‘A Knack for Handling Power’

David Ben-­Gurion, 1971
David Ben-­Gurion, 1971

Clarissa Eden, the widow of Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill’s niece, once asked my late wife, Edna, and me if we had an idea for someone capable of writing her husband’s biography. “What kind of biography do you have in mind?” Edna asked. “I want a big fat book that includes everything,” she said. “I don’t mind if it makes for boring reading, but I want everything in it, so that future historians could use this book as a reliable source book and make their own judgment about my husband’s achievements and failures.” The idea was clear: it is for our generation to report accurately and for future generations to judge soundly.

Anita Shapira is the author of a long, rich, and engaging biography of the Labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson, who died in Jerusalem in 1944 and was arguably the only true friend David Ben-Gurion ever had in his life. Now she writes about Ben-Gurion himself—a short biography of the kind that Clarissa Eden might have thought should be left for future generations.

Ben-Gurion retains his old admirers. But since his death in 1973 he has earned an increasing amount of grudging respect from old enemies. Moreover, his stature gains greatly from a comparison with the hollow men who rule Israel today. Shapira is an admirer with no grudge. She may be critical of some aspects of Ben-Gurion’s personality, but she is hardly critical of any that count. For her, Ben-Gurion had an amazingly robust sense of reality. He was able to judge clearly where events were heading and to confront them head-on with courage and determination. He emerged in a historical hour when quite different courses of action could have been chosen, and not only was he the founder of the State of Israel but he shaped, like no one else, the history of the Jews in modern times. Shapira quotes approvingly Katznelson’s description of Ben-Gurion as “history’s gift to the Jewish people.”

What made Ben-Gurion so respected among Jews and turned him from merely a powerful leader into a leader set apart from ordinary men by exceptional power and inspired vision was one big decision: to found the State of Israel, on May 14, 1948 (a day before the end of the British Mandate in Palestine). Would subsequent events have been different had Ben-Gurion not decided to declare the founding of Israel? Since the war with the Palestinian Arabs was by then in full swing, it is not clear that a decision not to found the Jewish state would have prevented the Arab states from joining the war. Events would then have proceeded much the same way as they did.

But let us assume that it was a decision that changed the historical course of events. Then the question becomes: Was it a great decision, at least from the Jews’ perspective?


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