Biographies of Ben-Gurion, Begin
Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel by Anita Shapira. Translated by Anthony Berris.(Yale University Press, 288 pp. $24.95)
Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul by Daniel Gordis. (Schocken, 320 pp. $27.95)
The lives of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin are central to understanding modern Israeli history. Ben-Gurion, of course, is considered the founder of the State of Israel and was the Jewish state’s first prime minister, while Begin was Ben-Gurion’s longtime opponent who ushered in a new era when he became prime minister in 1977. Each has received a new biography that offers vastly different portrayals of its subject and his political foil.
Of the two books, Anita Shapira’s Ben-Gurion is the more straightforward. Perhaps too carefully at times, she traces Ben-Gurion’s life from his youth in Eastern Europe to his rise as a Labor Zionist leader to his assumption of the reins of the nascent Jewish state. Ben-Gurion, originally David Green of Plonsk, Poland, early on didn’t appear to have the qualities to become a successful head of state. He wasn’t charismatic or warm, nor was he a brilliant orator, but he was decisive and, as Shapira puts it, “often right,” particularly in the years surrounding Israel’s independence in 1948. Ben-Gurion sensed that consolidating the state and its institutions should trump everything else, insisting, for example, on folding the prestate Jewish militias into the Israeli army. At the same time, Ben-Gurion was a pragmatist, willing to adjust his pro-Labor principles for the greater cause of Israel.
While extolling his virtues, Shapira, a historian, also explores Ben-Gurion’s weaknesses. His brilliance didn’t last for his whole career. After his self-imposed exile at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the 1950s, Ben-Gurion returned to political life and got caught up in Labor Party infighting. Like Winston Churchill, Shapira writes, Ben-Gurion was at his best when pushed by historical circumstances.
Shapira is less successful when delving into Ben-Gurion’s personality. As she puts it, Ben-Gurion “tended not to display his feelings, and tracing his inner self is difficult.”
Begin only features as a minor player in Shapira’s work, but Ben-Gurion is a major foil in Daniel Gordis’s Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. Gordis is more successful than Shapira at explaining his subject’s inner motivations and crafting a compelling read. Gordis focuses on Begin’s devotion to Judaism and his love of the Jewish people as the animating factors of his political life. Born to a more religious family than Ben-Gurion in what is today Belarus, Begin became a follower of the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and, as a university student, became known as a fiery speaker.
If Ben-Gurion’s career was marked by pragmatism, Begin’s was marked by intensity. Gordis, the senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, captures this passion and turns it into a riveting story that reaches its zenith in 1977: Begin’s rise to power came with the support of Israel’s Jewish disenfranchised, including poorer people and Sefardim who felt neglected by Ben-Gurion’s long-reigning Labor Party.
Ben-Gurion, Gordis writes, “was unfair to Menachem Begin—consistently and mercilessly,” recounting the major events in Begin’s life as if needing to vindicate him at Ben-Gurion’s expense.
Gordis scores some major points, none more so than when retelling the story of the 1948 Altalena crisis, when Ben-Gurion ordered soldiers to fire on the members of Begin’s Jewish militia who had yet to agree to join the centralized army and were trying to smuggle arms into the nascent Israeli state. Several lives were lost in the ensuing violence; additional deaths were averted only because Begin ordered his troops not to fire back.
At other times, however, Gordis overreaches in trying to deflect blame from his subject. Begin played important roles in the prestate King David Hotel bombing, which killed more than 90 people, and the killings of Arabs at Deir Yassin during Israel’s War of Independence. In Gordis’s explanation, however, Begin shouldered the entire blame for the events while Labor leaders hypocritically denied any roles in the incidents. For his role in these events, Begin spent years as something of a pariah, both to Israel’s Labor Party and to some American Jews.
Despite their political and personal differences, however, Ben-Gurion and Begin also shared some intriguing similarities. Although he had a reputation for unstinting devotion to principles, Begin was a compromiser, no more so than when he made historic peace with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s. As Ben-Gurion did in the 1950s, Begin, in 1983, left public life exhausted. Unlike Ben-Gurion, however, Begin didn’t return to politics, instead living as a recluse until he died nine years later.
Peter Ephross edited Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players (McFarland).