Ben-Gurion: A Political Life

Israel's President, Shimon Peres, offers insights into the life and achievements of his political mentor


By Gilead Sher, January 6, 2012
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Zealous for Zion: Ben-Gurion at his desk in 1972, the year before his death

Zealous for Zion: Ben-Gurion at his desk in 1972, the year before his death

By David Landau in conversation with Shimon Peres
Schocken, £14.99

History is best written by using primary sources, and there is no better historical source with regard to Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, than his protégé, Shimon Peres. In a series of conversations with London-born, former Haaretz editor, David Landau, Peres has produced a very informative account of his mentor's life.

Landau reveals that Ben-Gurion warned of the dangers Hitler posed to world peace as early as Winston Churchill did. In January 1934, in a speech to the Histadrut, Ben-Gurion said: "The tragedy that has struck the Jews of Germany has not struck alone. Hitler's regime endangers Jews everywhere… Hitler's regime cannot exist for very long before embarking on a war of revenge against France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, and other neighbouring countries where Germans live or against vast Soviet Russia. Germany will not go to war today because she is not prepared. However, she is preparing… it does appear that the danger of war today is as great as it was in 1914."

And yet, after this prophetic speech, Ben-Gurion fell virtually silent on the matter, even after 1943 when a clear picture was emerging of what was going on in the concentration camps. As Landau states, "Ben-Gurion spent many months in the United States during the war, but instead of channeling his strength into getting the US government and the Allies to rescue Jews, he focused entirely on Zionist diplomacy." One wonders whether an effective lobbying campaign aimed at the US and British governments by both Ben-Gurion and Weizmann could have indeed made a difference. Peres contends that it would not have done so as the Allied efforts were geared solely towards winning the war.

Peres and Landau agree that Ben-Gurion is best defined by firm leadership and getting crucial decisions right. "I truly believe that, without Ben-Gurion, the state of Israel would not have come into being," asserts Peres. His decision to accept the partition of mandatory Palestine, despite strong opposition in the Zionist movement, in order to secure the state of Israel as a Jewish state is an exemplary example of statesmanship and sagacity.

Subsequently, Ben-Gurion took the decision to align Israel with the USA, an alliance that has proven so crucial to Israel's security. He did so despite ideological opponents within the Israeli government, some of whom wished to align with the Soviet Union.

Among the book's lighter touches are Ben-Gurion's wife Paula's claim, when she went to hear Trotsky speak in New York, that he couldn't not keep his eyes off her, and the revelation that Ben-Gurion himself spent a year commuting on the London Underground.

In 1961, the 75-year-old Ben-Gurion met President John F Kennedy at the White House. Kennedy asked Ben-Gurion how he could repay Israel for Jewish support he received during his presidential campaign the previous year. "By being a great United States President," Ben-Gurion replied. Forty-seven years later, Barack Obama would ask Shimon Peres a similar question: "If elected to the presidency, how I can assist Israel?" Peres, too, replied: "by being a great United States President."

Very few books about Israel's first Prime Minister are written in such a personal style as this. It is essential reading for those interested in both statesmanship and the history of Israel.

Gilead Sher is an Israeli lawyer, former senior peace negotiator and head of the Prime Minister's Bureau

    Last updated: 10:51am, January 6 2012