David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion; illustration by Andrea Ventura

“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.1 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.

In Segev’s telling, the man who intended to be a Zionist Lenin “became an Israeli King Lear.” The book’s structure reflects this rise-and-fall narrative. Part 1, “The Road to Power,” recounts the rise of the Leninist state builder. Part 2, “The Limits of Power,” describes his descent into a “spiteful and cantankerous, resentful and insufferable” Lear who has “lost touch with reality.” The allusion to Lear is taken from the Israeli writer Yizhar Smilansky, who meant to describe Ben-Gurion in his final years as isolated and persecuted, not as insufferable or mad.

The comparison to Lenin is more instructive. Like Lenin, Ben-Gurion was harsh, disciplined, bookish (an early influence on both was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and austere in appearance and manner. (The Russian revolutionary Georgi Plekhanov once wrote, “Don’t be too hard on Lenin…. Much of his strange behavior can be simply explained by the fact that he totally lacks a sense of humor.”) Both of them inspired admiration and awe, but only rarely love. Both were nicknamed “the Old Man” long before they were old. But the real connection lies in their political talent. Leading movements thick with ideology, they were thoroughly instrumental in their approach to politics and, too often, to people. They regarded politics as a means in the service of a grand, transformative vision, which only they properly grasped and only they could realize. And their method for realizing their visions was effective, centralized organization.


Segev recounts Ben-Gurion’s visit to Moscow in 1923. Standing in Red Square on the revolution’s sixth anniversary, he anticipated the main address by “Leib Ben-David Trotsky,” as he called the commissar in his diary, emphasizing his Jewishness. He was disappointed to learn that Trotsky was ill and that Lev Kamenev—another Jewish Bolshevik who would become a victim of Stalin’s purges—would be replacing him. Kamenev’s speech upset Ben-Gurion even more: “The whole time I waited for him to mention Lenin, but for some reason Lenin’s name was not mentioned during the day’s celebration.” He ended the day’s diary entry in dismay: “Why was Lenin’s name not mentioned?”

Though he valued Trotsky’s intelligence (“Lenin was Trotsky’s inferior in terms of intellect,” he once said), he admired Lenin’s grasp of power. This is how he described the dying Bolshevik on his way back to Palestine from Moscow:

A man who disdains all obstacles, faithful to his goal, who knows no concessions or discounts, the extreme of extremes; who knows how to crawl on his belly in the utter depths in order to reach his goal; a man of iron will who does not spare human life and the blood of innocent children for the sake of the revolution…he is not afraid of rejecting today what he required yesterday, and requiring tomorrow what he rejected today; he will not be caught in the net of platitude, or in the trap of dogma; for the naked reality, the cruel truth and the reality of power relations will be before his sharp and clear eyes…the single goal, burning with red flame—the goal of the great revolution.

For Ben-Gurion, this was more than the portrait of a great leader. It was a formula for great leadership.

David Ben-Gurion was born in 1886 in Płońsk, a Polish backwater town on the road from Warsaw to Gdańsk. The shtetl’s Jews, who made up more than half of its eight thousand residents, were a typical Pale of Settlement community: they were mostly uneducated and religious, and sustained themselves by small crafts and trade. The young David Gruen, as he was called before taking the name of a first-century Jewish rebel, received a traditional Jewish education and studied Hebrew, an indication of his father’s Zionist tendencies.

“I was born a Zionist,” he once said. His first Zionist activity, at fourteen, was to form an association for spreading the use of Hebrew in the Yiddish-speaking shtetl. In 1904 he left for Warsaw, where he picked up socialism (or a particular fusion of Marxism and nationalism devised by the socialist-Zionist wunderkind Ber Borochov) and joined a Zionist worker’s association. Two years later he sailed to Palestine and soon became active in a workers’ party there.

