Calling David Ben-Gurion

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, February 3, 2011

Times like these tend to remind us what a rare thing is great statesmanship. How many leaders are capable of wedding long-term vision with the nuts and bolts of politics and institutions, let alone an understanding of great historical forces with the will to shape them and the wisdom to know the will's limits? Yet such flesh-and-blood creatures have indeed emerged; in modern Jewish history, one of them was David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), the Zionist leader, founder of the state of Israel, and its first and longest-serving prime minister.

Diminutive in person, Ben-Gurion was a colossus in life and in memory. For that reason alone, no doubt, he has come in for his share of hard knocks at the hands of later generations of critics and historians, both Zionist and post-Zionist. Undeniably great but far from likable, ruthless when he wanted to be, he lacked the saintly aura of Berl Katznelson, his colleague at the head of the workers' movement, or the romantic personality cult of his political nemesis Zeev Jabotinsky. Now that the Labor establishment that he created through the Mapai party is a thing of the past, Ben-Gurion's failings loom, for some, especially large.  

A full, rounded assessment of the man and his accomplishments is something else again—a task made all the more daunting by the sheer magnitude of his life and of the records he left behind. A number of biographers have tried, including the redoubtable Shabtai Teveth and Michael Bar-Zohar, and a host of writers have incorporated Ben-Gurion into their works on a range of subjects. The latest attempt at a full-blown treatment is by Shlomo Aronson, professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University, whose David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Renaissance, first issued in Hebrew in 1999, has newly appeared in English translation.

Full of interesting insights and richly researched, Aronson's book is, alas, a mess—terribly written, dizzyingly disorganized, and awkwardly translated. Worse, it assumes a reader already well-acquainted with the ins and outs of many major chapters in the history of Israel and Zionism, weaves associatively among periods, trains of thought, and lines of argument, and bristles with sneers at those, whether historical figures themselves or scholars of Zionism, who do not share Aronson's particular views or his wholly unqualified admiration of his subject.

Why, then, bother with the book at all? Because Aronson is on to something. The story of Ben-Gurion's political life needs to be told in tandem with the story of his ideas, for rarely in one person has this-worldly pragmatism been fused so strikingly with the life of the mind. This is what Aronson has attempted to do, and it is a genuine pity that he does it so poorly.   

Take the keyword "Renaissance" in Aronson's subtitle, a term he takes great pains to develop. "Renaissance" was indeed a major, stirring, theme of much modern Jewish thought, east and west. Yet Aronson persists in presenting Ben-Gurion as a figure from a different Renaissance, the humanist efflorescence of the 16th century. The historical analogy is not only inapposite but obscures a crucial element of Ben-Gurion and his program—not renaissance, but revolution. Indeed, while failing to develop the theme, Aronson himself points to Ben-Gurion's indebtedness to the thought of Micha Yosef Berdyczewsky (1865–1921) a Jewish cultural revolutionary if ever there was one.

For Ben-Gurion, as Shlomo Avineri has put it, Zionism was, first, "a revolt against the Jewish tradition; second, to carry out this revolution . . . one ha[d] to seek the social subject able to carry it out"—that is, the Labor movement and "its practical activity in creating the social infrastructure for a Jewish society in Palestine." Or, in Ben-Gurion's own words, typically both gruffer and more grandiose:  

Judaism of religious practice and tradition is Judaism of the ghetto. Judaism in a Jewish state is Judaism of labor and creativity in every field of economic and scientific endeavor, for all of man's needs.

From today's perspective, one may not know whether to laugh or to weep at what history has made of the idea that drip irrigation and workers' collectives could supplant the vastness and reach of Jewish tradition. Yet several generations of Zionists were undeniably willing to stake their lives on the vision of social justice it entailed for them.

Aronson is on firmer ground when integrating his reconstruction of Ben-Gurion's evolving ideas into the subjects of his own earlier books on the response of the Zionist leadership to the Holocaust and the development of Israel's nuclear capacity. It was the radical powerlessness of the earlier experience, marked by the "almost inescapable trap" of European Jews and the agonizingly limited room for maneuver left to the Palestinian Yishuv, that, Aronson says, ultimately led to the later initiative. That initiative (in which Ben-Gurion's young protégé Shimon Peres played a crucial role) demonstrated an extraordinary ability to integrate realpolitik with historical drama, entailing as it did working with Germany even as he was bringing Adolf Eichmann to trial.

Aronson's harshest scorn is reserved for Ben-Gurion's intellectual critics in the young state, whose mounting unease focused on his centralizing approach to institution-building and his adoption, throughout the 1950s, of increasingly messianic language and symbolism. In these moves by his hero, Aronson sees an effort to replicate the strongly centralized British model of governance, which, after an early flirtation with Leninism, Ben-Gurion came deeply to admire. This system would, under democratic auspices, give him the administrative authority to grow a new state from scratch. 

It was no accident, however, that among Ben-Gurion's critics were giants of the field of Jewish history, like Jacob Katz and Gershom Scholem, who keenly understood both the seductiveness and the potential for havoc of messianic rhetoric, especially when allied to veneration of the state. (Today, it is mind-boggling to think of an incumbent prime minister inviting the country's leading scholars and intellectuals to his home for a robust philosophical argument in which the man of action could give as good as he got; but that, too, was Ben-Gurion.) In a marvelously apt phrase, the American military historian Eliot A. Cohen has summarized Ben-Gurion's leadership as combining "Jewish patriotism and rough humanitarianism." True; but his critics were right to fear the injection of messianic pathos into political life.

To Ben-Gurion, statehood without meaning would not survive. Surprisingly, Aronson makes little use of his subject's key concept of mamlakhtiyut, a hard-to-translate term perhaps best rendered as "state-consciousness": an identification with the purposes of government that would transform Diaspora masses into the citizenry of an independent Jewish commonwealth. Whatever the virtues of this concept, it also involved a further and more specific identification—namely, with Labor and the Mapai party—that has made it difficult for Israeli society to find its bearings in the very changed circumstances of today. 

Granting all this, one still has not penetrated to the core. Ben-Gurion was clear-eyed about what a state was and wasn't, and what its arms could and couldn't do. The man who muscularly declared Jewish independence, at a hinge moment of extreme risk and vulnerability, never lost sight of the constraints on that independence and the need simultaneously to accommodate and exploit them. The man who affirmed the need for a strong army, and who prosecuted the wars of 1948 and 1956 with full vigor, was the same man who denounced militarism and who judged in retirement that settling the territories gained in 1967 would put Israel in mortal danger.  A man of ideas and ideals, he managed never to be paralyzed by the gap between them and reality, instead forging a path that synthesized thinking and doing. Hardly without its attendant mistakes and failings, that synthesis, the possibility of such a synthesis, is perhaps his most inspiring legacy. 

Original footage of David Ben-Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence: May 14, 1948. (Hebrew)

                       


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