David Ben-Gurion

Part Washington, part Moses, he was the architect of a new nation state that altered the destiny of the Jewish people--and the Middle East

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Ever since he was a frail child with a disproportionately big head, David Ben-Gurion was always clear about his next move, about the Jewish people's destination, about the link between his steps and the deliverance of the Jews in their biblical homeland.

Ben-Gurion ached to be an intellectual; during the most dramatic years of his leadership, he gulped philosophy books, commented on the Bible, flirted with Buddhism, even taught himself ancient Greek in order to read Plato in the original; he had a relentless curiosity about the natural sciences (but no taste for fiction or the fine arts). He would quote Spinoza as if throwing rocks at a rival. Verbal battle, not dialogue, was his habitual mode of communication. Rather than a philosopher, he was a walking exclamation mark, a tight, craggy man with a halo of silvery hair and a jawbone that projected awesome willpower and a volcanic temper.

He came from the depressed depths of small-town Polish-Jewish life, which he left behind in 1906. Inspired by a Hebrew-Zionist upbringing, shocked by anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, he went to Turkish Palestine "to build it and be rebuilt by it," as was the motto of those days. He became a pioneer, a farmhand, active with early Zionist-socialist groups. At age 19 he was what he would remain all his life: a secular Jewish nationalist who combined Jewish Messianic visions with socialist ideals, a man with fierce ambition for leadership, extraordinary tactical-political skills and a sarcastic edge rather than a sense of humor.

In 1915 Ben-Gurion, expelled from Palestine for his nationalist and socialist activities, chose to go to New York City, where he hastily taught himself English and plunged head on into perpetrating the local Zionist-socialist movement. Yet his authoritative, almost despotic character and his enchantment with Lenin's revolution and leadership style were tempered during his three years in the U.S. by the impact American democracy left on him. Many years later, Ben-Gurion, who was urged by some countrymen to "suspend" democracy more than once, refused to do so.

After World War I he returned to Palestine, now governed by Britain and--after 1920--designated by the League of Nations as a "National Home" for the Jewish people. He rose to prominence in the growing Zionist-socialist movement. The increasing anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1920s and '30s sent waves of Jewish immigrants into the country. Furious Arab leaders launched a rebellion against the British and a holy war on the Jews. Much earlier than others, Ben-Gurion recognized the depth and rationale of Arab objection to Zionism: he was aware of the tragic nature of a clash between two genuine claims to the same land. His position on this can be described neither as hawkish nor dovish: he saw the creation of an independent homeland for the homeless Jewish people as, first and foremost, a crucial provision for the survival of persecuted Jews.

At the cost of being labeled a traitor (by extremists on the right) and an opportunist (by the dogmatic left), he was ready to go a long way to accommodate the Arabs. Yet he was one of the first to foresee that in order for the Jews to avoid a showdown with the Arabs or to survive such a showdown, they must set up a shadow state and a shadow military force.

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