In bed with Israel’s first prime minister

David Ben Gurion with John Kennedy

Historian exposes David Ben-Gurion as you never knew him. Ofer Aderet reviews Tom Segev’s new Haaretz

Anyone familiar with the thoughtful and nuanced work of Israeli historian Tom Negev might want to look out for his new book about David Ben-Gurion. Currently only in Hebrew, it will be come out in the US in English in the autumn. Among other things, it looks at the roots of Israeli government policy which is consistently predicated on the assumption that conflict with the Palestinians can only be ‘managed’, never resolved.

He had four mistresses, suggested converting Arabs to Judaism, was prepared to give up Israel’s nuclear project and consulted a fortune teller. Historian Tom Segev gets up close and personal with David Ben-Gurion, the man behind the myth

By Ofer Aderet Feb 17, 2018

The Genazim Institute of the Hebrew Writers Association would probably not be the first place one would associate with sex and extramarital affairs. Yet that’s where the journalist and historian Tom Segev found the most significant evidence yet unearthed about the intimate relationships of David Ben-Gurion. Among the collections documenting the lives and works of 750 Hebrew-language writers is the personal archive of the first and most serious of the lovers of Israel’s first prime minister.

Segev offers two responses to the question of where the boundary runs between cheap gossip and material of historical value, and why he interested himself in Ben-Gurion’s sex life. “The first answer is the standard one – that if the leader isn’t faithful to his wife, maybe he’s not faithful to his voters, either. If he cheats on her, maybe he cheats on them, too,” he says.

But there’s another, more meaningful reason that Segev’s 800-page new book, “David Ben-Gurion: A State at All Costs” (in Hebrew, Keter Books), discusses at length the four women with whom Ben-Gurion had affairs. “He was regularly determining the fate of the nation,” Segev observes. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to know about his weaknesses and distress, and about the women whose company he enjoyed while making important decisions.” (The book is scheduled for publication in the U.S. next winter, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

The illicit relations with the woman from the archive began in 1926, when Ben-Gurion was 40, and continued on and off for the next 40 years, until the tail end of his tenure as prime minister. The woman with whom he cheated on Pola, his wife and the mother of his children, was Rivka Katznelson, a woman who would gain fame as the editor of Dvar Hapoelet, the first women’s magazine in Israel, and a relation of Labor-Zionist leader Berl Katznelson.

They met when she was 19, at an election rally where Ben-Gurion spoke. “Small but compact the large head with the huge forelock – there was something desirable about him,” was how she described their first meeting.

Segev’s curiosity about the relationship surged when the archive of the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry, which has a file under the name “Rivka Katznelson,” refused to open it to the public “for reasons of personal privacy.” Finally Segev made do with the material in the Genazim archive, after Katznelson’s niece gave her consent to his perusal of the documents.

Segev learned that the two usually met in Ben-Gurion’s house (when Pola was away), in hotels and apparently also in his office. Ben-Gurion wrote her letters on the official stationery of the prime minister, asking her to be in touch with his bureau to coordinate the next meeting through his aides. Segev found the following in the archive: “His time was short, his passion impatient and love games nauseated him.”

Katznelson also described Ben-Gurion as “hungry,” as someone who “hurries, pounces, embraces, kisses, exposes: wants release and no more.” His love was wholly a “love of urges,” and Ben-Gurion treated her like a “little woman.”
On one occasion he caused her a “stinging and ridiculing affront,” in her words, when she understood that he didn’t distinguish between her body “and another woman’s body.” Ultimately she felt exploited. “He didn’t know I was married, didn’t know there were children, didn’t ask and didn’t say what he thought of me. That wasn’t of interest. He wanted me, only wanted me,” she wrote. “You never saw me, you didn’t want to hear what I had to say, my dreams were of no interest to you,” she wrote him.

From their intimate acquaintance, she inferred that Ben-Gurion never reached “the depths of the release of male eros,” nor did he ever know a woman “to the depths of her release.” Not even Pola, his wife. In that sense, “he died with his virginity,” she wrote.

It’s quite interesting. She thinks he lacked the ability of genuine sexual satisfaction,” Segev remarks about one of the revelations in his new book.

Segev, 72, discovered that engaging with Ben-Gurion is more than just a lesson in history. “Ben-Gurion has become very popular in recent years,” he notes. “There’s hardly a day when he isn’t mentioned in a newspaper.”

What’s the reason, do you think?
“There are powerful longings for a leader with integrity. The explanation, of course, lies in one word: Netanyahu.”

Do those longings have a solid basis? Your book shows that some unpleasant episodes are attached to Ben-Gurion’s name, too.
“Ben-Gurion was not a corrupt person. There was a salient aspect of modesty in his character. He didn’t smoke cigars, didn’t drink champagne, and he chose to go third-class on a ship and share his cabin with other people. On the other hand, it is possible to talk about corruption in connection with him. For example, there’s a problem regarding the house he bought in Tel Aviv, because it can’t be definitely established that he paid back all the loans he received from the Histadrut [labor federation] and from the bank. He also didn’t always pay for the thousands of books he bought.”

