cover image A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion

A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion

Tom Segev, trans. from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40 (816p) ISBN 978-0-374-11264-6

Israeli historian Segev (1967) provides an exhaustive biography of the country’s first prime minister. Drawing on his subject’s prolific writings and historical archives, Segev traces David Ben-Gurion’s life from his 1886 birth in the small Polish town of Płonsk to his death in 1973. As a teenager, Ben-Gurion lectured on Jewish independence; he moved to Palestine in 1906 (motivated by Zionist ideology but also personal unhappiness) and became a socialist labor organizer convinced that the conflict between his people’s aspirations and those of Palestinian Arabs couldn’t be resolved peacefully. He became a left-wing political leader and then the first prime minister of the new country upon its establishment in 1948. In perhaps the most newsworthy section, Segev writes that Ben-Gurion opposed the preemptive strike that launched the Six-Day War, because he accurately predicted that a victory involving the acquisition of more territory would dramatically increase the number of Arabs under Israeli control. Segev’s Ben-Gurion comes across as personally abrasive—an unfaithful spouse and indifferent parent who could be ruthless in pursuing his political goals. Segev persuasively shows how Ben-Gurion’s early choices foreshadowed those he would make later, but the book is sometimes weighed down by detail. The nonspecialist might be better served by less encyclopedic treatments. (Aug.)