It was not all about ideology. For Ben-Gurion and his friends, as for many Jews of their generation, Zionism was as much a rebellion against the depressing conditions of Jewish life in Europe as it was a reaction to the perils of anti-Semitism. “We have no room to move!” cried the Ukrainian Micha Josef Berdichevsky (who also took the name Ben-Gurion). They detested the provincial backwardness into which they had been born, they resented their vulnerability as Jews to abuse and exploitation, and they suffocated under stale traditionalism. “There’s darkness in our tents and gloom in our lives,” Berdichevsky wrote, “our soul is teeming with resentment toward the past.”

Segev handles this mixture of adolescent melancholy, secular rebelliousness, and fin-de-siècle ideologies with skill. He has a knack for weaving together the mundane and the momentous, the personal and the political. As in all his books, Segev doesn’t just relay facts, he captures sensibilities. His revisionist accounts of various episodes in Israel’s history have earned him a place among its New Historians, who challenge the reigning Zionist narrative of the country’s formative period. In the past, he has set out to highlight the responsibility of the Zionist leadership for the deteriorating relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the British Mandate, to expose Zionist failures to aid and rescue Jews during the Holocaust and the young state’s mistreatment of Arabs and Mizrahi Jews, and to challenge the inevitability of the 1967 Six-Day War.

At the center of these dramas (barring the last) was Ben-Gurion. His presence in Segev’s previous books is consistently unfavorable, though sporadic. Now Segev has taken on the Old Man directly, and the result is milder than could have been expected. Zionist ineffectiveness during the Holocaust is described as tragic impotence: “What looked like indifference to the Holocaust and a lack of leadership was more than anything else helplessness.”2 The discriminatory treatment of Mizrahi newcomers by the predominantly European Israeli establishment is also handled with nuance: Ben-Gurion saw them as culturally lagging, not racially inferior. He considered closing the cultural gap a Zionist responsibility. When told that many among the Moroccan Jews were thieves, he replied, “I am a Polish Jew, and I doubt if there is any Jewish community which has more thieves in it than the Polish one.” At times one feels as if the force of Ben-Gurion’s character and the magnitude of his achievements, though scarcely acknowledged, mitigate Segev’s antagonism almost against his will.


“A homeland is not given or received as a gift and is not acquired by privileges and political contracts. It is not purchased with gold and not conquered by force; rather, it is built with sweat.” This declaration from Ben-Gurion’s book From Class to Nation (1933) expresses the creed of the Second Aliyah, as the wave of immigration to Palestine between the pogroms of 1903–1904 and World War I was called. This was a troubled time for Zionism. Theodor Herzl, who had founded the Zionist movement in 1897 and seemed uniquely capable of bringing its various factions to some form of collaboration, had died young in 1904. Jewish settlement in Palestine was floundering, and the Jewish masses fleeing poverty and pogroms in Europe were heading to America. While the Zionist leadership was scrambling for diplomatic achievements, which culminated in the 1917 Balfour Declaration affirming the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the young revolutionaries of the Second Aliyah believed in conquering the land by toiling it. This was both a political program and a source of right: they believed, with Brecht’s “men of old,” in acquisition by benefaction, “that what there is shall go to those who are good for it…. The valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit.”

Ben-Gurion saw the workers as “the rock on which the Temple of the future will be built,” as his friend and the Labor movement’s chief ideologue, Berl Katznelson, put it. But he realized that this would take more than sweat. The alternative to “hot air” diplomacy was not mindless settlement but effective organizing and institution building. Together with Katznelson, Ben-Gurion began a process of unifying the Labor movement and laying the foundations for a state-in-waiting.

His 1923 visit to Moscow was made in his capacity as secretary of the Histadrut. It was this office, which he occupied for more than a decade, that propelled him to the highest ranks of Zionist leadership. Officially, the Histadrut was a conglomerate of trade unions, responsible for promoting workers’ interests in the Yishuv, as the Jewish settlement in Palestine was called. Under Ben-Gurion it became the Jewish Agency’s operational arm, the primary executor of its settlement, agricultural, industrial, and defense programs. By 1930 it comprised three quarters of the workforce, providing everything from food, medicine, and education to banking, publishing houses, entertainment, and, of course, political affiliation.

