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Unmaking the Myth of Ben-Gurion

Reckoning with Israel’s first prime minister means reckoning with the Jewish state itself

A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion by Tom Segev. Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816 pages.

On the green slopes of west Jerusalem sits Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. Named after the Budapest-born Theodor Herzl, father of political Zionism and founder of the World Zionist Organization, it is where the great figures of Israel’s history are buried: early Zionist leaders and many of its presidents, prime ministers, and soldiers. But David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister—and its longest-serving, until Benjamin Netanyahu surpassed him last July—is not buried there. His grave, alongside his wife Paula’s, is in the Negev Desert, near Kibbutz Sde Boker. Their headstones—simple, elevated sandstone rectangles—list the years of their birth, death, and arrival in the Land of Israel. The tomb is set in the middle of a gravel plaza, beneath a Brazilian peppertree; behind it, the vast, pink expanses of the Negev’s canyons.

Ben-Gurion’s decision to be buried there was, at the time, widely seen as an expression of commitment to his Zionist vision of settling the land and “making it bloom.” Roughly twenty years before his death, he had encountered the settlers of Sde Boker while returning to Jerusalem from a military exercise in the Negev. He was enamored by their independence and idealism; they were not affiliated with any political party, and they had gone to a difficult, unruly place, instead of to a city, where the living was easy. He would spend the final years of his life living in the kibbutz they founded.

But, as Israeli historian Tom Segev writes in A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion, there were likely other reasons for Ben-Gurion’s desert burial than the hope that it might inspire others to move there. He may not have wanted to be buried in Herzl’s shadow, on the mountain bearing Herzl’s name, or to keep the posthumous company of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, the right-wing Revisionist Zionist leader and Ben-Gurion’s political archrival, whom he called “Vladimir Hitler.”

The entanglement of Ben-Gurion’s ego and principles, and the difficulty of disentangling them, is at the heart of Segev’s meticulously researched biography, forthcoming in English this month. Using Ben-Gurion’s own journals, transcripts of formerly classified documents, and other, recently available sources, Segev offers a detailed picture not only of Ben-Gurion’s life but also his mind. He appears as a man who was both doggedly determined to realize his world-historical goals—hence the book’s title—and sometimes shockingly petty, a holder of grudges and sensitive to the smallest of slights.

When the book first appeared in Hebrew in 2018, many readers encountered such a granular depiction of Ben-Gurion’s psyche for the first time: his impetuousness (rash suggestions to declare war against England and Germany that were ignored); his fragility (he would often complain that the stresses of leadership were too great to bear and periodically threatened to resign); his delusions (his proposal to resolve the conflict with the Arabs by converting them to Judaism, or his contemplation of making French Guiana an Israeli colony, to name only two); as well as his multiple, continent-spanning extramarital affairs. “I was interested mainly in Ben-Gurion the human being—including, that is to say, his rather tormented relationship with his wife Paula, and with other women,” Segev told Haaretz in February 2018. “Mapai [the Labor Zionist party Ben-Gurion founded and led] and socialism did not especially interest me.”

Ben-Gurion appears as a man who was both doggedly determined to realize his world-historical goals—hence the book’s title—and sometimes shockingly petty, a holder of grudges and sensitive to the smallest of slights.

Yet the book is not salacious, and Ben-Gurion’s personal failings, eccentricities, and psychic turmoil are far from the only ground that A State at Any Cost treads. Building on his prior work, Segev makes several significant historiographical interventions, challenging conventional accounts of Ben-Gurion’s views and of the period of Israeli history during which he led the country. We learn, for example, of Ben-Gurion’s deeply held belief in the population transfer of Palestinians out of Palestine, of his particular understanding of the Holocaust, and of his enormous condescension and racism toward mizrahim. The result is a book of considerable heft—literally, at over eight hundred pages in hardcover—that successfully uncovers the history of Ben-Gurion’s time from the shroud of myth that has long obscured it.

