The father of modern Israel

The father of modern Israel

Yale’s Jewish Life series looks at Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion with Albert Einstein.
David Ben-Gurion with Albert Einstein.

53-1-TOI-ben-gurion-coverEarly in World War II, David Ben-Gurion entered the United States as an unheralded Zionist.

His standing was so modest that immigration authorities temporarily detained him and he left the country after a brief, unfulfilling visit. It was in stark contrast to the treatment accorded the face of movement, Chaim Weizmann, whose arrival on these shores was greeted with fanfare.

Even though his visit bore little fruit, it became apparent to Ben-Gurion, who first arrived in America in 1915 as a political deportee from Palestine and then stayed three years and married here, that the United States, not Britain, would be the engine of support for surviving postwar European Jewry and the birthing of the State of Israel.

This equation mostly eluded Weizmann. The courtly British chemist, who lost a son flying for the RAF, was still wed to beliefs about Mandatory Palestine and counted on his personal contacts with British leaders as the key to establishing a Zionist home. The wavering actions of Downing Street during the 1920s and ‘30s about Jewish immigration, indulgence of Arabs, and dissembling on two-state partition hadn’t fully sunk in.

Once again, Ben-Gurion grasped the connection where others couldn’t. And he did so knowing that the Jews of Palestine would have to work within the contradictions and constraints of British military protection during the war, while at the same time flouting immigration quotas and paradoxically providing the British Army with a Jewish brigade.

Ben-Gurion’s next visit to the States, in late 1941, yielded greater results. He connected strongly with grassroots Zionists and fired their imagination. No longer would Weizmann’s strategy of cooperating through gradualism and deference to British position papers and high commissioners suffice — or for that matter, would dependence on American leaders whose focus remained fixed toward Europe and the Pacific.

To those leaders, Palestine was a sideshow at best, and the lack of unity between mainstream American Jewish groups and their Zionist counterparts only compounded the inaction. President Franklin Roosevelt had advanced Jews to the highest levels of any administration, but the U.S. policy agenda did not address consideration of nationhood for the Yishuv.

Although Anita Shapira, professor emerita and a former humanities dean at Tel Aviv University, doesn’t use the term, the new Zionist approach might have been designated as the Ben-Gurion corollary to the Balfour Declaration. Her taut yet unsparing “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” clearly captures his vision of a direct postwar route to an independent Jewish state, spurred by massive immigration and the crucial participation of the American Zionist community.

These explicit, ambitious goals came to be codified in what was known as the Biltmore Program. It was sold on this side of the Atlantic in large measure by Ben-Gurion, who then immediately left on a roundabout wartime journey home and convinced his policy council in Jerusalem to adopt the manifesto intact.

Quite an accomplishment, and one Ben-Gurion had been struggling toward since his arrival in Palestine in 1906 as part of the second aliyah. Then he was known as David Green, a Hebrew-speaking, idealistic émigré from Plonsk, Poland, who found himself unfit for the agricultural tasks of a pioneer but discovered that he could doggedly succeed in the world of ideological ferment and political infighting. His experience as a co-founder of Poaeli Zion, or Social Democrat Jewish Workers Party, at the University of Warsaw had prepared him well.

Now, decades later, he was Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Zionist Executive, head of the Histadrut labor federation, and leader of Mapai, the predominant political coalition in Palestine. He hadn’t come to these positions easily or elegantly, sometimes managing to be everyone’s second choice or by upsetting delicate coalitions with his volcanic temper. Yet by the middle of the war, he had devolved, de facto, into the indispensable man,

Shapira’s compact yet probing biography, part of the Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press, gives full vent to his outbursts, obstinacy, and penchant for grudge-settling (going out of his way, for instance, to keep Weizmann from signing the Israeli declaration of independence). But she freely acknowledges that these traits, which would severely handicap a lesser person, proved self-incentivizing to someone with Ben-Gurion’s blazing insights, remarkable intuition, and commitment to action.

Churchill and Lenin, both of whom he admired, no doubt would have found great use for his talents if he were available and non-Jewish. To his credit, he could learn from the masters of imperialism and communism, discarding the politics but embracing their ability to act decisively and bring the masses along, especially in time of conflict.

The Churchill lionization is especially ironic, considering the tension between the not-yet-nation and the world’s reigning empire. Ben-Gurion’s service as a corporal in the Jewish Legion during the late stages of World War I instilled in him a respect for British army discipline, something he would try to impose on Israel’s rambunctious, factionalized early military. It also was quite at odds with his own abrupt and unruly lifestyle.

His wife, Paula, reluctant to make aliyah after their American courtship, was notoriously apolitical, and regarded her primary function as one of a gatekeeper and making sure her spouse was “presentable,” which meant teaching this Ashkenazic émigré the basics of regular bathing, brushing, and grooming. The Ben-Gurions had three children, two girls and a boy, and Ben-Gurion went out of his way to love his son Amos’s British-born gentile wife.

Shapira makes only brief reference to Ben-Gurion’s mid-life love, Miriam Cohen, an Emergency Committee secretary whom he had been assigned to him while he was in Washington during the war. Their relationship proved intense, cerebral, and short-lived, although correspondence continued between them for years. She was, according to Shapira, the only one to whom Ben-Gurion could unburden himself emotionally.

Friendships also eluded Ben-Gurion, with the exception of Berl Katznelson, his confidante, sounding board, and co-activist. When Katznelson died prematurely in 1944, Ben-Gurion experienced profound grief. He hardly felt this way about his father, Avigdor, whom he dunned mercilessly for law school money when he wore a fez and studied in Istanbul on the eve of World War I. And later, he took in Avigdor only grudgingly, and reluctantly found him a job. Paula loathed the old-world gentleman.

Ben Gurion’s only self-indulgence was as a bibliophile. He prowled the bookshops of Europe and America and leaned heavily on global contacts and Israeli legations to buy rare editions for him. His home in Sdeh Boker in the Negev served primarily as an overstuffed library or as a refuge to which he would repair in a huff when he periodically threatened to resign (or did) from the government.

After spurring Israeli independence, creating the organization and nomenclature of a government from scratch (in Hebrew, of course), fashioning a secular state with religious sensibilities, and directing (critics would say meddling in) the nation’s defense establishment, Ben-Gurion next prioritized the microfilming of Jewish manuscripts from all over the world for archiving at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This outsized project went forward despite dire economic and immigration pressures bearing down on the fledgling nation.

While it is tempting and somewhat glib to say that Israel’s first and twice serving prime minister (plus portfolio as defense minister) made the nation his extended family and invested his emotions in its peoples, a more realistic assessment, which Shapira hints at in this compact, interpretive profile, might be that he comes closest to being an eponymous leader in the sense of vision, activism, and implementation.

Leadership for Ben-Gurion was a series of zig-zag trajectories, strategic retreats, bold thrusts, blood-letting debates, scandals, and ego-bruising encounters with only one destination: creation and sustainment of the Jewish state. On his watch, events were both dramatic and formative: the building of the Dimona nuclear plant, while keeping it secret from the United States, a reparations treaty with Germany, arms deals and the establishment of a defense industry, massive irrigation projects, the capture and trial of Eichmann, the war for independence, constant military threats, and later Suez and Sinai.

Shapira pegs Ben-Gurion’s peak years as being between 1942 and 1953. The patriarch died in 1973 at 87, somewhat depleted, still iron-willed, but politically marginalized by a new generation. Her biography will help recapture his aura, audaciousness, and appeal for the current citizens of a now robust nation whose legacy survives him.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former news editor of the Star-Ledger.