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.
Using newly available archives as well as an incredible eye for characterization, the author presents a definitive biography of Israel’s former prime minister. While Ben-Gurion’s legacy still weighs heavily, even in modern-day Israel, Segev sets out to reanalyze that legacy with fresh interpretations. Few would question Ben-Gurion’s drive, but Segev illustrates moments of the leader’s ambivalence to native Palestinians, all the while pushing forth with a Jewish Nation State. Segev masterfully displays Ben-Gurion’s political and military strengths throughout, from his secret 1948 negotiations with the British to the 1956 Suez crisis, while also delving into personal opinions on family, friends, and rivals. Featuring many characters and nuances, this translation from Watzman will at times cause even the most devoted history buff to pause and do some brief online research before proceeding ... Scholars and devoted readers of political history, notably of the Middle East, will turn to Segev’s majestic analysis of this pivotal leader for decades to come.
Segev...has no equal either for the brilliance of his storytelling or the ironies of his analysis. He is neither a sentimental apologist for Ben-Gurion nor a crusading dethroner in the style of the New Historians with whom he has often been grouped. He is, rather, a student of power, and is at once fascinated and horrified by what he sees ... For liberal Jews raised to think of Ben-Gurion as a grouchy but well-meaning patriarch, Segev’s biography will be particularly disillusioning, since he shows how central exclusionary nationalism, war and racism were to Ben-Gurion’s vision of the Jewish homeland in Palestine, and how contemptuous he was not only of the Arabs but of Jewish life outside Zion. They may look at the state that Ben-Gurion built, and ask if the cost has been worth it.
... [a] deeply researched, engrossing and, in some respects, controversial biography ... Segev is best when probing the human side of the complex leader ... Where A State at Any Cost falls short is when the author injects his own ideology into the events of Ben-Gurion’s life. Segev has been associated with revisionist historians, known in the past as 'new historians,' who challenge Israel’s founding narratives — sometimes with bracing reality, often with controversial positions disputed by other experts ... Through the drama of his life, and despite his failings — both personal and political — Ben-Gurion emerges in Segev’s book as a man of vision and integrity.
Deploying exhaustive research, which included access to previously unavailable archival material, Segev unearths a man of contradictions ... Segev is unafraid to point out Ben-Gurion’s flaws and failings ... Segev’s hefty, detailed volume may leave both critics and admirers unhappy. But what Segev’s deft unfolding of the trajectory of Ben-Gurion’s life makes clear is that his legacy is Israel itself.
The author clearly captures the relentless, rather oblivious quality of Ben-Gurion’s personality as well as his quixotic side ... A fair portrait of a difficult, hard-nosed character who, like him or not, had enormous impact on 20th-century events.
Segev persuasively shows how Ben-Gurion’s early choices foreshadowed those he would make later, but the book is sometimes weighed down by detail. The nonspecialist might be better served by less encyclopedic treatments.