Ben-Gurion

A Political Life

By Shimon Peres
  • Overview
  • Reader's Guide
  • News and Reviews

Overview

“Invaluable . . . Even readers tired of ideological food fights about Israel—of liberals calling conservatives who defend the country fascists, and of conservatives calling liberals who criticize it anti-Semites—will find something to like in this unusual primer on the birth of a nation and its most important midwife.”

—Justin Moyer, The Washington Post

“Shimon Peres is a man of awesome accomplishment (a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, by the way), but his most important accomplishment is how he has come to personify the ethic that David Ben-Gurion represents. His book is well worth your time. It was mine.”

—Richard Cohen, The Washington Post

“An urbane account of Israel’s first and longest-serving prime minister by someone who, though nearly 40 years younger, worked closely with him for two decades. It is admiring of Ben-Gurion . . . but it never lapses into hero worship or loses its grip on the historical realities amid which its story is set. Peres’s personal reminiscences of Ben-Gurion and his entourage are delightful.”

—The Wall Street Journal

"In revisiting the career of his mentor, Shimon Peres presents a uniquely human portrait of David Ben-Gurion—a master strategist with a long view of history and an abiding vision for Israel’s future. Peres brings his nation’s founding father to life with the energy, candor, and wisdom he’s become known for in his six decades of public service.”

—William Jefferson Clinton

“Shimon Peres, the president (and former prime minister) of Israel, provides an intriguing and intimate political biography of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and Peres’s erstwhile mentor. Readers will enjoy Peres’s analysis of his relationship with Ben-Gurion and will find his humility appealing. And his emotional admissions elevate this book above a standard biography.”

—Publishers Weekly

David Ben-Gurion was a mythic figure, a founding father of Israel, and the country’s first prime minister, but he was also a real man, brimming with human contradictions, who was observed in all his complexity by Shimon Peres. Peres was a young man when he became a protégé of Ben-Gurion’s in the 1940s and he remained closely connected to him until his death in 1973. He combines personal recollection and a deep sense of history, politics, and culture in his biography of David Ben-Gurion.

Peres’s extraordinary biography, written with David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, is not a memoir, but it is inevitably shaped by Peres’s time with “the old man,” as Ben-Gurion was known by those around him. It offers an intimate look at history – the creation of the State of Israel, its fateful wars, and the decisions, many of them controversial, that determined its future course.  

Peres, currently the president of Israel, has thought a great deal about the sort of leader Ben-Gurion was: visionary and pragmatic, steeped in old world yiddishkeit and yet forward looking and unsentimental in the extreme. A leader able to break the taboo of accepting reparations from Germany. A leader who, for all his prophetic foresight, was capable of granting Orthodox Israelis an exemption from Israel’s army on the mistaken assumption that the time of the very religious was over.  

Peres’s Ben-Gurion emerges as a flawed but great leader, Israel’s Washington and Jefferson combined, and in some sense its Lincoln, too, for the War of Independence in 1948 brought with it a danger of civil war. Ben-Gurion is, for Peres, an emblem not only of the energy that created the state of Israel but of the sort of leadership that the country desperately needs today as it faces unparalleled threats from without – and within.

Reader's Guide

David Ben-Gurion was Israel’s founding father–a Zionist leader who fought for the establishment of the state, and its first prime minister. Shimon Peres, a Ben-Gurion protégé who went on to serve as Israel’s prime minister and (currently) president, offers personal and political insights into this towering figure in modern Jewish history: how he grew up, how his politics developed, and how he defied all odds to create a unified Jewish state.  

Early Years

Ben-Gurion was born in Plonsk, Poland, in 1886. He was just 11 years old when the First Zionist Congress was held, but the nascent movement to build a Jewish state had a profound impact on him. He was just 14 when he founded his own Zionist group, and he made aliyah at 19.
  • How were Ben-Gurion’s political views shaped by the time and place where he was raised?
  • European Jews at the time were faced with distinct options for improving their situation. One that Peres describes is assimilation vs. Zionism – blending into European culture or emphasizing Jewish uniqueness. It’s clear that Ben-Gurion chose the latter. But why did he choose it?
  •  In addition to Poland and Palestine, Ben-Gurion lived in Constantinople, Salonika, New York, London, and elsewhere, and spent time in Canada, Egypt, the Soviet Union, and much of Europe. How did his first-hand view of Diaspora life influence his Zionism? How did his early travels abroad affect his later foreign policy?

