Biography sheds new light on David Ben-Gurion’s place in Jewish history

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” by Anita Shapira. Credit: Yale University Press.

By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org

There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. 

On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned from Washington and reported that the State Department warned him that, if the Jews declared a state, the U.S. would not support it. Golda Meir reported that her mission to persuade King Abdullah of Jordan not to enter a war had failed. Yigal Yadin, the head of the Haganah paramilitary organization, said the chances that the nascent state would survive were 50-50 at best. And then, Ben-Gurion called for a vote. It was 6-4 in favor, and by that narrow margin—the best he could cajole from a cautious Zionist Executive—Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel.

There are few times in history when one person through one action affects the course of human events, as Ben-Gurion did that day. To take that action after attaining such a narrow margin, with full awareness that a war against six Arab armies was about to begin, required extraordinary courage and decisiveness. For this act alone, Ben-Gurion deserves a place of honor in Jewish history. Without him, there might not have been a Jewish state.

Shapira’s biography, which will be released Nov. 25, is based on previously unopened archives. Unlike some other biographies of Ben-Gurion that are either worshipful or hypercritical, hers is fair and balanced. She describes him with all his warts: a fierce temper, a tendency toward hyperbole, and an ego that forgot no slight. She records his loneliness and isolation, which few people were aware of. She shows that he had many admirers and many enemies, but very few peers and true friends.  

The new biography describes Ben-Gurion as a man who somehow balanced moments of incredible boldness with moments of great caution and realism. He was more concerned with bringing Jews into the country than with acquiring more territory. When his generals told him that it might be possible to capture the West Bank in 1948, he asked them what would they do with it and with the people who lived on it. He then forbade them from seizing it during the war. 

Ben-Gurion stood up to America over Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility, but yielded to America by giving up the Sinai after the Suez War. He understood that Israel could not survive without at least one ally among the great powers, and he chose to cast his country’s lot with the Western democracies, rather than with the Soviet Union. He created a government for people who had never run one before, and he fought uncompromisingly against those who he believed challenged the authority of the state.

This book shows that, like Vladimir Lenin, who more than any other person created the Soviet Union, and like Winston Churchill, who saved England in its darkest hour by his sheer will and determination, Ben-Gurion created the State of Israel and set it on its path. Shapira adeptly records how he did it and chronicles the rest of his storm-tossed life, so that future generations may appreciate both his achievement and his faults.

“Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” by Anita Shapira, Yale University Press (November 2014), 288 pages, $25.

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Posted on October 30, 2014 and filed under Book Review, Israel.