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"This Obstinate Little Man": Tom Segev on Ben-Gurion as the King Lear of Zionism

“A tiny, thick-set little man with white hair—a Pickwickian cherub.” This was Richard Crossman’s first impression in 1946 of David Ben-Gurion. As head of the Jewish Agency, the executive branch of the Zionist Organization, Ben-Gurion appeared before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry assessing the situation in Palestine after World War II. Crossman, a member of the committee, was as little impressed by Ben-Gurion’s appearance as he was by his testimony, which he found uninformative and insincere—“propaganda to his own people.”

Crossman and his fellow committee members were much more impressed by Chaim Weizmann, Ben-Gurion’s mentor-turned-adversary. With his candor, moderation, and gentlemanly charm, Weizmann converted Crossman to Zionism, as he had converted British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour three decades before and would later convert President Harry Truman. He was still the chair of the Zionist Organization, the highest position in the Zionist movement, but now he was old, sick, and increasingly sidelined, in no small part because Ben-Gurion undermined him. Crossman described Weizmann as “a weary and more humane version of Lenin, very tired, very ill, too old and too pro-British to control his extremists.”

But Weizmann was a diplomat, not a commissar. Crossman recognized that, appearances aside, it was Ben-Gurion who was “the Lenin of the Jewish Agency.” The comparison between the father of Bolshevism and Israel’s founding father and first prime minister has since become commonplace, and Tom Segev’s A State at Any Cost is no exception. “Ben-Gurion intended to be a Zionist Lenin,” he writes.

Ten years after the Russian Revolution, Stefan Zweig pondered Lenin’s success: “How could this obstinate little man…become so important?” Ben-Gurion was even shorter than the “little man at the Kremlin,” as H.G. Wells called the Bolshevik leader, but his hold on power lasted longer. For some forty years—from the 1920s to the 1960s—he dominated the Zionist movement and the state it created.

Two extensive biographies of Ben-Gurion were written almost half a century ago: one by Michael Bar-Zohar, with whom Ben-Gurion collaborated, and the other by the historian Shabtai Teveth (on which Segev relies extensively). More recently, Anita Shapira presented a historian’s portrait, and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres offered a protégé’s impressions of his mentor.

 Long and rich in detail, A State at Any Cost offers a lucid account of Ben-Gurion’s tumultuous life and complex character, but it provides scant insight into what made this obstinate little man so important.

In an interview following the book’s publication in Hebrew, Segev explained:

I was mainly interested in the human Ben-Gurion, including his tormented relationship with his wife, Paula, and other women. The Labor Party and socialism didn’t interest me especially.

Indeed, he irreverently expatiates on Ben-Gurion’s less flattering sides—his extramarital affairs; his troubled relationships with his family and friends; his anxieties, mood swings, lapses into sentimentality, and occasional attachment to unrealistic fancies and quack ideas (like his notion of converting Israel’s Arabs to Judaism, his proposal to declare war on the British Empire in 1930, or his attraction to mysticism—he consulted a fortune-teller and once claimed to have seen a flying saucer).

He was a decent polemicist but a poor interlocutor. He had a sense of history but no sense of humor. He had a weakness for books—he bought more than he could afford and wrote more than he could properly craft—but lacked literary sensibility. Though he admired scholarship and science, he was ultimately a man of action. And it is his public actions that most deserve attention.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books