Israeli historian illuminates life of Ben-Gurion in readable biography

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Prime Minister and acclaimed by many as the nation’s main founder.  Anita Shapira, professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, does an excellent job of covering Ben-Gurion’s intriguing life in a highly readable and interesting biography, “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel.” 

This biography is part of a Jewish Life series of interpretive biographies designed to illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures on literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences.

The biography was originally written in Hebrew and was translated into English by Anthony Berris.  Berris did such a remarkable job that most readers will be completely unaware that it is a translation.

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Ben-Gurion was born in Plonsk, Poland, in 1886 and was educated in a Hebrew school established by his father, an ardent Zionist.  In 1906, the 20-year-old went to Palestine and helped establish the Jewish self-defense group Hashomer (the Watchman).  After the outbreak of World War I, the Ottoman authorities who ruled the area deported him. He then traveled on behalf of the Socialist-Zionist cause to New York, where he met and married a fellow Zionist activist, Paula Munweis.   He and his family returned to Palestine in 1917 after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the British.

In 1920, Ben-Gurion founded the Histadrut, a unified organization for all Jewish workers.  He served as that organization’s representative in the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency and was elected chairman of both organizations in 1935.  

His passion for Zionism led him in 1946 to become a major Zionist leader and executive head of the World Zionist Organization.  As leader of the agency, Ben-Gurion became the de facto leader of the entire Jewish community in Palestine and was largely responsible for spearheading the movement for an independent Jewish State there.  

On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion formally proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel and was the first to sign the Israel Declaration of Independence, which he helped write.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Ben-Gurion oversaw and united the various Jewish militias into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), becoming known as “Israel’s Founding Father.”  After leading Israel during the war, Ben-Gurion was elected Israel’s first prime minister and minister of defense and was responsible for the rapid development of the country and its population.   

He left the government in late 1953, retiring to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev but returned to political life in 1955 after the Knesset elections that year, assuming the post of defense minister.  He was soon re-elected prime minister.  During his second tenure as prime minister, Ben-Gurion led Israel during the 1956 Sinai campaign in which Israeli forces, along with aid from British and French forces, temporarily secured the Sinai peninsula after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal.

In June 1963, Ben-Gurion, then 77, stepped down from office and retired as prime minister but remained active politically.  In June 1965, he helped form the Rafti party,  which won 10 seats in the Knesset.  

In 1968, Rafti joined two other parties to form the Israel Labor Party, and Ben-Gurion formed another party, Hareshima Hamamlachtit (the State List), which won four seats in the Knesset.  

Ben-Gurion retired from political life permanently in June 1973 and returned to Sde Boker, where he passed away later that year at the age of 87.

Shapira’s book is easy to read, compact, well organized and well written, drawing on Ben-Gurion’s files and letters as well as newly discovered archival records.  Most importantly, the book is fair and balanced.  Shapira never hesitates to point out flaws in Ben-Gurion’s character.  He was often insensitive to others, fiercely stubborn, temperamental and he seemed to be losing romantic interest in his wife.  He also possessed a violent temper.  

Finally, there are stories that after he had settled in Palestine, he hounded his father constantly to send him money, yet he discouraged him from immigrating to Israel.

On the other hand, Shapira shows that Ben-Gurion could be passionate and intellectually astute and that he believed peace was more important than territory. What he wanted was not more land, but the ability to maintain an overwhelmingly Jewish majority in the land he had.  She points out that Ben-Gurion realized that Israel could never survive without at least one ally among the great powers, and he chose to cast his lot with the Western democracies rather than the Soviet Union.

Shapira calls Ben-Gurion the chief architect of the State of Israel and she portrays him as a man who “at some of the most crucial junctures in the whole of Jewish history, led his people, almost alone, by his prophetic foresight, his resolution and his fierce sense of reality.  He knew how to create and exploit the circumstances that made the birth of the State of Israel possible.”