Commentary Magazine

Israel's Providential Men

The creation of the state of Israel, one of the few events in our tragic century of which one can truthfully say, “This was a good work,” invites serious thought about that curious historical no-man’s land where spiritual and secular forces meet. From the moment Theodor Herzl conceived the Jewish state in 1895, to its actual proclamation by David Ben-Gurion in 1948, the odds against its coming into existence were always great and often overwhelming. Its birth has therefore some of the aura of a providential event, and even the group of men who made it possible, Herzl himself, Chaim Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, and Vladimir Jabotinsky, fervent secularists though they were, seemed at times unable to drive the power of the spirit from their minds. It was as though, somewhere in the background, the messiah was lurking, never quite making his appearance.

But who was the providential man? There were rival claimants. When Herzl first announced the coming Jewish state, he often found himself greeted by audiences of East European Jews with shouts of “David the King!” (According to tradition, the messiah will be descended from that biblical figure.) In his new and extremely thorough biography of Ben-Gurion,1 the Israeli journalist Shabtai Teveth relates that it was in 1896 that the young David Joseph Gruen (as he then was) heard of the new redeemer: “a miraculous man, head and shoulders taller than other men, with beautiful features and a luminous face adorned with a long black beard . . . in a certain foreign town a messiah named Herzl had arrived.” Teveth adds: “Ben-Gurion remembered this episode all his life, and he repeated his account of it time and again, always in the same words, as if it was a melody he loved to hear.”

The memory was important to Ben-Gurion because he himself seems to have believed, from an early age, that he had a destiny as the messiah’s alter ego, the second Herzl. Unfortunately he was short, and this rankled: he greatly resented the fact that his later rival, Weizmann, was tall like Herzl. But Ben-Gurion’s head was enormous. The doctor told his father “that its sheer size, the height of the crown, and especially the distance between the ears were signs of incredible talents.” The big head made up for the small stature as the self-identified stigmata of destiny. Ben-Gurion wrote with confidence in 1904:

God or nature (for our purpose it’s one and the same, whichever is the true power) endows the genius with sublime talents, not out of love for him, but from a desire to bestow upon the world sublime creations. . . . He brings into existence an intermediary . . . with the power to give such creations to the world. I trust in the future ahead of me.

He identified will power, or what he termed “divine will power, the will power of the gods,” as Herzl’s outstanding characteristic, his true messianic quality, and set about cultivating his own will as the means to enable him to act, as he put it, “on the grand scale.”

The vision of himself as hero was necessarily egocentric. Teveth shows in great detail how other members of Ben-Gurion’s family were made to play supporting roles. His father’s job was to provide the money for his early Zionist activities. Most of his life Ben-Gurion was deeply in debt, but this never seems to have worried him: “God or nature” would provide. His wife Paula (who never addressed him as anything but “Ben-Gurion”) supplied the emotional support, when he required it. So, from time to time, did other women, used and discarded as the need arose. Teveth relates that, in 1923, Ben-Gurion read Herzl’s diary and exclaimed: “What a wretched family life this man had!” It was true: Zionism destroyed Herzl’s marriage. But Ben-Gurion failed to note the extent to which a similar consciousness of destiny was making his own personal relationships so empty. All this aspect of Teveth’s biography makes sad reading. One woman who had dealings with Ben-Gurion said that he was the most impersonal man she had ever met in her life.



Weizmann, the subject of a new and elegant biography by Norman Rose,2 was likewise encouraged to believe in a special destiny. When he was born, his mother was told: “Leah-Rachel, you have borne a prince.” She singled him out for special treatment, the infant Chaim being provided with shirts and nightgowns “of specially fine linen or silk.”

Weizmann became not so much a messiah-figure as a nasi, the Hebrew word for prince. Once his scientific patents had made him a man of wealth, enhanced by shrewd financial advice from his friends, Simon Marks and Israel Sieff, creators of the great merchandising firm of Marks & Spencer, Weizmann brilliantly played the princely role. “His clothes cupboards at home,” says Rose, “were bursting with shirts, socks, ties, and accessories.” His pink silk underclothes came from Doucet’s in Paris or Hamboro’s in London, his superb suits from Savile Row. His Viafidis cigarettes were bought, “five hundred at a time,” from The Egyptian in Bond Street. He lunched at the Savoy, rode in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, and lived in a magnificent London house, “serviced by a butler, a nurse-governess, a cook, and maids,” where his wife Vera kept “the most select of Zionist political salons.”

This technique of display, which Weizmann inherited from Herzl himself, was designed for the potentates he had to impress in order to create the diplomatic framework for Israel’s foundation, and it worked. Even the great historian and Zionist Sir Lewis Namier, a ferocious critic of almost everyone, especially his fellow Jews, treated Weizmann with the reverence due to a prince. But the nasi’s family life, like Herzl’s and Ben-Gurion’s, was shadowed, and for the same reason. His son Benji, later a failure and near-alcoholic, complained bitterly: “It is high time this family was taken in hand by somebody, otherwise the Jews will have a national home but we shall have none at all.”