Segev divides the book into two sections: part one, “The Road to Power,” and part two, “The Limits of Power.” The first section begins with the birth of David Gruen—he would not become Ben-Gurion until around 1911—in the Polish town of Plonsk in 1886. It ends in the early 1940s in the United States, where Ben-Gurion, who had been lobbying Jewish communities and the U.S. government to support the establishment of a Jewish army to fight in the war, learns of the extermination of Polish Jewry from a Palestinian Arab named Francis Kettaneh who served as the director of Rotary International. History is full of sad ironies, and Segev is deftly attuned to them.

In “The Road to Power,” Ben-Gurion is convinced the future of the Jewish people is in the Land of Israel, and that he is the person to lead them there. (When Segev interviewed him in the late 1960s, Ben-Gurion claimed he had always known he would not live in Poland: “At the age of three I knew that I would not live in that country! . . . And that is how all the Jews were. We knew that our land would not be the place where we were living, but in the Land of Israel.”) He travels from Poland to British Mandate Palestine, then to Turkey, Egypt, New York, London, and to Palestine again. He tries manual labor, but it doesn’t suit him. Like many a frustrated politician-in-waiting, he becomes a journalist, then, finally, a full-time politician. He joins parties, merges them, and founds new ones, ascending the leadership structure of the Jewish state-in-the-making by consolidating his power and taking down rivals along the way. By 1935, he is chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, the operational arm of the Zionist Organization (ZO) and proto-government of the Jewish community in Palestine. He is one of the most powerful Zionist leaders in the world, second only to Chaim Weizmann, president of the ZO. But he is not satisfied.

The book’s second half opens after the end of the Second World War, in the final years of British rule in Palestine. In 1945, Ben-Gurion, Segev writes, is “the most prominent leader not only of the Jews of Palestine but in the entire Zionist movement.” And yet he, and the people he represents, are weak in real, geopolitical terms. The Jews of Palestine remain subject to British rule, one of the many thorns in the ailing British Empire’s side; the surviving Jews of Europe languish in squalid displaced person camps across the continent. By 1949, however, Ben-Gurion is the prime minister of an armed, independent Jewish state. If, until then, Ben-Gurion’s primary objective had been to gain power, now he must learn to wield it. He does not always do it well.

Because it deals with the partition of Mandatory Palestine, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Nakba (the Arabic term, meaning “catastrophe,” for the expulsion and flight of roughly seven hundred thousand Palestinians from their homes), Israeli society’s relationship to the Holocaust, and the early dilemmas of state-building, the book’s second section is the one that most directly challenges aspects of the accepted Zionist-Israeli narrative of Israel’s founding. U.S. readers, more accustomed to mytho-theological treatment of Israel—for instance, in the New York Times op-ed pages—than rigorous historical scholarship, may struggle to accept some of what Segev uncovers. All the more reason for them to read A State at Any Cost carefully.

Readers more accustomed to mytho-theological treatment of Israel—for instance, in the New York Times op-ed pages—than rigorous historical scholarship may struggle to accept some of what Segev uncovers.

One of the first myths at which Segev takes aim relates to perhaps the most sensitive of topics for Jews in Israel and abroad: the connection between the creation of the state of Israel and the Holocaust. It is common to hear the Holocaust framed as the reason for Israel’s founding. That, Segev stresses, is not true. Drawing on his research for One Palestine, Complete, his study of the British Mandate period—in particular, the Zionist movement’s establishment of a nascent state apparatus under British auspices—Segev shows how a Jewish state in British Palestine was already well on its way into being when the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews began. Though “it was still not clear when exactly the Jewish state would be born,” Segev writes, “there was no longer any doubt that it would be—the social, cultural, political, economic, and military infrastructure of the state-to-be was already solid, and the Jewish population’s sense of national community was adamant.” Christian Europe’s guilt after the war no doubt made it easier for the Zionist movement to achieve its goal of an independent Jewish state when it did, but, Segev definitively concludes, “there is thus no basis for claiming the state was founded as a result of the Holocaust; the British played a much larger role.”

