Commentary Magazine

Ben-Gurion of Israel, by Barnet Litvinoff

Israel’s “Strong Man”
Ben-Gurion of Israel.
by Barnet Litvinoff.
Praeger. 373 pp. $4.00.


No reader of this biography would have been surprised by Ben Gurion’s return to public life as Minister of Defense in Israel’s present government. Barnet Litvinoff makes clear his deep and abiding concern with the defense of Israel and his passionate attachment to Israel’s army. Ben Gurion was not only Israel’s first Prime Minister, he was also her first Defense Minister, holding the two portfolios right up to the hour of his resignation. Nor was he Minister of Defense in title alone; Ben Gurion, Litvinoff tells us, set aside two full days every week for the affairs of the Ministry of Defense. He is the Carnot of Israel; under his direct guidance Yadin, the Chief of Staff, shaped the army into an instrument of victory and a school for transforming immigrants into Israelis. There is no separating Ben Gurion’s life from Zionism. Barnet Litvinoff’s biography is therefore a contribution toward the understanding of the State of Israel as well as of its first politician and statesman, of some of the chief problems that face it, and also of the American Jewish community’s connection with Israel’s destiny.

It is only natural that American Jews, who make up almost half the Jews of the world and enjoy a freedom and security unmatched in the whole of Jewish history, should wish to give every help to the State of Israel. When one remembers that Israel absorbed some six hundred thousand refugees—the survivors of the long night of Hitlerism—the wish to help acquires the aspect of a sacred obligation. But just helping Israel is not Zionism. The failure to understand the precise program of Zionism is the basic cause of the deep confusion in which the American Jewish community finds itself today about its role and obligations vis-à-vis Israel. From its inception, Zionism set itself a twofold task: the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine; and the putting an end to the millennial exile by gathering together in the Jewish state all—or anyhow most—of the Jews from the four corners of the earth. The first half of this program has been fulfilled; the other half has not. And the trouble today is over this other half, over Zionism’s—and notably Ben Gurion’s—insistence on the duty of all Jews to leave the Galut and settle in Israel. This is so because American Jews, whether Zionist or non-Zionist, feel it in their bones—whatever their tongues may say—that America is not exile, is really and truly (and—one is tempted to add—blessedly) their home and shall be their children’s home and their children’s children’s home.



Ben Gurion, who epitomizes Zionism as a movement and a way of life, was reared in Eastern Europe and knew its Jewish community intimately. Despite this, however, he has held to the conviction that Eastern European Jewry was no national entity at all—that the national history of the Jewish people was broken off after the destruction of the Second Commonwealth in 70 C.E. In recent years Ben Gurion has on occasion spoken disparagingly of the Talmud and with fervor about the Old Testament, almost with the erstwhile voice of radical reform. His motive here is not theological but political, and is in keeping with his contempt for the Galut and his wish to deprecate its achievements. Litvinoff assures us that to Ben Gurion Israel does not signify some small struggling state in the Middle East, but “is synonymous with the whole Jewish people,” and he quotes Ben Gurion’s own pronouncement on this: “The Zionist movement, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel now constitute one cohesive unity impossible to break.” Ben Gurion’s friendliness to American non-Zionists represents no revision of this fundamental rejection of the Diaspora, but is merely an overt display of his dissatisfaction with American Zionists who do not act on his interpretation of Zionism as kibbutz galuyot, the Ingathering of the Exile. Even after his visit to America, Ben Gurion could say in the Knesset: “American Zionist leaders went bankrupt on the establishment of this state. There were not five of them to get up and come to Israel. They might not have been followed by the masses, but this would have proved that Zionism was not void of meaning, at least for the leaders.”

Litvinoff neatly sums up the difference between Weizmann’s and Ben Gurion’s Zionism: “To him [Ben Gurion], Zionism only began where the political and military struggle for independence left off. He had always thought this” from the earliest days, and, consequently, the objective he set himself was fundamentally different from Chaim Weizmann’s whose life-task ended in the legal award of territory by the United Nations in 1947.” And it is Ben Gurion’s conception of Zionism and not Weizmann’s that is closer to classical Zionism and now is the official—or at least dominant—tendency. Weizmann never shook off the influence of Ahad Ha’am with his emphasis on spiritual Zionism—he was not even a supporter of the Biltmore resolution. Despite the author’s admiration for Ben Gurion and his sympathy for his kind of Jewish nationalism, Weizmann emerges as a man of great moral stature, one who did not cast his humanist and Jewish-ethical principles overboard when the “exigencies” of extreme nationalism were invoked to support the terror; after Weizmann’s death these same “considerations” were used to justify Kibya and the recent attack at Gaza.



In The Hero in History, Sidney Hook draws a distinction between the eventful man in history and the event-making man. There is no denying that in Zionism, and in the brief span of Israel’s existence, Ben Gurion has been an event-making figure. As to our judgment of the events that Ben Gurion set in motion, there will naturally be a wide divergence of opinion. Although the leader of Israel’s moderate Socialist-Labor party, Mapai, and an uncompromising opponent of both Communists and Revisionists, Ben Gurion is an extremist as a Zionist. His insistence on the necessity of all Jews settling in Israel, his aggressive and intransigent policy in all Israeli-Arab relations, are just two examples. His re-entry into the government was a cause of rejoicing to many Israelis and American Jews, who idolize him as Israel’s “strong man.” But it is a question whether in the long run Ben Gurion’s policies will help Israel’s security and status, both political and moral. Jewish liberals in America—along with other liberals—criticize Senator Knowland’s policies as entailing the risk of war; they hesitateé to say that Ben Gurion’s policies are no guarantee of peace in the Middle East. Ben Gurion, as this biography shows us, has great and varied talents and an immeasurable patriotism—he is truly his country’s “strong man.” But in the judgment of history it may be that much of the blame for the avoidable trouble and sorrow Israel is undergoing will be laid at his door.



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