Ever since he was a frail child with a disproportionately big head, David Ben-Gurion was always clear about his next move, about the Jewish people’s destination, about the link between his steps and the deliverance of the Jews in their biblical homeland. Ben-Gurion ached to be an intellectual; during the most dramatic years of his leadership, he gulped philosophy books, commented on the Bible, flirted with Buddhism, even taught himself ancient Greek in order to read Plato in the original; he had a relentless curiosity about the natural sciences (but no taste for fiction or the fine arts). He would quote Spinoza as if throwing rocks at a rival. Verbal battle, not dialogue, was his habitual mode of communication. Rather than a philosopher, he was a walking exclamation mark, a tight, craggy man with a halo of silvery hair and a jawbone that projected awesome willpower and a volcanic temper.
He came from the depressed depths of small-town Polish-Jewish life, which he left behind in 1906. Inspired by a Hebrew-Zionist upbringing, shocked by anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, he went to Turkish Palestine “to build it and be rebuilt by it,” as was the motto of those days. He became a pioneer, a farmhand, active with early Zionist-socialist groups. At age 19 he was what he would remain all his life: a secular Jewish nationalist who combined Jewish Messianic visions with socialist ideals, a man with fierce ambition for leadership, extraordinary tactical-political skills and a sarcastic edge rather than a sense of humor.
In 1915 Ben-Gurion, expelled from Palestine for his nationalist and socialist activities, chose to go to New York City, where he hastily taught himself English and plunged head on into perpetrating the local Zionist-socialist movement. Yet his authoritative, almost despotic character and his enchantment with Lenin’s revolution and leadership style were tempered during his three years in the U.S. by the impact American democracy left on him. Many years later, Ben-Gurion, who was urged by some countrymen to “suspend” democracy more than once, refused to do so.
After World War I he returned to Palestine, now governed by Britain and – after 1920 – designated by the League of Nations as a “National Home” for the Jewish people. He rose to prominence in the growing Zionist-socialist movement. The increasing anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1920s and ’30s sent waves of Jewish immigrants into the country. Furious Arab leaders launched a rebellion against the British and a holy war on the Jews. Much earlier than others, Ben-Gurion recognized the depth and rationale of Arab objection to Zionism: he was aware of the tragic nature of a clash between two genuine claims to the same land. His position on this can be described neither as hawkish nor dovish: he saw the creation of an independent homeland for the homeless Jewish people as, first and foremost, a crucial provision for the survival of persecuted Jews. At the cost of being labeled a traitor (by extremists on the right) and an opportunist (by the dogmatic left), he was ready to go a long way to accommodate the Arabs. Yet he was one of the first to foresee that in order for the Jews to avoid a showdown with the Arabs or to survive such a showdown, they must set up a shadow state and a shadow military force.
Ben-Gurion was the great architect and builder of both. Throughout the tragic years from 1936 to 1947, while millions of Jews were rounded up and murdered by the Germans, denied asylum by almost all nations and barred by the British from finding a home in Palestine, he subtly orchestrated a complex strategy: he inspired tens of thousands of young Jews from Palestine to join the British army in fighting the Nazis, but at the same time authorized an underground agency to ship Jewish refugees into the country. As the British were intercepting, deporting and locking away these survivors of the Nazi inferno in barbed-wired detention camps, world opinion grew more and more sympathetic to the Zionist prescription for the plight of the Jews. This strategy helped bring about the favorable atmosphere that led to the 1947 U.N. resolution, partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
But even before the British left, attacks on Jews were unleashed all over the country. On May 14, 1948, in accordance with the U.N. resolution, Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence, ignoring last-minute admonitions from Washington and overruling doomsday predictions by some of his closest associates. Within hours, military forces of five Arab nations invaded Israel, joining Palestinian militias in an openly declared attempt to destroy the Jews. It was the worst of several Israeli-Arab wars: 1% of the Jewish population died, as well as thousands of Arabs. More than half a million Palestinians lost their homes; some fled, some were driven out by Israeli forces.
Ben-Gurion’s iron-will leadership during the fateful 1 1/2 years of that touch-and-go war turned him from “first among equals” in the Zionist leadership into a modern-day King David. The crux of his leadership was a lifelong, partly successful struggle to transplant a tradition of binding majority rule in a painfully divided Jewish society that for thousands of years had not experienced any form of self-rule, not even a central spiritual authority. In the early years of the state, many Israelis saw him as a combination of Moses, George Washington, Garibaldi and God Almighty. In admirers as well as vehement opponents, Ben-Gurion’s wrathful-father personality evoked strong emotions: awe, anger, admiration, resentment. When I first met him in 1959, I was mesmerized by his physical intensity: he was a mercurial man, almost violently vivacious. There was a fistlike tightness to his argument: bold, peasant-simple, piercing, seductively warm and, for one or two gracious moments, revealing his cheerful, childlike curiosity.
Between 1949 and 1956, Arab states drew Israel into a cycle of guerrilla attacks and retaliatory raids. In 1956 Ben-Gurion, aware of an Egyptian military buildup, escalated the conflict by storming the Sinai peninsula. The operation was coordinated with a French-British assault on Egypt. To Arabs, this was further proof of Israel as a tool of imperialism. To Israelis, this was Ben-Gurion’s way of
The swift military victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 evoked unruly territorial appetites and an obsession with holy sites. The Old Man, well into his 80s, raised his voice for the last time. Keep Jerusalem undivided, he said, but otherwise we must suppress our yearnings for the newly gained regions; we must relinquish them in return for peace. The October War of 1973 came as a nemesis, a harsh slap of reality, undoing the post-1967 Israeli arrogance and moral callousness. Ben-Gurion died a few weeks after that war, while a wounded, deflated Israel was mourning its heavy losses and entering a long period of soul searching. Can this identity crisis be traced back to Ben-Gurion and the founding mothers and fathers of Israel? Were they no more than a bunch of lunatics, attempting to perform on a 20th century stage a bizarre blend of biblical yearnings, 19th century nationalism, socialism and Jewish Messianism? Did Ben-Gurion, at the end of the day, devote his life to a fleeting, surreal vision of resurrecting the Jewish people as a modern, democratic nation in their ancient land?
The dream is a reality now – albeit a flawed, disappointing reality. Perhaps it is in the nature of dreams and visions to remain magnificently flawless only for as long as they are unfulfilled. Ben-Gurion always wanted Israel to become a “Light unto the Nations,” an exemplary polity abiding by the highest moral standards. He himself, and his Israel, could hardly live up to such expectations. But he was, to borrow a literary term, a fantastic realist who gave his people an elemental, Old Testament leadership during the most fateful half-century in their history.
Israeli essayist and author Amos Oz’s most recent book is Panther in the Basement