Zionism

Ben-Gurion founded, organized, and led a number of Zionist groups – in Palestine and internationally. Whether he was organizing labor or encouraging aliyah, he simultaneously strove to take bold and clearly defined stands but also to build bridges to other groups with differing agendas.
  • While other Zionist leaders, from Herzl to Jabotinsky, viewed their movement in relation to other nationalist movements sweeping Europe, Ben-Gurion saw the movement as unique. Peres writes about Ben-Gurion’s “insistence on the return of the Jewish people to the sources of Jewishness…to be as we were before the Diaspora spoiled us.” What impact does this distinction have on the political goals Ben-Gurion held most dear?
  • “A Zionism of mere words is pointless,” Ben-Gurion said. He was a man of action, Peres notes, echoing him by adding: “Words are not policy.” Neither man denied the power of words, as tools of persuasion. What are the limitations of words, as compared to deeds, from a political perspective?
  • Ben-Gurion “was a man of one idea, to create a state,” Peres writes. “Everything else was secondary.” He often lived apart from his family while his children were young; his daughter recalls growing up “as though we had no father.” Was this distance necessary, or helpful to Ben-Gurion in achieving his goals? Is there a relationship between achievement in public life, and shortcomings in private life?

The Holocaust

During the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion found himself in a difficult position. He had been fighting against the British for years, yet now aligned himself with the British colonial powers against the Nazis.
  • David Landau questions Ben-Gurion’s actions during the Holocaust, insisting that: “He could have raised the Heavens. Shouted.  …But instead of channeling this strength into getting the U.S. government and the Allies to rescue Jews, he focused solely on Zionist diplomacy.” Do you agree with this outlook?  Should Ben-Gurion have adjusted his position to raise more awareness of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry?
  • “What could he have done?” Peres asks, regarding Ben-Gurion’s options during the Holocaust. What do you think he might have done? Could his actions have changed the outcome for the Jews of Europe? For the Jewish state?
  • Years after the Holocaust ended, Menachem Begin threatened civil war over the issue of German reparations, when Ben-Gurion agreed to accept more than $700 million in goods and services, in compensation for Jewish property stolen by the Nazis. On a pragmatic level, Israel certainly needed the money. But on a moral level, Ben-Gurion suggested that there was a “new Germany,” and it was moral for that Germany to support the Jewish state, and moral for Israel to accept that support. Do you agree?

Partition

The partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, one Arab – was not something Ben-Gurion advocated. But nonetheless, when the partition plan was officially introduced, he supported it, despite opposition from other Zionist leaders.
  • Peres says Ben-Gurion saw the partition as “a tragic decision, but as an indispensable decision…And he did not shrink from deciding.” Why was it tragic? Why was it indispensable?
  • Peres cites three reasons for Ben-Gurion’s decision to accept partition: the plight of Holocaust refugees living in displaced-persons camps; his sense that the British would leave the region regardless of the acceptance or rejection of the plan; and his conviction that the Arab states would attack, leaving the Jews unable to purchase arms and raise a formal army to defend themselves unless they had a recognized state. Do you agree with his reasoning?
  • Ben-Gurion was willing to accept partition, but he faced opposition from the left and from the right, both of which opposed partition. What were their reasons for opposing the plan? How real was the danger of civil war, or armed resistance from within?

Independence

Declaring independence was not the end of Ben-Gurion’s fight, but merely the beginning. Faced with resistance from other Jewish groups, and armed invasion from neighboring Arab states, he had to find a way to maintain unity in the new state, and strive to find agreements with the Arabs.
  • In the middle of the War of Independence, a ship called the Altalena approached the shores of Israel, loaded with arms. It had been purchased by Etzel, also known as the Irgun, a right-wing fighting force under Menachem Begin’s control that had recently been folded into the Israel Defense Forces. Begin announced that the arms would go specifically to Etzel units, raising the specter of a “private army” within the new IDF. “There are not going to be two states, and there are not going to be two armies,” Ben-Gurion declared, making a decision to fire on the ship; 19 men were killed in the attack. Was the attack necessary? What might have gone differently if Ben-Gurion had simply let the ship land, and let the arms be distributed to Etzel units?
  • Peace seemed entirely possible in the years immediately following independence, Peres writes. But Jordan’s King Abdullah, who had been meeting with Israeli emissaries to conclude a peace treaty, was assassinated in 1951, and a pro-peace Lebanese statesman was also assassinated. Egypt’s monarchy was teetering, soon to fall. By 1952, the prospects for peace had completely changed for the worse. How might Israel’s position in the region have been different if even one or two of her neighbors had finalized peace agreements during that brief period? What might Israel’s boundaries have been? How might the Palestinians’ situation have been different?
  • Ben-Gurion made compromises and formed unlikely coalitions to secure independence. As the Palestinians strive for statehood today, are there lessons they might glean from Ben-Gurion’s approach?