As Segev dug deeper in his research, he discovered that Ben-Gurion left millions of words behind him. Possibly that’s why no fewer than five biographies have been written about him in the past few years, each from a different angle. But it’s not only the amount of written material that accounts for the plethora of biographies. “He left behind a series of political, social and moral problems and questions, with which Israel is still coping,” notes Segev.

The two classic biographies of Ben-Gurion, by Shabtai Teveth and Michael Bar-Zohar, are both now 40 years old. Since then, Segev says, a number of processes have occurred. To begin with, “a new generation of readers has come to maturity here, who don’t share the ‘feeling of creation’ that was the hallmark of Ben-Gurion’s generation.” Second, many archives have been opened in the interim, including minutes of cabinet meetings, that were not previously available to earlier researchers. Today, Segev avers, “It’s possible to get close to the real Ben-Gurion, both as a leader and a politician, and as a human being,” and not make do with Ben-Gurion the “poster, icon, symbol and legend.”

In the course of six years of research, Segev says, he discovered a leader fraught with dramatic contrasts. Once, it was Ben-Gurion the unbending, tough leader, hewn in rock, molded of steel, “larger than life.” Years before that, it was Ben-Gurion with the squeaky voice, who was forced to speak Yiddish, the uncharismatic orator and the short child, who failed at everything he did and was close to suicidal despair.

Amid all this, Segev discovered the romantic, poetic, sentimental Ben-Gurion, who was enraptured by the beauty of Lake Kinneret, the Alps and Niagara Falls. And from time to time, the pages in the archives turned up a different individual: a person who was subject to moods and outbursts, to extreme transitions between supreme happiness and abysmal despondency, at times on the brink of self-annihilation.

Segev’s biography is replete with quotations from Ben-Gurion from different periods on this subject. “I hardly find an interest in life any longer,” he wrote on one occasion. And again, “Even in my moments of happiness I cannot liberate myself from the suffering of the deep sorrow that has penetrated my entire being. I cannot bear the distress of my mind – it’s a kind of inner hell for me.”

One day he went so far as to write, “All will pass, cease, eternal cold, perdition, nullity, endless nothingness. What is the meaning of our whole wretched existence, momentary, leaving not a trace, pointless. Who will reply? Who will say? The grave – the one answer. The sole purpose.”

Maybe my nature is to blame,” Ben-Gurion wrote another time, “but I am a solitary and lonely person, and at times things are very, very difficult for me. There are moments when my heart seethes, torn, and bitter, harsh questions torture me and I have no one to turn to. I stand alone and a heavy burden weighs on me, a burden too heavy to bear.”
Time after time, the word “anxiety” appears in his writings.

The historical move he led often seems to have made him anxious,” Segev says. He found evidence in Ben-Gurion’s diary that he was bedridden every few months, usually without a reason being noted, or cited aches and ailments that he dragged with him from his childhood in Poland. He sometimes suffered from a feeling of weakness, his sleep was sometimes interrupted, and he was occasionally hospitalized.

These accounts are tough, but similar descriptions exist about other people, including great leaders.
“True, but with Ben-Gurion it’s especially interesting, because he’s aware of it. It’s all written in the diary and in his letters. I read endless emotional gushing, I learned about his wretchedness and his loneliness, about his yearnings for love. I found an ability and a willingness for sensitive and courageous self-observation, which made him such a fascinating person. It’s astonishing how intimate he could be when he related these things in his diary or his letters. I sometimes had the feeling that he was writing all this for his future biographers, almost imploring, ‘Please understand me, depict me as I really was.’”

At the end of his lengthy research, Segev reached the intriguing – and troubling – conclusion that Ben-Gurion had an occasional tendency to disconnect from reality. The biographer cites a series of “totally bizarre” episodes in his subject’s life. “Each of them is known separately, but when you observe them as a recurring phenomenon, it’s quite amazing. A series of weird events that is hard to explain,” Segev says.

The list includes the decision to drop everything and move to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev; a proposal to convert the Arabs to Judaism; the suggestion to declare war on Britain and afterward on Germany as well; the notion that preceded the 1956 Sinai Campaign to the effect that a new Middle East could be built without Egyptian leader Nasser; the trip to Burma to study Buddhism and the addiction to the mystical Jewish work, the Zohar; the discussion of the possibility that Israel would get control of French Guiana, north of Brazil; the consultation with a fortune teller; and his claim to have seen a flying saucer. His fondness for standing on his head is also on Segev’s list of “nutty moments.”

