Born in Jerusalem in 1945 to parents who fled Nazi Germany, Tom Segev has lived through nearly the entire history of modern Israel. It’s been the focus of his long career both as a journalist and as the author of seven books on the inner workings of Israel’s government. His newest book, A State at Any Cost, is the first comprehensive biography of David Ben-Gurion in 40 years. Captured here are not only Ben-Gurion’s work as a Zionist leader and his long career as the first prime minister and defense minister of Israel, but also his childhood friendships, his private diary and correspondence, marital woes, and much more.
“Ben-Gurion figures high in every one of the seven books I wrote before this,” explains Segev, who as a university student once interviewed the retired statesman. “After so many years, I obviously became very interested in him, but what’s more important is that over the years a lot of new information became available.” He spent six years researching in government and private archives, both in Israel and overseas, to get a better sense of the man he says is usually reduced to an icon. Much of what he discovered is being published for the first time.
“Ben-Gurion’s diary is an absolutely amazing document,” Segev notes. “He started writing it at the age of fourteen, and he kept writing every day until the very end of his life at 86 or so. Not all of it is interesting, and previous biographers were mostly interested in the political information, but in a second reading, the way I did, it is often very, very personal.”
“This man Ben-Gurion, whom we tend to remember as carved of stone or made of steel, could be very romantic and very poetic, and he suffered mental crises–which he describes. He was aware that he tended to move very fast from deep depression to uncontrolled euphoria. There is a sentence where he says ‘If somebody will ever read my diary, they’re likely to get an impression that it was written by two different people.’ That gives us a much less cliché, more three-dimensional person. I tried to get to know the real Ben-Gurion.”
Ben-Gurion hated indecisiveness and often made pragmatic choices without regard for the cost to individuals. “The reason I call the book A State At Any Cost is because the cost was very high,” Segev says. “Life in an independent state means life without peace, the Palestinian tragedy will hound us for generations, and the absorption of new immigrants in the 1950s also demanded a very high price. For him, he was willing to pay almost any cost, and that’s part of what we would call today a great leader–not somebody who is nice or not nice, but somebody who is determined to lead his country in a new historic direction, change the historic course of his nation. He laid the foundations. Everything we have today, including the unsolved problems, goes back to Ben-Gurion.”
As Segev dug further into the archives, he discovered that Ben-Gurion’s confident public persona hid a wealth of anxieties and some jarring surprises. In 1947, on the eve of independence, Ben-Gurion realized that his military forces weren’t prepared for an all-out war with the Arabs, and he secretly asked the British stay. “He was willing to postpone the establishment of Israel by five or ten years. Imagine what might have happened in the meantime!”
The British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, didn’t want to extend the Mandate, but during these meetings he pressured Ben-Gurion to draw a partition map with frontiers the Zionist movement could accept.
“This story is documented in files and internal British reports,” Segev says, “but 70 years later here I come, and I want to see the map! Where is the map? And there is no map. I invested at least three trips to London and eventually I decided to give up but I still spent the last morning going through files. About half an hour before the archive closes—wow, here it is, that is the map. I was so excited, and I had no one to share it with. The lady who was sitting next to me all morning was reading 12th century church diaries! Instinctively, I take out my cell phone and take a picture of it to make sure it doesn’t run away!”
The map, which is in the book, is a sign of Ben-Gurion’s prescience, Segev says. “These lines are very similar to the famous Green Lines of 1949, which were Israel’s borders until 1967. So even before the war started, Ben-Gurion had some idea how it could end.”
Segev, who took his doctorate in history at Boston University in the early 1970s before joining Ha’aretz, is famously critical of the rigid “heroic” version of Israel and known for revisiting historic decisions. But he says the New Historians movement to which he belongs is not political or contrarian. “In the 1980s, the Israeli archives began to open up documents from the early days of the State. Until then, we really didn’t have history. We had ideology, we had mythology, we had a lot of political indoctrination. Many of us would go to an archive, take out the file, look at the document and say ‘Wow, this is not the way I learned it at school!’ This is how books came out that were called New History.”
Early Cabinet meeting minutes were particularly eye-opening, he says. “In those days, in the 1950s, Cabinet ministers spoke on the assumption that their words would never ever be public. Today they’ve hardly finished speaking and what they said is already on the news. So these are much more important than the government minutes of today.”
Segev feels the country is ready, even hungry, for a more nuanced view of its leaders. “I will soon be 75, but younger people treat Ben-Gurion with more curiosity than admiration, or, the other way round, opposition. That stems from the feeling that what we have so far is not a real person, it’s an icon. Shabbtai Teveth’s biography is a really important book, but it’s really iconic.”
“We are facing some of the same problems Ben-Gurion faced, and that brings him back to mind. There’s not a day without him mentioned in the Israeli media. There’s also a very strong feeling that we miss a man like Ben-Gurion, his vision and integrity. So while I was writing my biography, four other biographies and a full-time documentary have been written in Israel and they all are doing very well!”
Segev says his bent for journalism dates back to his childhood. “Jerusalem was a very small city, it was divided by barbed wire and minefields, and everything political happened in Jerusalem right where we lived. We saw them all coming in and out of the Knesset. Many of us stood there and asked them for autographs—just as today people ask for selfies, we asked for autographs. I began to read a daily newspaper very early, at the age of 12 or so, so it was almost natural that it made me a journalist–and also, I love telling stories.”
Skeptic or no, Segev’s enthusiasm in tracking down these stories is clear.
“I was surprised to find how many people still hold in their possession letters which Ben-Gurion wrote to them personally,” Segev recalls. “I met the granddaughter of Ben-Gurion’s first girlfriend, when he was 15 and she was 12. He wrote her a postcard when he was a university student in Turkey—she is already in Palestine—and this was about 1915. He wants to impress her, so he writes down all his grades, and not only that, they have a common friend there, and he makes a point of saying his grades are better than the other guy’s! The granddaughter is now an old lady in a kibbutz, and she suddenly said ‘Oh! I still have the postcard!’ I see Ben-Gurion’s handwriting and all those Austro-Hungarian and Turkish stamps on it and my feeling is, Look what I hold in my hand!”
Tom Segev will be presenting his book A State at Any Cost on Saturday, October 26 at the University Club of Pasadena as part of the Jewish Federation’s 21st Annual Jewish Book Festival. For more information or to RSVP, visit www.jewishsgpv.org or call (626) 445-0810.
the 2019 jewish book festival Lineup
- Saturday, 10-26 at 7:30 pm A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben Gurion by Tom Segev
- Sunday, 10-27 at 10:00 am The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist by Julien Gorbach
- Friday, 11-1 at 10:00 am Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope & Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House Complied by Molly Dillon (reservations required)
- Sunday, 11-10 at 4:00 pm Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe by Rebecca Erbelding
- Wednesday, 11-13 at 7:30 pm The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone
- Saturday, 11-16 at 7:30 pm Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose by Mark Cohen
- Sunday, 11-17 at 4:00 pm Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
- Thursday, 11-21 at 7:30 pm Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim by Barbara Ostfeld
- Saturday, 12-7 at 7:30 pm For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan
- Sunday, 12-8 at 10:30 am Barnyard Bubbe’s Hanukkah by Joni Klein-Higger and Barbara Sharf
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.