That was part of the almost inevitable price of the consciousness of special destiny. So was the bitter feuding between the rival messiahs, between Ben-Gurion and Weizmann and between both and Vladimir Jabotinsky, leader of the Revisionist party within the Zionist movement. These three great men, united by their overwhelming belief that Israel could and would be born, were divided by their concept of the salient means to that end. For Weizmann it was diplomatic, for Jabotinsky military, for Ben-Gurion it was a bit of both, but above all the political-economic structure he was creating in Palestine through the Histadrut and the agricultural communes.

But reading these biographies, and a new life of Jabotinsky’s greatest follower, Menachem Begin, by Amos Perlmutter,3 I am left unsure as to how fundamental these differences of strategy were. It has often struck me that the great clashes recorded in the historical books of the Bible—between Saul and David, for instance, or within David’s family—were matters more of temperament than of principle. So too with the founders of Israel. Teveth’s exhaustive account of the first half-century of Ben-Gurion’s Zionism (his book takes his hero up to the founding of the state) reveals him as an empiricist, not a socialist or a dogmatist of any kind. His successive changes of strategy were blazoned forth in his sartorial arrangements. First was the Zionist intellectual, not unlike Weizmann himself, with high starched collar and bow tie: Zion through brain power. Then came the revolutionary: Ben-Gurion circa 1905 not only treasured and toted guns but dressed the part in a high-necked Russian peasant rubashka, peaked cap, and broad leather belt with a pistol stuck in it. Then, just before World War I, when he thought the future of Zion lay through Istanbul, he dressed exactly like an enlightened Young Turk, in a stiff black suit with a red fez perched incongruously on his huge head. Finally came the open-necked white shirt, baggy trousers, and conscious informality of the labor leader. Underneath all these guises the essential Ben-Gurion remained: a man pursuing an inflexible end by whatever means seemed convenient at the time.



Ben-Gurion’s carefully cultivated will power was enormous, and he was passionate and quite ruthless in exercising it, but there were times at least when he was remarkably openminded. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting chapter in Teveth’s book is his account of the negotiations between Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion in 1934 to heal the breaches in the Zionist movement, which included one mammoth meeting lasting fifteen-and-a-half hours. There were many reasons why the two men might have hated each other, notably the mysterious murder in 1933 of Ben-Gurion’s friend Chaim Arlosoroff, which he believed to his dying day had been committed by a Revisionist. But the fact is that they did reach an agreement, and even after it was repudiated by Ben-Gurion’s own people, he was able to write to Jabotinsky:

It may be that we will have to remain on opposing sides, but whatever happens our talks in London will remain with me. . . . If we must battle each other, remember that among your “enemies” is a man who esteems you and feels your pain as his own. The hand you thought I withheld from you at our first meeting will be extended to you even in the heat of battle, and not only the hand.

To which Jabotinsky replied: “Go in peace.”

Ben-Gurion remained convinced that building up a structure within Palestine was paramount, and that Jabotinsky’s strategy of achieving statehood in one dramatic military move was quite unrealistic. But he came to see that Jabotinsky was right about the coming Holocaust, and the “combative Zionism” he adopted in 1939 was really his own version of Jabotinsky’s military solution. It is important to note this because it strengthens Jabotinsky’s rightful claim to be considered one of the principal creators of Israel.



Had Jabotinsky lived, indeed, the two might eventually have worked together, for they discovered in 1934 that the barrier of temperament was not insuperable. It was a different matter with BenGurion and Weizmann. Indeed, as Teveth shrewdly observes, BenGurion and Jabotinsky were able to agree in 1934 at least partly because “on one issue they saw eye to eye: disparagement of Weizmann.”

Ben-Gurion’s relations with the nasi over a period of over thirty years, well recorded in Rose’s book, were immensely complex and fluctuating. Being an empiricist, and recognizing Weizmann’s indispens-ability in the 20’s and most of the 30’s, Ben-Gurion forced himself to applaud. Weizmann, he wrote, was “the Chosen One.” Or again (1935): “He is a great man. There is a holy flame in him.” Weizmann’s testimony to the Peel Commission, formed by Great Britain after the Arab riots of 1936 to inquire into the future of Palestine, was “the most profound and penetrating analysis ever given to the plight of the Jewish people. . . . I do not think there is in the whole of Zionist literature anything as profound, as awe-inspiring, as penetrating or as true.”

From time to time Ben-Gurion sent Weizmann testimonials to his virtues so fulsome that they can only be described as love letters. Yet at other times he saw him as a foreigner, an assimilated Jew who did not want to live in any Zionist state, who had “lost all personal feelings for the yishuv.” He was “the most dangerous figure in Zionism,” a man who could not be trusted, who would surrender points which would make impossible the creation of the state. To Ben-Gurion, finally, Weizmann might be a Zionist but he was not and could never become an Israeli. As his indispensability declined, the empirical Ben-Gurion, with some satisfaction, downgraded the nasi and eventually, after the founding of Israel, pushed him into an impotent presidency, making Weizmann a constitutional monarch who reigned but did not rule.



