Katznelson called “history’s gift to the Jewish people.”
Ben-Gurion was prescient, counting among his three greatest achievements the creation of a group of wealthy American Jews to buy and ship desperately needed arms for what he knew would be a post-independence war. And he dared to proclaim independence, despite U.S. disapproval, knowing Jews had not sent people into battle since Bar Kokhva in the second century.
Ben-Gurion, born in Plonsk, Poland in 1886, came to Israel in 1906, the time of the Second Aliyah. Shapira credits him as Israel’s founding father, surpassing Chaim Weizmann, who obtained the Belfour Declaration, was expert in diplomacy with Great Britain and the United States but urged caution alien to Ben-Gurion’s relentless drive to act.
It was Ben-Gurion who knew how to create and exploit the circumstances that made Israel’s birth possible, Shapira said, likening his role to that of a midwife during delivery. He was “at the helm at the decisive moment; he was the one who brought the Zionist dream to fruition.”
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.