Ben-Gurion: A Political Life (Jewish Encounters Series)
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Part of the Jewish Encounter series
Israel’s current president gives us a dramatic and revelatory biography of Israel’s founding father and first prime minister.
Shimon Peres was in his early twenties when he first met David Ben-Gurion. Although the state that Ben-Gurion would lead through war and peace had not yet declared its precarious independence, the “Old Man,” as he was called even then, was already a mythic figure. Peres, who came of age in the cabinets of Ben-Gurion, is uniquely placed to evoke this figure of stirring contradictions—a prophetic visionary and a canny pragmatist who early grasped the necessity of compromise for national survival. Ben-Gurion supported the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, though it meant surrendering a two-thousand-year-old dream of Jewish settlement in the entire land of Israel. He granted the Orthodox their first exemptions from military service despite his own deep secular commitments, and he reached out to Germany in the aftermath of the Holocaust, knowing that Israel would need as many strong alliances as possible within the European community.
A protégé of Ben-Gurion and himself a legendary figure on the international political stage, Shimon Peres brings to his account of Ben-Gurion’s life and towering achievements the profound insight of a statesman who shares Ben-Gurion’s dream of a modern, democratic Jewish nation-state that lives in peace and security alongside its Arab neighbors. In Ben-Gurion, Peres sees a neglected model of leadership that Israel and the world desperately need in the twenty-first century.
nurse named Paulina Munbaz, known as Paula. Russian-born and Yiddish-speaking like himself, she was by some accounts a member of Poalei Zion, but by her own account was not a particularly ardent Zionist. Nevertheless they married in December 1917 in a civil ceremony, with a view to making their lives in Eretz Yisrael after the war. As a young man in Ben-Gurion’s bureau, I was once privy to the couple’s reminiscing about their life together in America. Like everything else about them, it was
got a request: Speak to the delegation this evening.” He agreed, and we went back with him to that tension-filled basement. That congress in Basel was in many ways the defining moment for Zionism and for Ben-Gurion. Our picture of the Shoah, as the Holocaust was called in Hebrew, was complete by then, in all its ghastly details. During World War II the information available had always been only partial and sporadic. We did not have a full picture, in real time, of the magnitude of the disaster
single-minded drive to statehood, what Israel owes Diaspora Jewry, what the tiny pre-state collective was actually capable of accomplishing, and how the complex legacy of guilt, responsibility, heroism, and sacrifice continues to shape the country today. DAVID LANDAU: Ben-Gurion was accused of not doing enough, even of not caring enough about the carnage being wrought in Nazi-occupied Europe. Some even accused him of cynically exploiting the Holocaust in his single-minded pursuit of the Zionist
pursue it without hindrance. The dalliance with France was contrary to the pronounced Anglo-Saxon orientation of virtually the entire top political echelon in Israel at that time. Golda, who grew up in the United States; Sharett, who studied in Britain; Dov Yosef, who was Canadian-born; Reuven Shiloah,* who maintained close professional contacts with senior American intelligence people—all of them were Anglo-Saxon by background and outlook. Sharett was totally Anglophile, with all the mannerisms
said to him, “I’ve asked them and the answer is: The enemy did not cooperate!” Ben-Gurion shifted the domestic political equation by shifting Sharett from the foreign ministry to the secretary-generalship of the Mapai Party. Golda Meir, who did not shrink from the idea of preemptive war, took over at the foreign ministry. In July 1956 Nasser announced that he was nationalizing the Suez Canal, prompting the French and the British to think seriously about using military force to remove him. At a