The answer hasn’t changed: most Jews in America prefer to live in the diaspora and do not consider their lives ‘abnormal’. Few of them worry that another catastrophe is just around the corner, and an increasing number are aghast to see Israel lording it over an occupied people and allying itself with a white nationalist American president. Some have concluded that Israel’s oppressive behaviour toward the Palestinians fans the very antisemitism against which it claims to be a defence. For liberal Jews raised to think of Ben-Gurion as a grouchy but well-meaning patriarch, Segev’s biography will be particularly disillusioning, since he shows how central exclusionary nationalism, war and racism were to Ben-Gurion’s vision of the Jewish homeland in Palestine, and how contemptuous he was not only of the Arabs but of Jewish life outside Zion. They may look at the state that Ben-Gurion built, and ask if the cost has been worth it.
The Israeli historian Tom Segev paints a conflicting portrait of Israel’s founder in his monumental A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion. Originally published in Hebrew, Haim Watzman’s translation is excellent. Unlike Ben-Gurion’s previous biographers, even the best of whom found it impossible not to stray at times in to hagiography, Segev is unsparing in his depiction of the less appealing sides of his private and political personalities. He also convincingly and meticulously builds the case for Ben-Gurion as a visionary leader, efficient organiser and persuasive advocate without whose efforts Israel, as an independent and sovereign state, may never have come into being... A State at Any Cost deserves to be the definitive biography of Ben-Gurion. It is the story of a hard-headed, pragmatic and ruthless politician, told without sentimentality or nostalgia. It also serves as a key to understanding today’s Israel, which is still very much Ben-Gurion’s creation.