Politics and Religion

Ben-Gurion took religion seriously, but did not set out to establish a religious government for the new state of Israel. Nonetheless, the urgency of coalition-building demanded that he create alliances with other parties whose views of religion did not necessarily match his own.
  • “Judaism was not a clerical establishment or hierarchical church” to Ben-Gurion, writes Peres. Yet despite his dislike for the rabbinate, Ben-Gurion took his faith seriously; Peres even says he “lived the Bible.” How would Ben-Gurion’s views on religion be categorized today – in Israel, or in the Diaspora?
  • Ben-Gurion formed political coalitions with religious parties, and in the early days of independence, crafted what is now the “status quo” arrangement governing issues of state and religion. One of the most controversial parts of this arrangement is the exemption from military service for full-time yeshiva students. At the time, this covered just a few hundred people; today it covers more than 55,000 would-be soldiers. Why did Ben-Gurion make this arrangement? Would it have been possible for him to do otherwise? Do you think it should stand today? Would it be possible to change it?
  • While drafting Israel’s Constitution, Ben-Gurion maintained that, in Peres’s words, “the (Orthodox) Rabbinate should not run our lives. Therefore halacha should not be the law of the land.” Taking into account the recent controversy over the authority held by the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel where lawfully legitimate conversions, marriages, and citizenship are concerned, what can we say Ben-Gurion achieved in respect to religious harmony within the State of Israel?
  • Even though Ben-Gurion didn’t want any national religious establishment, Peres writes, he “decided not to fight this ideological battle.” The reason, Peres argues, is that in order to lead a political coalition, he had to limit the number of contentious issues that might have driven the parties apart. “If he’d fought on all fronts simultaneously and with the same passion,” Peres writes, “he’d have united all of them against him.” Do you think this is an accurate depiction of the political pressures at the time – or now? What does this say about Ben-Gurion’s pragmatism? About the Israeli political system?

Leadership

Ben-Gurion shepherded the state of Israel into existence, and many Israelis believe it could not have happened without him.
  •  “I truly believe that without Ben-Gurion, the state of Israel would not have come into being,” writes Peres. Does he mean that Israel would not have come into existence when it did, in the shape it did? Or does he mean that Israel would never have existed in any form without Ben-Gurion? Do you agree? If Ben-Gurion hadn’t existed, would someone else have risen to the challenge? Who might it have been? What difference would it have made?
  • Peres compares Ben-Gurion to a range of other world leaders, from different eras: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill. Do these comparisons seem accurate to you? In what ways are they comparable?
  • Peres says that Ben-Gurion “never wrote a petek” – never used his influence to curry favors – not for friends, or political allies, or even his own family. Why was this so important to Ben-Gurion?
  • For decades, Ben-Gurion had philosophical differences with Chaim Weizmann, another Zionist leader who later became Israel’s first president. What was the nature of their differences? Considering the alliances Ben-Gurion managed to build politically and personally, why was this relationship so fraught with discord?
  • Ben-Gurion was controversial during his tenure, Peres says, but today there is a consensus across the political spectrum that he was a great leader. “The concept of leadership that we learned from him was not to be on top, but to be ahead,” says Peres. What does he mean by this? In what way was Ben-Gurion “ahead”?

Legacy

Ben-Gurion left office, only to return in different roles for many more years.
  • Why did subsequent Israeli administrations need Ben-Gurion? What does it mean to become the living embodiment of a country that is nonetheless an evolving, multi-party democracy?
  • Today, we are accustomed to former political leaders remaining in public life in some way – leading foundations, serving as advisers or consultants, writing memoirs, traveling the world in honorary capacities. Ben-Gurion lived his final years in a humble home in the Negev Desert. Why did this particular location and lifestyle appeal to him?
  • Ben-Gurion relied on political compromises and multi-party coalitions to create and build the state of Israel. Now that the state is well-established, do those original compromises and coalitions still make sense? Does the model of leadership that served Ben-Gurion well in the early years of independence still apply today?
  • At Ben-Gurion’s funeral, in place of eulogies, the cantor referred to Ben-Gurion as “David Ben-Gurion, son of Avigdor, first prime minister of the State, who effected the redemption of the people of Israel in their land.” Do you think he would have agreed with that assessment? And if Ben-Gurion returned today, what would he think of the country he founded?

News and Reviews

William Jefferson Clinton Praises Shimon Peres’ Ben-Gurion

“In revisiting the career of his mentor, Shimon Peres presents a uniquely human portrait of David Ben-Gurion—a master strategist with a long view of history and an abiding vision for Israel’s future. Peres brings his nation’s founding father to life with the energy, candor, and wisdom he’s become known for in his six decades of public service.” Continue reading

William Jefferson Clinton

Peres’ Storytelling Elevates Ben-Gurion “Above a Standard Biography”

Readers will enjoy Peres’s analysis of his relationship with Ben-Gurion and will find his humility appealing: “Why did Ben-Gurion take to me?” And his emotional admissions—that he had never “met a man with [as much] inner strength and determination” as Ben-Gurion and that like “Churchill, the other details of [Ben-Gurion’s] life shrink into insignificance alongside the decisions made at a crucial juncture in Israel’s history”—elevate this book above a standard biography. Continue reading