The other myths Segev tackles are no less charged. If in Israel, acknowledgment of the Nakba and atrocities committed by Zionist forces during the 1948 war and after is not only taboo but illegal—the Knesset passed a law in 2011 that made commemorating the Nakba a fineable offense—liberal Zionists in the United States tend to take a slightly different view. The Nakba was no doubt regrettable, they argue, but the Arab rejection of partition and the subsequent invasion of the fledging state of Israel by several Arab armies in 1948 left the Zionist forces no other choice. Segev shows that this, too, is a fantasy of Zionist nobility, one that continues to live on in Israel’s laughably cynical boasts of having “the most moral army in the world.” As if that were not a contradiction in terms.

In fact, Segev, writes, “the hope of emptying Palestine of its Arab inhabitants had been part of Zionist discourse from its first days.” Theodor Herzl imagined in his diary how the Zionist movement would, through a combination of force and financial inducement, transfer Palestine’s Arabs to the surrounding countries. During the British Mandate, “the evacuation of the Arabs from the territory of the projected Jewish state came up for discussion again and again, in a variety of contexts,” according to Segev. A special Jewish Agency committee examined the feasibility of doing so. And Ben-Gurion personally discussed the possibility of transferring Palestine’s Arabs to Transjordan with Mandate authorities.

Indeed, the eliminationist ideal—of a country devoid of Palestinian Arabs—was one to which he returned repeatedly. During the civil war between Arabs and Jews that preceded Israel’s declaration of independence, Ben-Gurion recommended to the Haganah, the main, pre-state Zionist paramilitary force, a strategy for reprisals after Arab attacks: “To deal a decisive blow with each onslaught, destroying the place or driving out the inhabitants and capturing the place.” In 1948, leaders of the Haganah formulated Plan Dalet, which included, likely for the first time in writing, instructions to expel Arabs from entire villages. These plans were not simply the result of the exigencies of combat but of a deep-seated belief in the acceptability and necessity of removing Palestine’s Arab population—not necessarily all at once, but gradually, over time. Segev describes how the Israeli poet Haim Guri once noticed that Ben-Gurion kept on his desk a piece of paper with a verse from the book of Exodus, in which God promises to drive out the inhabitants of the Land of Israel and give it to the Jewish people:

I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your detriment. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and possess the land.

The dream of “maximum territory, minimum Arabs” continues to guide Israeli policy toward Palestinians today. A senior Israeli official admitted in August that Israel is actively encouraging the flight of Gazans from the Gaza Strip and looking for other countries to “absorb them.” A reported 35,000 Gazans left the besieged territory in 2018 alone.

In Israel, where sympathy for Palestinians runs low among the general Jewish public, Ben-Gurion’s ideological commitment to the idea of population transfer—long associated with the Zionist right—was not the book’s most contentious revelation. Instead, it was perhaps Segev’s uncovering of the extent of Ben-Gurion’s racism, and the state’s discriminatory practices, toward Jewish immigrants from the Islamic world. That mizrahim experienced and continue to experience racism and discrimination is, of course, no secret in Israel. But official acknowledgment of the forms that racism has taken remains controversial, and Mizrahi activists continue to demand accountability and recognition for the government’s actions.

Segev shines a blistering spotlight on Ben-Gurion’s European chauvinism. Like many of the Zionist leaders of his time, Ben-Gurion viewed Zionism as a movement that would bring the culture of Europe to the Middle East. “We came here as Europeans,” Ben-Gurion maintained, and there was little room for non-European Jews, let alone Palestinian Arabs, in this vision. When the first major waves of Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa began to arrive in Israel, many of them forced out of their home countries in response to Israel’s creation, Ben-Gurion saw them as “primitive Jews.” He referred to them as a “substandard generation” and spoke of Jewish North African army and police recruits as “refuse.”

The Holocaust was a particular tragedy for Zionism because, for Ben-Gurion, it deprived Israel of the most desirable “human material.”

