In one of his more whimsical short stories, the late Israeli satirist Efraim Kishon pits two characters against one another in a game of “Jewish poker,” a game “played without cards, in your head, as befits the People of the Book.” The rules are simple: Whoever thinks of a higher number wins the round. In the end, one character, sure of his triumph, reports that he has thought of infinity. The other, not to be outdone, cries, “Ben-Gurion!” and takes the pot. Both players accept that there can be no higher.
In a concise new biography, Anita Shapira, professor emerita of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and doyenne of Israeli historians, expertly charts David Ben-Gurion’s transformation from labor leader (as secretary-general of the Histadrut, or General Federation of Jewish Labor, 1921-35) to national figure (as prime minister, 1948-53, and minister of defense, 1955-63). Along the way, she gives us the materials to understand why Israel’s founding father remains, in the eyes of many Israelis, both the ne plus ultra of statesmanship and an enduring presence in the country’s political imagination.
The man at the center of one of the great dramas of the 20th century came into the world as the son of a petti-fogger from Plonsk, Poland. The teenage Ben-Gurion joined the Marxist Zionist party (Poale Zion) and left town at age 18 for Warsaw, where he discovered his life’s purpose. Unlike the devout Jews who placed their trust in God, or the assimilationists who put their trust in Europe’s enlightened hospitality, Ben-Gurion advocated self-trust. He resolved early on that emigration to Palestine was the only way to save imperiled Jewish life and achieve autonomy. This, in Shapira’s telling, remained the first of his lifelong imperatives, the fulcrum of his career in politics: “This state cannot exist without the Jewish people,” he said, “and the Jewish people cannot exist without the state.”
The short young man, though not favored with charisma, trusted mightily in his own destiny. “God or nature,” he wrote in 1904, “endows the genius with sublime talents, not out of love for him, but from a desire to bestow upon the world sublime creations. . . . I trust in the future ahead of me.”
In 1906, when he was not yet 20, Ben-Gurion acted on that trust and followed his convictions to Palestine. In his last letter to his father before embarking, he wrote: “A few more hours and I will have left the dark recesses of exile, and from the freedom of the high seas, on the way to the land of our rebirth, I shall send you my greetings.”
But after several years working as a farm hand in agricultural settlements, the new immigrant became persuaded that the Jewish rebirth in Palestine, a country which had been under Ottoman rule for four centuries, would depend on the pashas’ favor. In 1912, he donned a fez and traveled to Istanbul with a forged matriculation diploma from a Russian gymnasium. He intended to acquire an Ottoman legal education and, ultimately, to join the Turkish parliament “so I shall be able to defend Zionism.”
The second of Ben-Gurion’s un-wavering aims was to secure the support of a world power for the Zionist project. (Compared with this, he often said, reaching an agreement with the Arabs paled in significance.) The aim may have been unchanging, but at a time that saw the dissolution of three empires (Russian, Turkish, and British), the favor of great powers would prove fickle. Shortly after Ben-Gurion’s return to Palestine after three years of study in Istanbul, the Turks decided to deport Zionist activists. Ben-Gurion fled to New York. There, he met Paula Munweis, a nurse from Minsk who would be his wife for the next 51 years.
After the Great War, Ben-Gurion returned to Palestine and devoted himself to courting British power. He toiled to exploit both the Balfour Declaration of 1917—which had pledged British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine—and Winston Churchill’s declaration, five years later, that Jews were in Palestine “of right, and not on sufferance.”
At the same time, Ben-Gurion, whose Zionism had been inflected early with Marxism, remained ever alert to the rise of Soviet power. As a young man, he had translated a book by the mercurial Marxist professor Werner Sombart, the first book on socialism to be published in Hebrew. Ben-Gurion expressed great admiration for Lenin’s ruthless will and regarded the October Revolution as a “sacred revolt.” He visited Moscow in 1923 in a failed bid to soften the Kremlin’s hostility toward Zionism and to forge ties with Soviet trade unions.