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David Ben-Gurion And The Triumph Of Israeli Nationalism


The political lesson from the twentieth century is in, and it’s unequivocal: nationalism, for all its flaws, helped humans survive what could have been a machine-age, science-based Armageddon, and socialism, for all its claims to virtue, nearly wiped out the human species. Yet these days it can seem like we are going through the ideological convulsions of the nineteenth century all over again, when the ideology of nationalism and socialism first flowered—which means we may be setting up for a world war or two. That would be a bad thing.

Nowhere does the strain between nationalism and socialism play out so starkly as in the life of David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel’s principal founders, and its first prime minister. Historian and journalist Tom Segev, with a lucid translation by Haim Watzman, chronicles the life of Ben-Gurion in A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion.

For Segev, it’s a tale of Ben-Gurion’s gradual, but total, merger with the Zionist cause—that is, Jewish nationalism—until he becomes the principal founder of the new state of Israel in 1948. Segev also shows that Ben-Gurion’s gradual rejection of Marxism and the extremes of socialism (which were all the rage in Ben-Gurion’s youth), gave him the ability to achieve his ultimate goal of a Jewish homeland.

From Socialism to Zionism

In 1886, David Yosef Gruen was born in the village of Plonsk (about forty miles from Warsaw). At the time, Poland belonged to Russia, Palestine belonged to the Ottoman Empire, and the drive to create modern nations out of decadent empires was reaching its full tide.

The Ottoman Empire would take the gusts of World War I to collapse. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was nearly done breaking to pieces. In places like Prague, previous ethnic languages such as Czech were exhumed from near death and used to foster a sense of national identity.

Among the Jews of Eastern Europe and their immigrant cousins in the Americas, the enthusiasm for nationalism took the form of Zionism. The strong view was that Jews should go to sparsely settled Palestine and form a Jewish state, by force if necessary.

There were problems with this scheme. First, Palestine was a satrapy to Turkey. Second, there were tens of thousands of Arabs, and quite a lot of Sephardic Jews, already living there. Third, the land was not exactly a farmer’s paradise, and all the schemes envisioned agricultural socialist co-ops.

Capitalism was seen as kaput. The question was which to concentrate on most, Zionism or socialism. It turned out the two were explosively incompatible. David Gruen spent most of his life wishing he could be a good socialist, but he made his choice early on. It was to be Zionism, first and always. Soon after Gruen immigrated to Palestine, he changed his last name to Ben-Gurion, after a first century Hebrew scholar and anti-Roman activist.

Ben-Gurion spent a short time working agricultural jobs in Jewish settlements, but as quickly as he could, he got involved in local labor politics and found a job writing for the Zionist newspaper Ha’ahdut.  He was at first not especially good at labor organizing. Ben-Gurion was tactical in his leadership style, working through a list and putting out fires as the arose. He was, according to Segev, also a mediocre speaker.

What was Ben-Gurion’s secret? He was a gifted writer. His prose was powerful and succinct. In written form, he got to the point, tugged the heartstrings of nationalism and solidarity, and delivered a considered conclusion.

The young Ben-Gurion thought of himself as the Zionist Lenin. He traveled several times to Russia, and even wrote a cringe-inducing eulogy upon the death of the communist dictator. In truth, however, Ben-Gurion was more like American labor leader George Meany, in that he stripped communists from his labor union, or more an American demagogue in the mold of politicians like Huey Long, the autocratic, capricious head of a single party state that was also, at base, a democracy. It is telling that Ben-Gurion married not a labor activist, but feisty anarchist Paula Munweis, Russian-born but raised in New Jersey, the daughter of a successful eye doctor.

By 1917, the Ottoman Empire was going down. The question was, what to do with the pieces? British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour was convinced by Herbert Samuel, a Liberal Party MP and avowed Zionist, to declare Britain’s Palestine Mandate amenable to Zionism. The Balfour Declaration opened the gates to waves of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land.

At first, many of the newcomers were Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms. They were prime recruitment fodder for the trade union Ben-Gurion came to lead, and that trade union soon dominated Jewish Palestine. He was willing to employ almost any means to obtain the ends he was after. If it got him there, he would bully his opponents, even down to taking away security guards and starving out, for instance, Tel Yosef, a pre-nationhood kibbutz that didn’t toe the line of the Histadrut trade union he headed up.

Through subsidiary units, the Histadrut controlled security, health care, and all farm buying and marketing for Jewish communities in the territory. At the Histadrut, it was Ben-Gurion’s way or the highway.

One place Ben-Gurion was definitely not invited to join—and it was a sore point to him for his entire life—was Hashomer, the secret society of armed militiamen that provided security detail for Jewish settlements in Palestine. Youthful membership in Hashomer gave a politician deep street cred for years after nationhood. As Segev shows, Ben-Gurion was thought to have a big mouth, which was considered a security risk. Ben-Gurion took care of this problem in 1920 when he had Hashomer disbanded and community defense placed in the hands of Haganah, an organization under the control of the Histadrut.

Ben-Gurion always declared that Arabs would not necessarily have to leave a Jewish state established in Palestine, as Segev tells us.

