Ben-Gurion: Warts and all

Academic Tom Segev gives a no-holds-barred view into Israel’s hallowed founder.

ISRAEL’S FIRST prime minister, David Ben-Gurion (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ISRAEL’S FIRST prime minister, David Ben-Gurion
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
We tend to sanitize our finest leaders after they leave us. Their faults are often pinned on others or whitewashed, and their memories and legacies take on an air of being beyond reproach. It’s borderline blasphemy for politicians or even private citizens to criticize them too strongly.
Instead, their likenesses are plastered on currencies and their names are affixed to street signs. In the case of David Ben-Gurion, he has been turned into a cute cartoon mascot for the airport that bears his name. The father of the nation who made it his life’s work to bring about a Jewish state and then led it for more than a dozen of its early years becomes a cuddly caricature.
Legendary historian Tom Segev’s newly translated biography of Ben-Gurion, A State at Any Cost, provides a warts-and-all look at Israel’s first prime minister that does not shy away from his many mistresses, his troublesome political blind spots or his complete lack of anything resembling a sense of humor.
Segev’s prestigious credentials are laid out humbly and secretly in a snippet from a 1968 interview with Ben-Gurion. The two parties mentioned in the interviewer are simply “Ben-Gurion” and “Journalist.” A trip to the book’s notes reveals that along with Yosef Avner and Avraham Kushnir, Segev himself conducted the interview.
Segev’s thoroughness and at times his refusal to treat “The Old Man” as a deity allows for an unbiased, uninhibited and unparalleled look at the life of Ben-Gurion. Segev calls him a “bit roly-poly” in the book’s introduction and concedes that he “[didn’t] understand people.” In one of many angry exchanges with Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, he accuses Weizmann of being a traitor and yells, “If we had a state, we would have to shoot you.” Weizmann retorts, “And if we had a police force in the state, we would need to send you to a madhouse.”
Segev frames Ben-Gurion’s early life in the context of two of his childhood friends and even goes so far as to describe apparent homo-erotic feelings between them. “Forgive me, my love,” Ben-Gurion writes in a 1905 letter to his childhood friend Shmuel Fuchs. “Your brother embraces you with fierce love and kisses you,” the third friend, Shlomo Zemach, signs a letter to Fuchs. And Ben-Gurion, before leaving his hometown of Plonsk, decided he would copy the entirety of Chaim Nahman Bialik’s epic love poem The Scroll of Fire, full of “forbidden love, replete with erotic symbols” into a notebook. It took up 30 pages, and he sent it to Fuchs.
Scholarly, yet eminently readable, Segev doesn’t dry out Ben-Gurion’s stranger-than-fiction journey when he puts it on paper. “He spent thirty-six hours straight inside a barrel, nearly naked, trampling grapes,” Segev recounts. The thought of a grape skin-stained Ben-Gurion on a day-and-a-half grape-stomping bender is quite hilarious, and Segev may be at his best when he is describing Ben-Gurion’s eccentricities and the odd circumstances in which he found himself. He and his wife, Paula, spent Passover Seder at Petra in 1933. A few years earlier, Ben-Gurion proposed declaring war on the British Empire, and in 1955, he claimed to have spotted a UFO near Kfar Giladi.
His troubled relationship with Paula is jaw-dropping in how often the marriage was rife with indifference and frigidity. On his wedding day, “Ben-Gurion recorded in his diary: ‘I have taken a wife’; he did not mention her name.” Later, Segev describes how Paula would admit herself to the hospital without any ailment just to attract her husband’s attention. Ben-Gurion’s mistresses spanned decades and continents. Paula threatens suicide on multiple occasions upon learning of them.
One of the most interesting aspects is the deep dive that Segev takes in describing Ben-Gurion’s views on the country’s Arab minority. Though he put on a very different face publicly, Segev suggests that Ben-Gurion was haunted by the Nakba (“Catastrophe,” the term some Palestinians use to describe 1948 War of Independence).
“The refugees and their plight gave him no rest,” he writes. “Ghost cities and abandoned villages drew him in; again and again he wandered their streets, as if seeking to confirm with his own eyes that no Arabs remained there, and perhaps also in response to his need to persuade himself that he had not lent a hand to expel them.”
Like any good biographer, Segev details the subject’s formative experiences, and Ben-Gurion’s world-view, fundamentally molded by his time spent in Britain during the Blitz, and at the Galilee moshav Sejera, is fascinating to relive.
Segev provides the prime minister’s flair for the dramatic as well. Upon hearing the Jewish immigration numbers allowed by the British in 1937, Ben-Gurion writes, “I was like a madman for a few days, as if I were being roasted alive in a fiery furnace with white-hot iron ingots burning my entire soul.”
Some dozen prime ministers later, Segev vouches for the relevance of Ben-Gurion and jabs at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throughout the book. He does so not so subtly in the introduction. During the five years in which he wrote the book, Segev recounts, “Hardly a week went by when Ben-Gurion was not mentioned at least once in the Israeli media. On top of that, four other biographies of him appeared in Israel.... A documentary film based on previously unknown interviews with Ben-Gurion drew large audiences. That is testimony to how much Israelis long for leadership with integrity.”