The result was described by the Royal Peel Commission, dispatched by the British government in 1937 to assess the situation in Mandatory Palestine, as “a state within a State” (an assessment later quoted in the United Nations report that led to the Partition Plan for Palestine of 1947). If Herzl was the prophet of the Jewish state and Weizmann its advocate, Ben-Gurion was its chief architect and founder.

The transformation of local communal institutions into a state-in-waiting was a crucial achievement. (Former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad was often compared to Ben-Gurion when he tried to emulate this strategy.) The “state within a State” was not really a state: it lacked the authoritative power that comes with sovereignty. Ben-Gurion’s Leninist recipe for authority in a voluntary movement was organization, consolidation, and centralization. This required a constructive organizer who “knows how to crawl on his belly in the utter depths” and also a destructive “man of iron” who can ruthlessly crush opposition. An anecdote from his time at the Histadrut demonstrates this.

David Ben-Gurion at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the headquarters of the Histadrut, Israel’s national trade union organization

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

David Ben-Gurion at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the headquarters of the Histadrut, Israel’s national trade union organization, Jerusalem, 1924

Hashomer was a venerated Jewish defense organization founded in 1909 by Ben-Gurion’s Second Aliyah comrades; “Hebrew Buffalo Bills,” Arthur Koestler called them. With the consolidation of the Yishuv’s defense under the paramilitary Haganah (from which the Israel Defense Forces would later evolve) in 1920, Hashomer was disbanded. Some of its veterans were unrepentant revolutionaries who saw the Haganah and the Histadrut to which it was subordinate as ideologically diluted and too compromising in their socialism. They formed a clandestine militia that carried out unauthorized operations, including robberies and assassinations. It did not help that some of them had not accepted the young Ben-Gurion into the Hashomer ranks. When they refused to accept being disbanded, he ejected them from the Histadrut, depriving them of basic provisions. There was outrage: “Ben-Gurion is starving children and pioneers and depriving sick workers of medical aid!” But he did not back down.

Anita Shapira sees this episode as a fearless assertion of authority: “Someone threatened Ben-Gurion’s life. But he was not the kind of man to retreat because of threats…it was an opportunity he welcomed to demonstrate the Histadrut’s authority.” Segev presents it as unnecessary Bolshevik brutality. Although these Hashomer veterans “were not a real danger to the Histadrut,” he writes, Ben-Gurion seized the opportunity to settle old scores and crush his challengers.3

Segev consistently opts for the less charitable interpretation. In response to numerous attacks on Jewish life and property during the Arab Revolt of 1936, Ben-Gurion insisted on a policy of restraint. This was arguably one of the most fateful decisions in Zionist history, facilitating the authorization of a Jewish defense force and the establishment of a deepwater port in Tel Aviv, weakening the Yishuv’s reliance on Arab labor, and allowing a new wave of settlement.4 Segev, however, stresses the Haganah’s inadequate preparation and calls it “a continuation of the same failure that had been on display in 1929,” referring to the wave of Arab violence that took the Jews by surprise a few years earlier.

A more significant example is the conflict with the Revisionists, a militant, nationalist faction of the Zionist movement, which later evolved into the Likud party. Ben-Gurion described them as an enemy and the fight against them as a war. He called the Revisionist party “a Jewish Nazi party” and its leader, the Odessa-born writer Vladimir Jabotinsky, “Vladimir Hitler.” For Segev, this was all “verbal acrobatics.” In November 1944, following a series of terrorist attacks by the Revisionist underground organizations against British targets, Ben-Gurion ordered Haganah forces to crack down on them. Surrendering Jewish fighters to the resented Mandate authorities was no more popular among his ranks than restraint in the face of Arab violence had been a decade earlier. But he insisted: “The two are incompatible—either the way of the terrorists or the way of Zionism.”

