Ben-Gurion: A Book and An Encounter
by David Stein
The story of Ben-Gurion as related by Shimon Peres is part of a series titled “Jewish Encounters.” Truly, the text is an encounter with a historic political and cultural figure. Unless one is schooled in Israeli history and politics, the name Ben-Gurion is known as a leading figure in the move toward statehood as well as the development of the modern state of Israel, The decisions made by Ben-Gurion are still contested and lived out daily by Jews around the world.
As a first theme Peres presents a biography composed on personal encounters with Ben-Gurion as well as quoting documents from publications and presentations given by Ben-Gurion. We see an individual totally committed to developing a homeland in Israel for the Jewish People. Every action, thought, breath was devoted to securing a home and a modern political state where Jew could live out their historic mission. To Ben-Gurion, Israel represented sacred land in which the Jewish People could live their authentic traditions and continue their unique culture and contribution to restoring the world, Tikkun olam. The story of Ben-Gurion is also the story of Zionism and here the text becomes a little cloudy. Peres assumes that we know all the facets and factions that made up Zionism. Peres shows how Ben-Gurion developed and advocated a form of Zionism based not on words but on actions-forceful actions. It is the forceful actions and the idea of armed resistance leads to the second theme.
The struggle for statehood is also the struggle between Diaspora ways of thinking vs the thinking of the Yishuv. To Ben-Gurion, the mistake of the Jews in Europe was the failure to develop a political voice and an ideology of resistance. In the Yishuv, working the land, being part of the land was the way to gain strength. To own the land, to develop the land was to gain political power and strength to fight for statehood. In the Yishuv, the state would not be given by the great powers but won by the strength of the Jewish People.
Is this a significant Jewish Book? I would recommend reading this book not only to learn about the man but to learn about the political and social forces operating in the Jewish Communities of the East and West. Reading the book does provide insights regarding the role of Zionism in maintaining the long struggle for independence. However, one must read carefully as Peres is not presenting a critical biography. Questions such as did Ben-Gurion not do enough during the Holocaust so as to maintain and sustain interest in securing a homeland? Aside from the practical, why did Ben-Gurion accept the partition? These issues are addressed but dismissed. However, the strength of the book is in feeling and thinking about the excitement, the challenge, and the dedication to creating and recreating authentic Jewish social, intellectual and religious practices in a modern democratic state.