David Joseph Gruen was born in the Polish village of Plonsk in 1886. His family lived on the edge of poverty, but they had ambition. His father earned a living as a writer of petitions, who knew how to mediate between the local Jews and the czarist authorities. David liked to think that his father had been a lawyer. As a small boy, David quickly proved that his large head was capable of great intellectual feats. His mother, a pious soul, wanted him to become a rabbi, while his father, who was less devout, hoped that he would be a doctor. David wanted to study law.
First and foremost, however, he saw himself as a Zionist. The Hebrew language was the key to forming a Jewish nation, he believed, and though he developed fluency in a half dozen languages over his eighty-seven years, secular modern Hebrew was his favorite. He joined Poale Zion, a Marxist Zionist party, when he was nineteen, and by the time he was twenty he was in Palestine, combining the life of a laborer with that of a political activist. As a pen name he used Ben-Gurion, a name which recalled a renowned defense minister in Jerusalem during the Jewish struggle against the Roman Empire. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion would be the defense minister of the new Israel which declared its independence of the British Empire.
Ben-Gurion’s political development went through many stages, as Shabtai Teveth, a well-respected Israeli journalist and political analyst, shows. Whether Ben-Gurion’s policy was pro-Turkish, pro-British, anti-British, pro-American, or anti-German, however, it was always dedicated to the establishment of a free and strong state of Israel. Zionism was for him not an abstract wish, but an urgent necessity. He believed that the ground was “burning” beneath the feet of the Jews of the diaspora and that only the creation of a Jewish homeland would permit their ultimate salvation. Whatever his political conflicts with Jews or Gentiles, and they were many and vigorous, this goal of the foundation of Israel was always foremost in his mind.
The present account, though theoretically covering the period up to the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, actually ends with events of 1944, with the following few years covered only in an impressionistic epilogue. A full treatment of Ben-Gurion and the Israeli state must await a further volume. Here, the complex and carefully documented story of Ben-Gurion as a man and a political leader revolves around his relationships with three men, two of whom were fellow Zionists and one of whom was the dictator of Nazi Germany. These relationships were totally interwoven, at least during the period between 1933 and 1945, but for the purposes of analysis they are best examined one at a time.
Chaim Weizmann, like Ben-Gurion, was born and reared in Russian Poland. Having left the country to pursue his education, he became a leader of the Zionist movement and one of the founding fathers of Israel. Despite these similarities to Ben-Gurion, there were many differences between them, both personal and political. While Ben-Gurion’s academic career was never successful, Weizmann became a successful chemist, with a position of modest wealth and social prestige in Great Britain. When they first met, just after World War I, Weizmann was already renowned as the leader of Zionism; he had excellent connections to the British establishment. Because of the Balfour Declaration on a Jewish homeland and the British Mandate in Palestine, such connections to those in power in London were precisely what Zionism needed. Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, was but a private in the Jewish battalion of the British army, a labor leader with a few publications to his credit, and a rough-and-ready agitator for the cause.
Their relationship, which continued through the founding of Israel a generation later, was a productive one, but it was almost always filled with storm and stress. In order to maintain some semblance of unity in the face of common perils, much of the stormy nature of this relationship was kept behind closed doors, papered over by compromises and public professions of mutual respect and good will. Teveth, excellent historian that he is, does not hold back the details of the behind-the-scenes conflicts between these men. Though he clearly is sympathetic to Ben-Gurion’s position in the politics of the time, he is scrupulously fair in setting forth the content and the private rhetoric of the struggles. In 1936, for example, when the dreadful nature of Nazism was beginning to become apparent and when the British seemed about to renege on earlier promises to the Zionists in order to appease the Arab population of the Middle East, Ben-Gurion was mightily displeased with the moderate stance of Weizmann. “Weizmann is no statesman,” Ben-Gurion stated at a closed political committee meeting. He later complained that “every mistake of...
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