Ben-Gurion, a “personal, conversational” story

"This is principally a story about intractable internecine politics and a fierce politician whose intelligence, will, biblical convictions and courage were fundamental in the successful creation of Israel." Continue reading

Kirkus Reviews

Podcast: Father Figure Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, has written a new Nextbook Press biography of David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minster and his mentor

Shimon Peres’ Ben-Gurion an “urbane account” of a man “of a single decision”

“Several of [BEN-GURION: A Political Life’s] chapters end with lively dialogues between Mr. Peres and [David Landau] that are a creative way of handling the teller/as-told-to relationship, and some of Mr. Peres’s personal reminiscences of Ben-Gurion and his entourage are delightful.” Continue reading

Ben-Gurion “a wonderfully intimate and important book”

This is a wonderfully intimate and important book about the brave men and women who created Israel against all reasonable odds after the devastation of the Holocaust. Continue reading

Ben-Gurion given the prophetic treatment by his disciple Peres in Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion has entered the annals of modern Jewish history as a prophet in his time, and Shimon Peres can rightly claim the title of Ben-Gurion’ s anointed disciple. At the height of power, both were praised and reviled — although we cannot yet know if the still remarkably vigor-ous 88-year-old Peres will ultimately go down as a visionary or a fool. It is only fitting that Peres (with journalist David Landau) has penned this book that offers one historical leader chronicling and analyzing the life and times of his even more important mentor. Continue reading

“A tender account of Ben-Gurion’s life…[Shimon Peres'] book is well worth your time. It was mine,” says WP’s Richard Cohen

“A tender account of Ben-Gurion’s life . . . . [President Peres] is a man of awesome accomplishment — a Nobel Peace Prize winner, by the way — but his most important accomplishment is how he has come to personify the ethic that David Ben-Gurion represents. His book is well worth your time. It was mine.” Continue reading

Ben-Gurion delivers a “striking and instructive” political attitude

"Author Shimon Peres writes of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father and first prime minister, as "a figure of stirring contradictions -- a prophetic visionary and a canny pragmatist who early grasped the necessity of compromise for national survival." Such a political attitude is striking and instructive today with Israelis and Palestinians deadlocked, seemingly uncompromisingly, over their people's future. Peres writes that "Ben-Gurion supported the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, even though it meant surrendering a two thousand-year-old dream of Jewish settlement for the entire land of Israel." Peres, president of the State of Israel since 2007, sees in Ben-Gurion "a neglected model of leadership that Israel and the world desperately need in the twenty-first century." Shimon Peres has been a key leader of Israel since 1948, when he became head of the nation's naval services. An architect of the Oslo Accords, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994." Continue reading

Shimon Peres on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight

"You've written this fascinating and very moving book about your mentor, David Ben-Gurion." Read more of the transcript on CNN. Continue reading

Shimon Peres Takes a Look Back at Israel’s Pragmatic Idealist

"Having Peres write this book is a splendid idea, and one is moved by the extent of devotion and awe that he has for Ben-Gurion...in addition to Ben-Gurion’s critical decisiveness, one of his other virtues was knowing how to pick his disciples well." Continue reading

Ben-Gurion “invaluable”

With Occupy Wall Streeters under fire for alleged anti-Semitism, it’s worth remembering that Israel was founded by people not unlike them. “The Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction!” Continue reading

Apologia for Ben-Gurion

"They were kindred spirits. Both were voracious readers, polymaths, single-mindedly ambitious, and coldly pragmatic. Both had high, unself-critical opinions of themselves. They ruthlessly battled foes within their political camp, though Ben-Gurion was arguably the more vindictive. Both were Big Idea men. Ben-Gurion envisioned a renascent Israel along vaguely biblical principles; Peres, more ambitious still, sought an entirely "new Middle East."" Continue reading

Gilead Sher finds Ben-Gurion: A Political Life to be “essential reading for those interested in both statesmanship and the history of Israel”

"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." Continue reading

In Shimon Peres’ book on Ben-Gurion, a longing for leadership absent in Israel today

"The more I read “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life” by Shimon Peres, the more I liked to play "What Would the Old Man Do Now?"" Continue reading

JTA

Ben Gurion author Shimon Peres in the New York Times

Said Ronen Bergman, "It is a pleasure to spend time with this man, whom David Ben-Gurion took under his wing and who became a top official of the Israeli defense establishment at age 24. Peres is a man of the world, full of insights and curiosity that have not worn down over the years." Continue reading

About the Author

Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres has held several diplomatic and military positions in Israel. Currently the president of Israel, he has also served twice as prime minister, been a member of 12 cabinets, and represented five political parties. He received the Nobel Peace … Continue reading

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