As the founder of Israel, David Ben-Gurion long ago secured his reputation as a leading figure of the twentieth century. Determined from an early age to create a Jewish state, he thereupon took control of the Zionist movement, declared Israel’s independence, and navigated his country through wars, controversies and remarkable achievements. And yet Ben-Gurion remains an enigma―he could be driven and imperious, or quizzical and confounding.
Segev paints a conflicting portrait of Israel’s founder in his monumental A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion. Originally published in Hebrew, Haim Watzman’s translation is excellent. Unlike Ben-Gurion’s previous biographers, even the best of whom found it impossible not to stray at times in to hagiography, Segev is unsparing in his depiction of the less appealing sides of his private and political personalities. He also convincingly and meticulously builds the case for Ben-Gurion as a visionary leader, efficient organiser and persuasive advocate without whose efforts Israel, as an independent and sovereign state, may never have come into being ... deserves to be the definitive biography of Ben-Gurion. It is the story of a hard-headed, pragmatic and ruthless politician, told without sentimentality or nostalgia. It also serves as a key to understanding today’s Israel, which is still very much Ben-Gurion’s creation.
Segev offers a detailed picture not only of Ben-Gurion’s life but also his mind ... Yet the book is not salacious, and Ben-Gurion’s personal failings, eccentricities, and psychic turmoil are far from the only ground that A State at Any Cost treads. Building on his prior work, Segev makes several significant historiographical interventions, challenging conventional accounts of Ben-Gurion’s views and of the period of Israeli history during which he led the country ... a book of considerable heft that successfully uncovers the history of Ben-Gurion’s time from the shroud of myth that has long obscured it ... History is full of sad ironies, and Segev is deftly attuned to them ... the book’s second section is the one that most directly challenges aspects of the accepted Zionist-Israeli narrative of Israel’s founding. U.S. readers, more accustomed to mytho-theological treatment of Israel—for instance, in the New York Times op-ed pages—than rigorous historical scholarship, may struggle to accept some of what Segev uncovers. All the more reason for them to read A State at Any Cost carefully ... Segev shines a blistering spotlight on Ben-Gurion’s European chauvinism ... Segev has unearthed an incredible range of previously unknown anecdotes ranging from the shockingly repulsive to the amusingly bizarre. Readers in thrall to romantic, illusory narratives of Zionist history will no doubt find themselves in the position of Segev’s critics, left fiddling with the broken pieces of their myths. And though in size and subject the book may resemble the heavy tomes of 'great men' biographies that adorn the nightstands of middle-aged fathers, those looking for insight into 'leadership' will be sorely disappointed—this, of course, is not a bad thing ... If there is any weakness to the book, it is that the tension between the forces of character and contingency is given relatively little attention. We see Ben-Gurion’s determination to gain power, and we see him eventually obtain it and use it. But we do not get a full sense of what combination of Ben-Gurion’s natural abilities and the subtle workings of chance put him where he ended up. What we do get is, nevertheless, of great value. Segev has produced an unflinching portrait of a man more often the subject of patriotic adulation than demythologization. With A State at Any Cost, that seems likely to change.
A host of biographies over the years—largely complimentary though by no means uncritical—have recorded the details of Ben-Gurion’s busy life without diminishing his almost mythological status. Still, a group of “revisionist” Israeli academics and journalists seem determined to tarnish his reputation as part of their decades-long project to reinterpret Israel’s founding period. Tom Segev’s A State at Any Cost is the latest such effort ... Mr. Segev lays out some of this detail in a straightforward fashion, but at the core of his chronicle is a desire to cast Israel’s founding father as the destroyer of Palestinian Arab society— that is, as a leader deeply implicated in what Mr. Segev and his fellow revisionists see as the 'original sin' of Israel’s creation: the supposedly deliberate and aggressive dispossession of the native Arab population ... The lens through which Mr. Segev views his subject is generally polemical ... There are many more such lost subtleties and distinctions in A State at Any Cost. But Mr. Segev, like his fellow revisionists, is not bothered with mere facts in his endeavor to rewrite Ben-Gurion and, by extension, Israel’s history in an image of their own making.