Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Anita Shapira on David Ben Gurion

Anita Shapira, perhaps the single most important historian of modern Israel, has a short, new-ish biography: Ben Gurion, Father of Modern Israel, which I recently read. It's a fine way to get an overlook of his life without delving into the endless minutiae of political infighting in Mandatory Palestine, 20th century Zionism and the first few decades of the State of Israel. I came away from it with a number of new insights.

First, while Ben Gurion is the towering figure of 20-century Jewry (neither Sigmund Freud nor Albert Einstein contributed much to the history of the Jews), he wasn't clearly destined for greatness. Yes, he belonged to the near mythical generation of the 2nd-Aliya immigrants who came to Ottoman Palestine at the turn of the 20th century and formed the wellspring and leadership of Zionism for decades - but no, he played no significant role at the time. Actually, he remained mostly unknown or at least unremarkable even to most Zionists until as late as 1942, when he became a major proponent of the Biltmore Program which explicitly strove to create a sovereign Jewish State.

Second, his greatness expressed itself mainly in the decade between 1942 and 1953, when he repeatedly saw better than others both the dangers and potentials of the situation, and mostly succeeded in wrenching events in the direction he felt was best. This included wresting leadership of the Zionist movement from Chaim Weitzman, in a profound change from a political movement which sought political and diplomatic progress, to a national movement which focused mainly of facts on the ground. He recognized that the real enemies were the Arabs, not the British, and facing them would require a modern army, not a militia. He understood the need for arms to be acquired and prepared so as to arrive in Israel immediately after the British departure. He saw the historic significance of bringing close to a million Jews into Israel, even though the majority were Mizrachi Jews from the Arab world, and not the familiar Yiddish speakers from Europe, most of whom had been murdered in the Shoah, and even though the effort required of Israel's citizenry were gigantic and prolonged. And sundry other achievements.

Third, as he grew older (he was 62 when Israel was founded) he became a bit of a bore or a crank, and while he remained at the helm until 1963 (with one year off in 1953), the heroic ability to forge reality was gone. Indeed, from 1960 onward, until the end of his political career towards the end of the 1960s, he seems to have been quite an oddball, furiously feuding with his party and many others over a series of issues in which, according to Shapira, he was probably right, but who cared and why was it worth all the arguments? He reverted to a father of the nation figure only in his final, post-politics years (when we all referred to him as Hazaken, the Old Man, a moniker no-one ever thought to apply to Shimon Peres, say, who died at 93 compared to BG's 87).

Only after he left politics, and since his death, has memory of those final bitter years dissipated. Who today remembers Pinchas Lavon, say, or the Rafi party? No one under the age of 55, I'd hazard to guess, and not even most of them.

A great yarn, a fascinating story, and a wonderful opportunity for some enterprising young biographer who's willing to spend a decade or two writing a full-blown biography.

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