The struggle against the employment of Arab laborers patently contradicted the Zionist claim that the movement would develop Palestine for the benefit of all its inhabitants. But Ben-Gurion continued to promise, as he had since he began writing articles, that the establishment of a Jewish national home would not hurt the Arabs. On the contrary, he insisted, Zionism did not claim that the Jews were a master race and did not seek to establish an aristocratic society. It was all about national and human values.

Whether he believed it was another matter. In the end, Ben-Gurion was in favor of achieving Jewish nationhood by almost any means, including forced resettlement of Arabs.

A Nation Emerges

In the 1930s, Histadrut and several other organizations merged into Mapai, the Jewish Workers Party, with Ben-Gurion as the head. He also headed up the Jewish Agency, the official organization recognized by British overseers as speaking for Jewish residents of the Mandate.

Then, seeming disaster struck. The British Labor-led government “reinterpreted” the Balfour Declaration. British support for Zionism was out. Yet with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, another multi-year wave of tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants made their way by hook or crook from Europe.

Mandate Arabs began attacking both British installations and Jewish settlements, murdering Jewish settlers. Ben-Gurion urged restraint, but also authorized “Special Squads” within Haganah to conduct reprisals against Arabs. He also publicly deplored, but took no significant action to stop, Jewish militias, such as that headed by Menachem Begin, from bombing British offices, killing dozens.

After a great deal of violence on both sides, the British, in typical imperial fashion, set up a commission. In the end, the Peel Commission recommended Jewish and Arab partition, with Arab removal from Jewish lands if necessary.

Then came World War II. It turned the world upside down. England became irrelevant. American opinion and power was all that mattered. Ben-Gurion travelled frequently to the United States to advocate for Zionism—and for support of an eventual Jewish state.

Europe started the war with nine million Jews and ended with three million. Ben-Gurion feared the Jews best equipped to form an educated polity for a future Israel had been exterminated. Nevertheless, in May 1948, building on Ben-Gurion and Chiam Weitzman’s wartime advocacy in the United States, the U.N. General Assembly voted to support the creation of Israel, and America recognized the government shortly thereafter. Ben-Gurion was elected the first prime minister. Immigration to Israel became a torrent.

Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq almost immediately attacked. Ben-Gurion’s first task was to pull together the armed Jewish militias to create the IDF (Ben-Gurion was also defense minister at the time). With the glue of nationhood and the scent of democracy in the air, these seasoned militias became an effective army. The IDF held off the Arab onslaught from 1948 to 1949, and effectively dealt with constant military harassment thereafter.

One problem Ben-Gurion never overcame was his economic illiteracy. The economic tiger that is modern Israel was still many decades away, stymied by Zionism’s near fatal entanglement with socialist fantasies.

[Ben-Gurion] grasped the general picture only vaguely; he was aware of the cost of the Zionist enterprise, but did not really understand the economic systems needed to fund it and propel it forward. . . . The austerity policy grew out of an almost mystical believe in the power of bureaucracy to control market forces. . . . A black market bloomed and operated, almost completely in the open, in every economic sector. It was for all intents and purposes a mass act of middle-class civil disobedience. He had a hard time accepting this. . . . He declared that he would stand at the vanguard of the war against the black market . . .

But of course the “black market” was just a national free market trying to be born. Fortunately, Ben-Gurion did not succeed in accidentally killing it.

Ben-Gurion served as the Israeli prime minister from 1948 to 1963, with an interlude in the mid-1950s by Mapai’s Moishe Sharett. During the late 1950s, Ben-Gurion oversaw the secret development of an Israeli nuclear weapon at a research city he pushed to build, Dimona. The only hesitation Ben-Gurion showed was in which political tactics to use to complete the project. That Israel should have the bomb was a foregone conclusion.

Israel Thrives

Segev tells Ben-Gurion’s story happening-by-happening. His go-to format is to provide an impressionistic account of the outcome of some notable incident in Ben-Gurion’s life, then to back up and fill in details. This can be refreshing when the conclusion is an intriguing historical moment or anecdote. But in this 600-page doorstop of a book, the writing tactic is repeated without fail for chapter after chapter.

The technique also leads to confusion when a reader comes to the book with little prior knowledge of the inner workings of, say, the interwar international Zionist Congress, and can’t begin to fathom what picture Segev is trying to paint with his conclusion put ahead of the facts. Yet Segev’s handling of the facts is thorough and masterful, and we can draw our own conclusions if we don’t like his.

Ben-Gurion was an obsessive reader—but even more, an obsessive buyer, even a hoarder, of books. He wrote constantly. He engaged in several romantic affairs, which Segev dutifully chronicles, but there was never a chance he would abandon Paula and the children. It would have been political suicide, in any case.

Toward the end of his life, he flirted with Buddhism, but Ben-Gurion’s true religion was always the nation of Israel, and for nearly 30 years, the two were practically synonymous. The twentieth century was the deathbed for a great many fanciful nineteenth-century notions. It turned out that David Ben-Gurion’s dream of a Jewish nation wasn’t one of them. Israel survives and thrives long after his passing.