Big Ben

David: The Story of Ben Gurion

by Maurice Edelman
Putnam, 216 pp., $4.95

A spectator at the annual Bible quiz in Jerusalem, an amateur of yoga, a pocket messiah, a shock-headed Peter in a white open-necked shirt at even the most ceremonial occasions, or in Richard Crossman’s eyes “a Pickwickian cherub”—Ben Gurion has acquired the public images, the character, of statesmen who have been in the lime-light for many years. Photographs of his face cast in a slightly truculent mood appear all over Israel, and it is simple to conclude with Mr. Edelman that he has “entered the mythology of his people.” Indeed it is hard to separate him from the spectacular achievement of the Jewish national home, and as with Churchill during his 1951 government, controversy about his policies was considered ungrateful. Before Ben Gurion retired, however, one was likely to hear Israelis, depending on their convictions, say that he was bent on becoming a dictator, on shattering his party for the sake of office, or had sold out on socialism.

Ben Gurion for a long time seemed to express Zionism. Yet to Jews engaged in the struggle, he was merely one politician among many contending for the supremacy of their ideas as the problems of Palestine’s growth succeeded one another. Mr. Edelman has only to relate the facts of his career to give a picture of a whole movement. Born in Plonsk, a small town in the Pale, Ben Gurion was twenty when he came to Palestine with that mixture of inspiration and radicalism which the Jewish pioneers created. His early experiences—working as a farmhand in Galilee, as a journalist and then a labor organizer; attending schools in Warsaw, Salonika, and Constantinople; owing allegiance to the Turks and serving later as a British corporal recruited in New York—all were typical for men of his generation of Zionists, the Second Aliyah. These men from Eastern Europe, fervent and toughened, laid the basis of the state, as well as its institutions, which they have since shaped and controlled.

During the Mandate, the Jewish institutions were “the state within the state” and here Ben Gurion began his career, being elected sectary general of Histadrut, the trade union complex which has been the source of much power and patronage. It was his “modern organizational approach,” says Mr. Edelman, which ensured the rescue of Jewish colonizing from a precarious beginning. “In some other manifestation, he might have become a great businessman with a chain of stores stretching across the U.S.A. or Great Britain.” So years of factionalism are put aside, and Ben Gurion’s skill at acquiring the right office at the right moment, and holding it, is accepted on its face. In this kind of biography, events are supposed to explain their causes, and the recital of success is its own analysis. But what of his contemporaries and rivals, were they the lesser businessmen, their ideologies so many unsatisfactory small shops? And to obscure the issue of personality, Ben Gurion is described within a few pages as a …

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