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Anita Shapira Examines the Rise and Fall of David Ben-Gurion

Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel
By Anita Shapira
Yale University Press, 288 pages, $25

Another book on David Ben-Gurion? Many are the studies of the iconic Zionist leader — Shabtai Teveth’s massive and comprehensive political biography, “The Burning Ground,” is an analysis from the political center; Ben-Gurion confidant Michael Bar Zohar’s 1968 “Ben Gurion: The Armed Prophet,” also centrist, emphasizes Ben-Gurion’s role in developing Israel’s armed forces; Robert St. John’s “Ben-Gurion: Builder of Israel” paints a colorful picture of Ben-Gurion: his insatiable scholarly curiosity, his militant insistence on democratic methods in crafting the future state.

But why not another book? More than any other Zionist leader, there is an inevitability about David Ben-Gurion — there are few junctures in 20th-century Jewish history at which he is not present, indeed directing traffic.

Anita Shapira, professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, by acclamation the dean of historians of Zionism and the State of Israel, brings it all together in her compact but masterful “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel.”

Shapira, a longtime fan of Ben-Gurion’s moderate socialist Mapai party, is a Ben-Gurion enthusiast. But “Ben-Gurion” is hardly a hagiography. The eponymous “Father” emerges as less than perfect in his personal life, and flawed in many of his professional relationships. But going beyond earlier treatments of Ben-Gurion, Shapira’s book takes the Ben-Gurion biography past the mythopoeic, and elegantly and insightfully delves into Ben-Gurion’s personality, explores the lifelong friendships he made (and some that he didn’t), and helps us understand the passions — ideological, political, fiercely personal — that drove him and that made him “the father of modern Israel.”

Shapira has an unusual talent for presenting historical context. Ideological struggles amongst early Zionists; the precarious position of the Ottoman Empire, long the overlord in Palestine; the contrast between the American Jewish and European Jewish prewar landscapes; the contexts for armed conflict with Arab countries — all are cogently and clearly composed.

Shapira is master storyteller as well, narrating Ben-Gurion’s early years in Płońsk, Poland and his early embrace of Hebrew culture and socialist-collectivist ideology. Did Ben-Gurion truly understand the visionary Zionist-socialist Ber Borochov’s principles? Who cares, ultimately. But in one page Shapira enables us to understand how Borochov married Zionism and socialism, producing a collectivist ideology that informed the development of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine), thence the early years of the State — all a prelude to what followed.

Unlike many writers on Zionist and Israeli history, Shapira provides a strong discussion of the development of the State’s political party structure. In the Yishuv, and in the new State, it was all about ideology and “movement,” a dynamic that the early pioneers brought with them from the ideological hothouse of Eastern Europe. Shapira understands this dynamic — and makes sure that the reader understands it as well. Early on in the book, in her discussion of the Poalei Zion and Hapoel Hatzair movements — everyone confuses these! — Shapira deftly walks us through the arcana of the Mapai/Labor, Achdut Ha’avodah, and Hashomer Hatzair movements, as well as the bitter struggles amongst and between right, left, and center that informed the institutions of Palestinian (and later, Israeli) society. Further, she explains why all of this is crucial to “getting” David Ben-Gurion.

The important piece of the political story is how Ben-Gurion (together with the brilliant Zionist leader Berl Katznelson) established a Labor hegemony that lasted until the Begin revolution of 1977. In three exceptionally concentrated pages Shapira tracks the political amalgamation of 1930 that led to the broad-based Mapai Party; the coalition that was hammered out in 1931 with the leading religious party, Mizrachi, and the center-right General Zionists; and Labor’s assertion of hegemony over the political system, the labor movement, and the Yishuv.

All this leads to Shapira’s superb narrative of Ben-Gurion as nation-builder par excellence; the gripping story of the War and post-War years and the 1947-49 War of Independence; and the description of the years leading up to Ben-Gurion’s departure from the government (the first time, that is) in 1953, and his sad decline in the 1970s into political irrelevance. Shapira emphasizes how at crucial moments in Israel’s history — the declaration of the State in 1948, the tilting toward the West (especially to America) rather than to the Soviet Union in the early 1950s — Ben-Gurion bucked his own party and his coalition.

All this is not to say that “Ben-Gurion” is not without flaws and crucial omissions. Shapira reports that “there was no official union between the Zionists and non-Zionists in fund-raising and assistance during the World War II and post-War years.” But it was the trauma of Kristallnacht in 1938 that brought together the non-Zionist JDC and the Zionist United Palestine Appeal to form the United Jewish Appeal, an absolutely crucial merger.

Immigration is central to the Ben-Gurion story. Ben-Gurion was fixated on the notion that immigration could provide enough mass for an independent nation — but his fixation did not come out of nowhere. Ben-Gurion may have called for a Jewish majority in Palestine, but it was Zionist visionary Arthur Ruppin, not Ben-Gurion, who first said that immigration was a sine qua non for Jewish Palestine — a no brainer today, but radical in the early decades of the 20th century.

Moreover, it was Ruppin whose idea it was that Zionists should buy and settle as much land as quickly as they could. This, he believed, was central to the Zionist enterprise. And it was Ruppin who, in an effort to avert a strike by agricultural workers, was the first to craft the idea of the collectivist agricultural settlement in Palestine: the kvutzah (thence the kibbutz). Ruppin, also, was one of the few who, early on, understood the nationalist positions of the Arab tribal communities in Palestine, and explained these to Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion and Ruppin had a number of significant interactions. Yet Shapira seems to have forgotten about Ruppin except to note in passing that Ruppin at some point became chairman of the Zionist Executive. That’s it?

Nevertheless, “Ben-Gurion” possesses formidable strengths. Crafted as a popular work for a broad audience, the book is an exemplar of what Anita Shapira does best: serious yet accessible history. “Ben Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” will be invaluable to scholars and students, as well as to general readers.

Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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