According to Segev, this too was merely a political power play, “a struggle over who would rule the Jewish state that would be born after the war.” The differences between them—differences that arguably shape the political landscape in Israel to this day—are in his account negligible:

Jabotinsky was not a fascist any more than Ben-Gurion was a Marxist. Ben-Gurion was no less nationalist or militarist than Jabotinsky. The right-left divide in the Zionist movement was largely a matter of style and modes of operation, not of fundamental values. In the large picture, it was a fight over power more than it was over ideas.

It is true that Labor Zionists and Revisionists had the same goal: an independent state with a Jewish majority in historic Palestine. (Though arguably they had very different ideas about the character this state should have; the sympathy expressed by prominent Revisionists for fascism—saluting their leader as “Duce” and their unscrupulous targeting of civilians—might plausibly be taken to indicate differences in “fundamental values.”) Indeed, both parties were opposed to binationalism—the creation of a single state for both Jews and Arabs in Palestine—which was advocated in one form by the Communists and in another by a group of utopian intellectuals known as Brit Shalom. But the ideological conflicts in the Zionist movement cannot be reduced to the question of binationalism (a fanciful idea even by Segev’s account).

At a high enough altitude all differences disappear. For Segev, it seems, ideas belong to the sublime realm of fundamental values or goals. Everything else is just power, by which he means the struggle for personal gain and position. But between values and egos lies the domain of what is to be done—the domain of politics. That is where Ben-Gurion excelled.

He was a realist visionary, fiercely “faithful to his goal” but thoroughly instrumental and detached with regard to the means. The goal was consistent: securing a Jewish majority in Palestine. His basic premise was that “a Jewish ghetto is everywhere that there is a Jewish minority.” Only in a political entity where they constituted a majority would Jews be liberated from their dependence on the goodwill of others. Jewish immigration to Palestine, or aliyah, was therefore the sine qua non of his Zionism, and he was unyielding about it.

About the way to achieve it, however, he was cold and calculating and, as he wrote of Lenin, “not afraid of rejecting today what he required yesterday, and requiring tomorrow what he rejected today.” Though he believed that the Jews had a right to all of historic Palestine, he endorsed the Peel Commission’s proposal to divide it between the Jews and the Arabs. Recognizing the political potential of sovereignty and appreciating the urgency of providing refuge to Europe’s Jewry, which he realized was facing catastrophe, he advocated for partition in the face of fierce opposition even from his closest allies (to which Segev gives short shrift, emphasizing instead Ben-Gurion’s interest in the commission’s proposal to transfer Arabs out of the Jewish state). Where they saw compromise of long-held principles, he saw a state.5

The partition proposal of 1937 was rejected by the Arabs and shelved, and with war looming, attention shifted elsewhere. In 1940 Ben-Gurion traveled to London, where he indulged his bibliophilia at Blackwell’s (“my dream store”) and discovered another type of leadership. Churchill, he wrote, “is not just a leader, but the family’s father, beloved and venerated.” Here was a man who could “lift an entire nation from the depths of humiliation and defeat” by the force of his vision and the contagiousness of his courage. This would be Ben-Gurion’s model in 1947, as leader of the Yishuv at its most perilous moment: embroiled in a civil war with the Arab militias and facing invasion by four Arab armies.

But his political acumen truly shone earlier, in the years leading up to that point. Though he admired British fortitude, he soon realized that Russia and the United States would be the dominant postwar powers and that the fate of Zionism would depend on its ability to garner US support. Analyzing the political conditions in America, he came to the conclusion that this could be achieved not by Weizmannesque behind-the-scenes personal diplomacy but by mobilization of US public opinion. As Isaiah Berlin, an admirer of Weizmann, later acknowledged, “Weizmann was wrong and Ben Gurion nearer to understanding the forces at play.”

