Tom Segev’s latest book, “A State at Any Cost,” which was published last month in the United States, is a monumental study of the life of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a towering figure in the Zionist movement.
Segev is one of Israel’s most distinguished journalists and the author of a number of popular books on Israel’s history that have been translated into 16 languages. This latest book is being translated into Chinese.
We caught up with Segev when he was in Lausanne, Switzerland, teaching a short university course on the great Israeli leader. On Oct. 14 he began a three- week speaking tour of the United States and Canada to promote the book.
AJT: This is quite a project. I believe you worked on the book for seven years. There are 166 pages of footnotes and a 17-page bibliography. Why put so much work into this book?
Segev: The last significant biography of David Ben-Gurion was published about 40 years ago. And since then a lot of classified material has been opened, including Israeli cabinet papers and most significantly the personal diary of David Ben-Gurion. So I felt that it’s time to re-examine the icon. We know the myth. We know the image of a man carved of stone or made of steel. I tried to look for the real person, a three-dimensional picture of Ben-Gurion.
AJT: What conclusions did you reach about this very complex man?
Segev: One of the surprises was how complex he was. If you read his diary he often comes across as a man who could be romantic and poetic and very sentimental. He very often moved rapidly from deep depression, almost suicidal depression, to situations of supreme uncontrollable euphoria.
AJT: What do you think is most important in our understanding of Ben-Gurion?
Segev: I think the most important thing was Ben-Gurion’s determination to create a Jewish state in Palestine at any cost, as the book is called. The cost was high, and it still is. His belief in Zionism was really everything to him. That’s the core of his personality, the essence of his identity. Zionism was really everything for him throughout his life beginning at a very early age
AJT: What do you think were the qualities that led him to be such a. strong leader and to survive for 15 years as prime minister?
Segev: He wanted everything leadership has to offer, such as the realization of a dream, which for him was also a personal dream. He wanted the responsibility. He wanted power. He wanted a place in history. But I think the reason why he was so successful over the years was that he really believed in what he said, and many people believed in him. Many people identified Jewish history with him. There are other leaders in 20th century like him, say Lenin or Churchill, but this is a leader who was determined to change the course of history of his nation and that is what makes him a great man.
AJT: What would you also say is his legacy?
Segev: I think that Ben-Gurion laid the infrastructure for what very soon became one of the most dramatic success stories of the 20th century. Israel is a high-tech superpower. Of course, we suffer from two major problems that he was unable to solve. One is the fact that we live without peace. And the second one is that we have not yet been able to agree on a common Jewish Israeli identity. We are still a mosaic of tribes in many respects. And, of course, our future is very bleak. I can’t really be very optimistic because, as I say, these are very major existential problems.
AJT: Anything else changed since Ben-Gurion’s time?
Segev: Most Israelis have lost hope for peace. And this is interestingly enough, something which Ben-Gurion saw 100 years ago when he said that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs cannot be solved. A deep abyss divides us. Both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs want the country as a nation so it’s a conflict between two national movements and it cannot be solved. He said it can be managed, which interestingly enough is something which most Israelis, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, say today. Ben-Gurion really invented that formula.
AJT: In a sense, Israel is at a crucial point in its history in this year of 5780, isn’t it?
Segev: Israel is always in a historical year. We are still in the process of fulfilling the Zionist dream. We are still an experiment, which is to say it’s not clear if we will ever succeed. But so far, we have not failed.