Upon their arrival, these immigrants were housed not in the kibbutzim, where most of the residents were of Eastern or Central European origin, but in ma’abarot, or absorption camps, where conditions were so bad that infant mortality rates were twice that of the rest of the country, according to Segev. Ben-Gurion’s order to the army to save Yemeni immigrants from their “primitiveness” was translated into draconian anti-religious measures that allegedly included requiring religious boys to cut off their sidelocks. It was during this time that what is known as the Yemenite Children Affair also unfolded. Thousands of infants, mainly those born to Yemeni Jews but also those from elsewhere in the Middle East, went missing after being taken for medical care. It was later discovered that many had died without their parents being notified; others were said to have been adopted, again without their biological parents ever knowing.

What made all this possible was the view that Jews from the Islamic world were not the Jews for whom the Jewish state was intended. “The country,” Ben-Gurion wrote, “came into being and did not find the people that had awaited it.” Remarks like these were reflected in Ben-Gurion’s view of the Holocaust. It was not just, or mainly, an incomprehensible tragedy for the Jewish people. It was a particular tragedy for Zionism because, for Ben-Gurion, it deprived Israel of the most desirable “human material.”

Demythologizing is the task of any good historian, and when it comes to Israeli history, Segev has long been among the best. He is part of a group of academics and writers, known as the “New Historians,” who were the first to apply the methods of the modern discipline of history to the full range of sources from the period of Israel’s founding. “During Israel’s early years there was no historiography; there was mythology, there was ideology. There was a lot of indoctrination,” Segev writes in Elvis in Jerusalem (2002), which took stock of how Israeli culture had changed by the turn of the twenty-first century. “When, at the beginning of the 1980s, the first historians were allowed to examine newly declassified documents, they found themselves time and again clutching their heads in amazement. . . .Then they prepared themselves for their critics: Why are you shattering our myths?”

There is no shortage of head-clutching to be had in A State at Any Cost, much more, in fact, than can be addressed here—Segev has unearthed an incredible range of previously unknown anecdotes ranging from the shockingly repulsive to the amusingly bizarre. Readers in thrall to romantic, illusory narratives of Zionist history will no doubt find themselves in the position of Segev’s critics, left fiddling with the broken pieces of their myths. And though in size and subject the book may resemble the heavy tomes of “great men” biographies that adorn the nightstands of middle-aged fathers, those looking for insight into “leadership” will be sorely disappointed—this, of course, is not a bad thing.

Segev deftly shows how many of Ben-Gurion’s decisions still reverberate in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians today. His compromise with ultra-orthodox leaders over matters of synagogue and state, known in Israel as the “status quo” agreement, not only remains a source of political instability—irreconcilable differences between secular and ultra-orthodox parties over the place of religion in the public sphere were among the reasons Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition after the elections in April 2019. It has also enabled the transformation of Israel into what can only be called a theocracy: religious life from birth to burial is dictated by a state Orthodox rabbinate. Ben-Gurion’s view of Israel’s borders as plastic and ever-expanding in the gradual realization the territorial-maximalist goal has become state policy; Israel’s borders—from its unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights to the status of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank—remain the subject of international dispute. And Ben-Gurion’s ideal of a country without Arabs is reflected in Israel’s policy of preventing the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes after the 1948 war. Segev leaves no doubt that the creation of the state of Israel involved the dispossession of an entire people and the destruction of their society—and not simply as a single blow, but as a process that is still ongoing.

If there is any weakness to the book, it is that the tension between the forces of character and contingency is given relatively little attention. We see Ben-Gurion’s determination to gain power, and we see him eventually obtain it and use it (and abuse it, in ways that call to mind Netanyahu’s own corruption). But we do not get a full sense of what combination of Ben-Gurion’s natural abilities and the subtle workings of chance put him where he ended up. What we do get is, nevertheless, of great value. Segev has produced an unflinching portrait of a man more often the subject of patriotic adulation than demythologization. With A State at Any Cost, that seems likely to change.