Part of Ben-Gurion’s desire for revenge arose from the fact that his love letters had remained unanswered. Any contempt he had for Weizmann was more than reciprocated. To the nasi, Ben-Gurion was, and remained, a petty labor leader, grown too big for his boots and posturing as a pseudo-messiah. “I have watched Mr. Ben-Gurion carefully during his stay here,” Weizmann wrote in 1942 from New York in a letter to the Jewish Agency Executive (the letter, twice drafted, was never sent):

His conduct and deportment were painfully reminiscent of the petty dictator, a type one meets with so often in public life now. They are all shaped on a definite pattern: humorless, thin-lipped, morally stunted, fanatical and stubborn, apparently frustrated in some ambition, and nothing is more dangerous than a small man nursing his grievances intro-spectively.

Ben-Gurion, Weizmann added, saw himself “as the self-appointed guardian of pure Zionist principles. . . . He alone has the solution to the Zionist and Jewish problem, he alone is conscious of the tragic plight of our people.” “I’m quite certain,” he wrote to another correspondent, “that he is developing fascist tendencies and megalomania coupled with political hysteria.”

In short, the temperamental differences were irreconcilable. If, to Ben-Gurion, Weizmann was a grandee who had no conception of Palestinian realities, then to Weizmann, Ben-Gurion was an excitable, unbalanced nonentity, wholly unworthy of any great role in history. He retained this view to the end: Ben-Gurion, he wrote in 1950, “is not fit to be a shoemaker, let alone a prime minister.”



The contempt Weizmann showed to him Ben-Gurion directed, in turn, at Menachem Begin. Jabotinsky (who died in 1940) he might respect and argue with as an equal; but Jabotinsky’s heir was a nothing. Jabotinsky was big enough to be abused as “Hitler”; Begin was just a “bespectacled Polish solicitor,” a “clown.” Their relations were for decades inflamed by the miserable affair of the Altalena, a ship Begin was using to bring in arms for his Irgun during the War of Independence and which Ben-Gurion in June 1948 destroyed by gunfire, confiscating its cargo. Amos Perlmutter quotes an exchange between the two men on this subject in the Knesset in 1955, which perfectly brings out their relationship, Begin raging at the great man, Ben-Gurion responding de haut en bas, not without amusement. Begin (almost beside himself with fury): “He had ordered to shoot at me with a cannon.” Ben-Gurion: “I was the man who issued the order for a holy cannon to fire on the ship.” Begin: “You will be called to justice for it.” Ben-Gurion: “We voted to destroy the Altalena and our decision came to fruition.” Begin: “The words, the deed, is that you spilled innocent blood.” Ben-Gurion: “Blessed be the cannon that blew up this ship. If the Temple were built again, there could be no better place for it.”

Begin was the natural underdog for the first generation of Israel’s existence, dominated as it was by the tightly-meshed political, economic, and trade-union state complex that Ben-Gurion had patiently created. Initially, at least, Begin had nothing to go on but his own persistence, well brought out in Perlmutter’s biography. Indeed, he must be the only politician in the history of democracy to lose seven elections in a row and still survive. But survive he did, thanks to the same power of will which Ben-Gurion had noted in Herzl and cultivated in himself.

Although Ben-Gurion began by treating Begin as an outsider in the new state, in the 1960’s Ben-Gurion lost control of the new state himself, and turned on it; and in the meantime Begin had been joined in Israel by more and more outsiders like himself—Jews who came not from Poland as he did but from the Arab territories, and who had an equal antipathy to the ruling Labor establishment. In due course these outsiders became a majority, and in 1977 put Begin in power at last.



It says a lot for Ben-Gurion’s empiricism and fundamental open-mindedness that, long before this, he had recognized Begin’s growing importance and claim to respect. In 1970, as a result of a chance meeting, they lunched together in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and afterward Ben-Gurion wrote to Begin:

Paula, my wife, was for some reason an admirer of yours. I opposed your road sometimes strongly—both before the state and after it arose—exactly as I would have opposed the road of Jabotinsky. I strongly objected to a number of your actions and opinions after statehood, and I do not regret my opposition. For in my opinion I was in the right. But personally I never harbored any grudge against you, and as I got to know you better over recent years my esteem for you grew and my Paula rejoiced in it.

The compliment was distinctly backhanded but Begin nonetheless relished it greatly. He must also have known, later, that no one would have been more thankful for his own successful peacemaking with Egypt than Ben-Gurion, who had always seen Egypt as the greatest single threat to Israel’s existence.

There is, indeed, something biblical in the battles among Israel’s founders and pioneers, and the way in which their enmities were eventually submerged by time and chance and the slow erosion of events. All of them in different ways were outsized characters, touched by messianic delusions—or qualities, if you like. All made essential contributions to the creation and survival of the state. Together, they give the lie emphatically to the claims of determinists that history is made by impersonal forces rather than great individuals. Israel, like most other nations, was built by inspired egoism.




1 Ben-Gurion: The Burning Ground, 1886-1948, Houghton Mifflin, 1024 pp., $40.00.

2 Chaim Weizmann: A Biography, Viking, 520 pp., $24.95. See the review by David Vital in last month's COMMENTARY—Ed.

3 The Life and Times of Menachem Begin, Doubleday, 444 pp., $21.95.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.