He also understood the forces at play in Palestine. Though he shared the Yishuv’s loathing of the policy laid out by the British government in its 1939 White Paper, which restricted Jewish purchases of land in and immigration to Palestine when thousands of refugees were fleeing Hitler’s Europe, he recognized that the decisive war would be with the Arab states, while “everyone was still captive to the perception that the British were the enemy.”6 Segev again finds negligence: “He did not prepare the Haganah for the coming war, just as he had not prepared it previously for the challenges of the 1920s and 1930s.” Other historians evaluate his contribution more positively, even as crucial.7

Ben-Gurion didn’t have Herzl’s charisma, Weizmann’s charm, or Jabotinsky’s rhetoric. But he had rare political acumen. He saw where the tectonic plates of world politics were moving and could identify cracks of opportunity. His talent for organizing and mobilizing in order to seize those opportunities made him a singular asset to the national movement. The confidence of his vision made him decisive, but also headstrong and at times authoritarian. He often identified what he thought with what the state needed. Yet this was not a narcissistic l’état c’est moi posturing but the zeal of conviction. And the conviction was that Jews needed a state of their own, almost at any cost. Segev seems more impressed by the cost than by the state.

As Israel’s first prime minister, Ben-Gurion presided over some of the young state’s formative moments—first and foremost the 1948 war with its Arab neighbors and the resulting uprooting of Palestine’s Arabs. In the words of his successor Levi Eshkol, the Israelis wanted as much of the dowry (the land) with as little of the bride (the Arab population) as possible. When the opportunity presented itself to get rid of Arabs by allowing them to flee or actively expelling them, Ben-Gurion was not reluctant to take it, which resulted in the exodus of more than 700,000, known as the Nakba (catastrophe). After the war, he imposed a military administration on the remaining Arabs, which continued until 1966. When France and the United Kingdom encouraged Israel to invade the Sinai Peninsula after Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal in the summer of 1956, he was cautious, but let Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres lure him into the adventure. When Israeli troops reached the canal, Ben-Gurion went biblical and enthusiastically spoke of the “Third Israelite Kingdom,” only to have to begin a full retreat a week later. These and other episodes of the period are still subject to intense debate, and Segev usually sides with Ben-Gurion’s critics, but he presents them fairly and with the right level of detail.

Perhaps the only thing about Ben-Gurion that is beyond contention is that he was contentious—he once described himself as “a man of strife and contention,” echoing Jeremiah’s self-pity. He was headstrong, irritable, blunt, and unforgiving. His instrumentalism often extended even to the people closest to him. Though he was not brutal (even a cursory comparison with Lenin’s handling of dissent suffices to show that the analogy between them only goes so far), he could be ruthless, cruel, and vindictive. His forgiveness of “patriotic” crimes (most notably the massacre of seventy Arabs, mostly women and children, in a retributive attack carried out by Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 in the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953) set toxic precedents, and his enchantment with unruly militants like Dayan and Sharon who were responsible for such crimes—the rugged Sabras he could never become—had detrimental consequences and created rifts with his closest allies. As Segev vividly recounts, his leadership became increasingly resented and his authority rapidly eroded, and he resigned as prime minister in 1963.

Ben-Gurion’s final years, which he spent secluded in his desert refuge, were not glorious. He was not so much a Lear hallucinating in the storm as an embittered Zionist relic. He was unable to let go but no longer capable of making a positive contribution; his ungainly interventions undermined his successors and along the way his own legacy, as he seemed increasingly obsessive, spiteful, and unhinged.8

Every day, thousands line up in Red Square to visit the tomb of Lenin, once a Soviet saint, now a nationalist icon. Ben-Gurion’s grave, atop a cliff overlooking the Negev desert, is not a site of pilgrimage. During his lifetime, he had many admirers and many rivals, but hardly any friends. Since his death in 1973 there have been mostly mythmakers and critics.

Ben-Gurion was not a saint and should not be made into one posthumously. An unvarnished account of his vices is essential, but so is an appreciation of his merits. Moving past iconoclasm seems particularly timely in view of the current hollow men contending to succeed him—for whom realism is a euphemism for opportunism, and vision is whatever the latest polls say.