Commentary Magazine


Ben Gurion, by Robert St. John

Israel’s Prime Minister
Ben Gurion: The Biography of an Extraordinary Man.
by Robert St. John.
Doubleday. 336 pp. $3.95.

 

A well-written biography of David Ben Gurion would make fascinating reading, and would be of far more than purely Jewish or “current affairs” interest. The task calls for a biographer of considerable erudition and talent, able to work comfortably in half a dozen languages, familiar with the history of three empires (Russian, Turkish, British) in the period of their dissolution, and conversant with the doctrinal disputes of socialism, Zionism, and their various hybrids. He would require independence of judgment and strong nerves, to withstand the various pressures against “washing dirty linen in public” which make most of what is published about Israel propagandist rather than scholarly.

Mr. St. John’s book, I fear, is something of a caricature of the faults the future biographer will have to avoid. The author has relied on the “Establishment” for his data, as his list of acknowledgments shows: the Prime Minister’s immediate entourage, Israeli public relations officials, foreign service officers, and notables of Ben Gurion’s own party form the overwhelming majority. He has not taken the trouble to elicit dissenting viewpoints, whether he deals with disputes between Ben Gurion and Petah Tikvah farmers fifty years ago or last year’s clashes in Parliament. He has, moreover, had no access to Hebrew-language sources.

The result is propaganda, hero worship, served up in Time-Life style journalese with lashings of “inspired and inspiring” writing (to use the dust-jacket’s phrase): “This was Ben Gurion the prophet, direct lineal descendant of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.” (The reader will wonder whether Mr. St. John had some reason for omitting Ezekiel or whether it was just an oversight.) “Ben Gurion is a man of many paradoxes. He is a three-dimensional [sic] man, living simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future.” “Ben Gurion’s mind is like an adjustable [sic] spotlight. It focuses on a single object with a bright beam, illuminating the most obscure corners.”

The reasonably well-informed reader will be able to pick out innumerable errors of fact, from the statement in the first chapter that Herzl went to Paris to “cover the Dreyfus spy case” to the account of the “German equipment” crisis with which the book ends. Worse still are the omissions of important aspects of recent Israeli politics, in particular the long and bitter feud between Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett (which is still running strong), the reasons Ben Gurion retired to Sde Boker and the reasons he came back, the break-up of the coalition with the General Zionists in 1955 and its various causes. It is charitable to assume that his informants failed to tell Mr. St. John about these episodes.

Were this book the only one of its kind, it would scarcely deserve comment, but the fact that so many books on Israel are propagandist, brash, and ill-informed is disturbing. In part, this reflects the highly charged emotional atmosphere in which Zionism still operates, as well as the fear that more objective presentation might discourage enthusiasm or the fund-raising on which the state has become accustomed to lean. In part, it helps bolster political morale inside Israel, in the face of a growing feeling that something is seriously wrong. It also meets the need of Western middle classes, Jews in particular, to believe in some Utopia or never-never land in which the normal laws of society are suspended, life has no seamy side, and people are motivated by ideas and ideals rather than by interests and prejudices.

In the short run, this state of affairs may be convenient to the Israeli and Zionist leaders, but in the long run it seems likely to do Israel more harm than good. For one thing, violent love affairs with never-never lands on the part of Western middle-class people usually lead to equally violent disillusion. Moreover, uncritical adulation helps put off the day when Israel will have to learn to grow up and pay its way, instead of expecting to be treated as an eternal infant prodigy among the nations.

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The pity of a book like St. John’s is that it obscures an extremely interesting political career which might serve as an object lesson in the problems of political democracy and social organization in the less advanced countries. Ben Gurion is no messiah or prophet; nor is he an original political thinker, as a glance at his writings will discover; and it is pure “personality cult” to try to present him as a philosopher. He is, however, an extremely talented” practical politician who helped shape and lead one of the few nationalist movements of this century which developed along democratic lines after achieving statehood.

Ben Gurion worked through the Israeli party system—indeed, he made it work. The system is cumbersome and wasteful; because more than 70 per cent of the national income is generated or distributed by party-controlled institutions, politics is the main avenue of personal advancement, and patronage permeates the workings of society. Ben Gurion might have set himself above the party system on several occasions. He could have appealed to the public at large, over the heads of his party and government coalition, on issues of national defense where the public has always been more militant than the politicians. Had he done so, the party system itself would have disintegrated. Or he might have exercised one-man rule through his direct personal control of the army, police, and security services. In either case, there is little doubt that he could have gotten away with it.

Ben Gurion preferred, however, to make party democracy (the only kind of democracy we know) work. It has required extraordinary tactical skill, patience, strong nerves, and a keen instinct for what is possible at any given time. It has also involved sweeping concessions on what he considers to be non-essentials, including economic questions. It is a considerable achievement, though whether it will long survive him or whether it can manage without massive economic aid from abroad, is another matter. By the time the definitive biography is written, we should have a clearer picture.

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