The retelling of history, like a Hindu god, takes many forms. The narrative of the life of David Ben-Gurion, the iconic figure in the pantheon of Zionist leaders, has been told, retold and over-told. Shabtai Teveth’s massive and comprehensive political biography, “The Burning Ground,” is an analysis from the political center; Ben-Gurion confidant Michael Bar Zohar’s 1968 “Ben Gurion: The Armed Prophet,” also centrist, emphasizes Ben-Gurion’s role in developing Israel’s armed forces; Robert St. John’s earlier “Ben-Gurion: Builder of Israel” paints a colorful picture of B-G for a popular audience — his insatiable scholarly curiosity, his militant insistence on democratic methods in crafting the future state; and, more recently, Anita Shapira’s smart “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” is a compact conspectus of B-G.
Now comes journalist and historian Tom Segev with “A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion,” a massive volume, weighing in at 800-odd pages, a magisterial work, surely to take its place as a standard reference on B-G. Segev’s work adds to the corpus of Ben-Gurion literature in his interweaving of the complexity of the personal with the complexity of the political and geopolitical.
Those who know Segev’s tour-de-force “One Palestine, Complete,” “1967” and “The Seventh Million” know that it is impossible for him to write an uninteresting sentence. There is nobody like Segev for knowing how to spin a yarn — and what a yarn this one is! — and for developing a historical context for a narrative. Ideological struggles among early Zionists; the precarious position of the Ottoman Empire, long the overlord in Palestine; the contrast between the American Jewish and European Jewish pre-War landscapes, refracted through the lens of Ben-Gurion’s visits to the New Land; the contexts for armed conflict with Arab countries — all are cogently composed here in a manner that engages the casual reader, and that may even satisfy the scholar.
Storyteller Segev is biographer Segev as well. Ben-Gurion, from his early years in Plonsk and his early embrace of Hebrew culture and (sort of) a socialist-collectivist ideology to numerous conflicts and wars, to B-G’s less than heroic final years, comes to life in “A State at Any Cost.”
The history narrated most comprehensively by Segev is the period of Israel’s War of Independence, 1947-49, known variously in Hebrew (depending on one’s ideological persuasion) as Milchemet HaShichrur (“War of Liberation [from the British],” from the far-left kibbutz movements); HaKomemiyut (“Sovereignty,” B-G’s formulation, signifying the establishment of a new national Jewish entity); and Ha’Atzmaut (“Independence”). But missing in Segev’s narrative is an important and controversial historical dynamic, one that had implications down the pike. The very declaration of statehood on the part of Ben-Gurion was an act of political courage. Ben-Gurion bucked his socialist and left-of-center majority in the provisional government — his socialist labor Mapai party, the left-wing Mapam and Achdut Ha’Avodah and the left-of-center religious Mizrachi, B-G’s socialist majority, much of which was chary about an immediate declaration, as was B-G himself. But he understood that, whatever the perils, it had to happen — and so it did. A courageous moment.
In terms of the war itself, Segev has no coherent discussion of how and why the war was successfully prosecuted. Contrary to the version of history celebrated by “Exodus,” there were four crucial dynamics in the conflict, which together ensured, from early on, Israeli victory: the lack of unified Arab war-aims, which resulted in a lack of coherence in Arab military planning; the closing of the ordnance-gap between Israel and the Arab states, especially after the first truce in June, 1948; the utter disintegration of Palestinian Arab society; and the role played by the Yishuv’s superior agricultural technology and distribution system. The point: after the first month of fighting in mid-1948 — a dicey time indeed — these factors (together with Israel’s numerical superiority on the ground) enabled the newly constituted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to gain the upper hand and emerge victorious.
More serious is Segev’s narrative of the genesis of a political structure in the first decades of the 20th century, the early years of the Yishuv. But he leaves the reader too often in a head-scratching mode. Discussions of important early political groups — Poalei Zion and Hapoel Hatzair are two examples — are presented without political context. What were they? What were their ideologies? (In the Yishuv — the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine — it was all about ideology.) For example, Poalei Zion, a truly important precursor to Ben-Gurion’s Mapai — the party regnant for decades, until the 1977 “Begin Revolution” — did not come out of nowhere. Poalei Zion was influenced by the socialist ideas in the Russian “street,” in opposition to Hapoel Hatzair, which was more of a “back-to-the-land” movement, and to other fledgling Zionist initiatives that emphasized national and cultural dynamics. This context is important in understanding the socialist parties that emerged, movements that differed dramatically in terms of ideology. Without an understanding of the genesis of these parties it is impossible to make sense of how the state itself came to be or of Ben-Gurion’s central role in the process.
And ideology was crucial in the Yishuv; ideology informed everything. Each party had, for example, its own kibbutz movement, its own defense militia. (The Haganah, for example, was a vehicle of Mapai and of the Histadrut labor federation; the Palmach had its origins in the Achdut Avodah and Mapam kibbutzim — not, as conventional wisdom has it, as a part of the Haganah). These political dynamics, crucial in any discussion of Ben-Gurion, are missing in “A State at Any Cost.”
And who are the characters who provide the connective tissue of the unfolding B-G drama? Arthur Ruppin is one — but the book doesn’t give us a sense of who he was. Early on in the history of the Yishuv, in an effort to avert a workers’ strike at one of the settlements, Ruppin came up with the then-radical idea of a socialist-collectivist agricultural settlement that addressed manifold issues — the kibbutz. And where is Ber Borochov, who created the synthesis between Marxist socialism (the dominant ideology) and Zionism — a synthesis crucial to Ben-Gurion’s own ideology and subsequent career? One looks in vain for Borochov, to no avail.
Finally, Segev has the reputation of being a “revisionist” historian, and he has been attacked for salting his own ideology into the B-G narrative, most pointedly in the controversial area of the flight of Palestinian Arabs from Israel during the 1947-49 war. But has there ever been a historian since Herodotus — or for that matter, since the author of the Book of Kings — who does not inject his or her political ideology into the narrative? I may hold the view that the emptying out of Arab villages may have to some extent been dictated by military considerations, and not as part of a grand plan to remove the Arabs — but Segev’s view is a legitimate part of the discussion, and ought not be dismissed as some kind of left-wing “revisionism.” Segev is not inventing history; he is not rewriting history in calling attention to controversial historical events.
The reader of “A State at Any Cost” — scholar, student, Israeli, American, Zionist or anti-Zionist — will benefit from Segev’s well-crafted work. David Ben-Gurion was a leader, a visionary — and what made him the leader that he was is what the book is all about. Segev shows us the way.
Jerome Chanes, a regular contributor, is the author of four books and hundreds of articles and reviews on Jewish public affairs and arts and letters. He is the editor of the forthcoming “The Future of Judaism in America” and is working on a book setting a context for one hundred years of Israeli theater.