The publication of Segev’s book comes almost exactly 50 years after he met Ben-Gurion himself, in April 1968. Segev and two friends traveled to Sde Boker to interview Ben-Gurion for Nitzotz, the student weekly of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, of which Segev was the editor, on the occasion of Israel’s 20th Independence Day.

Segev and his friends were 23; Ben-Gurion was 82. “We found a very lonely person,” recalls Segev. Ben-Gurion, as usual, started to interview the interviewers. At one point he told them that his impression was that they didn’t know the meaning of Zionism. In the course of his journalistic career, including at Haaretz, Segev interviewed prime ministers, presidents and monarchs – “but nothing compared to that experience of an encounter with history,” he says.

I already knew at the age of 3 that I would not remain in the place where I was born,” Ben-Gurion told them, remembering his childhood in the Polish town of Plonsk. For that reason, he said, he didn’t want to learn Polish, because he knew he would live in the Land of Israel. “A 3-year-old Zionist sounds pretty fantastical to me,” Segev says now. On the recording of the interview, which Segev still has, he’s heard asking skeptically, almost brazenly, “Mr. Ben-Gurion, you already knew that at the age of 3?!” The Old Man insisted that it was so.

Ben-Gurion’s total identification with Zionism engendered the new biography’s subtitle, “A State at All Costs.” Those costs, as the book and the interview with Segev indicate, were – and continue to be – very steep.

For example, Segev was surprised to discover that Ben-Gurion, at a very early stage of his career, in 1919, when he established the Ahdut Ha’avoda (“unity of labor”) party, expressed an idea that he would reassert in many ways until his last day: that there was no chance for peace with the Arabs.

Everyone sees a difficulty concerning the question of the relations between Jews and Arabs. But not everyone sees that there is no solution to that question. No solution. There is an abyss, and nothing can fill that abyss,” Ben-Gurion said in a speech at that time, 30 years before Israel’s establishment, adding, “We want the Land of Israel to be ours as a nation. The Arabs want the land to be theirs – as a nation. I don’t know what Arab will agree to the Land of Israel being for the Jews.”

Later, Ben-Gurion took it as axiomatic that Israel would always be exposed to threats of destruction and that the Arabs would not accept its existence among them even when they realized that there was no possibility of destroying the country. “Throughout his whole life, his approach was that no people forgoes its land willingly, and therefore it was possible at best to manage the conflict but not to resolve it. And that is the steep price of life without peace,” Segev observes.

Perhaps this was why Ben-Gurion believed, from the time he came to Palestine, in an idea that would afterward be associated with someone else: a population transfer. At first he didn’t say this explicitly, but rather gave expression to the concept in his struggle for “Hebrew [Jewish] labor,” meaning the replacement of Arab workers with Jews. Subsequently he broached the idea openly. “I am in favor of a forced transfer. I do not see anything immoral about it,” he stated at the end of the 1930s.

Segev draws a direct line between the struggle for “Hebrew labor,” the support for the transfer idea and what is referred to as the Nakba, the 1948 Arab “catastrophe.” Thus Segev arrives at another of the “costs” exacted by the state to this day. Its establishment entailed a calamity for the other people that lived here, hundreds of thousands of whom fled or were expelled, he says.

As one would expect in a research work of this scope (the footnotes alone run to 85 pages), the author has come up with significant historical revelations. Some of them are completely new, while others were buried or not sufficiently emphasized in other studies but are now accorded the place they deserve.

For example, Segev writes that Ben-Gurion, for whom the creation of a Jewish state was his life’s project, asked the British – on the eve of Israel’s establishment – to prolong the Mandate and agreed to postpone the realization of his dream, a proclamation of independence, for several years.

In early 1947, a few months before the United Nations partition vote on November 29 paved the way for Israel’s establishment, Ben-Gurion held a nighttime meeting with
Britain’s Lord High Chancellor (justice minister), William Jowitt. Toward midnight, they agreed on a fateful document, whose bottom line was that the British Mandate in Palestine would remain in effect for another five or 10 years. “It’s quite amazing and also quite odd that, while the Yishuv [the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] is fighting the English, Ben-Gurion goes to them and begs them to stay,” Segev says.

According to the document Ben-Gurion drew up with Lord Jowitt, about 100,000 Jews would be allowed to enter the country in the next year or two, and afterward Jewish immigration would be renewed according to the country’s capacity to absorb newcomers, and the restrictions imposed in Britain’s White Paper would be lifted. In return, Ben-Gurion undertook to prevent independence from being declared in the coming years. The plan was ultimately shelved and relegated to documents in the archives. Segev thinks that Ben-Gurion wanted to gain time, as he was apprehensive that the Jewish forces weren’t yet prepared for the looming war.

The new biography offers additional examples that undercut
the image of Ben-Gurion’s security-above-all approach. It turns out that he was unprepared and taken by surprise when the Arab riots of 1929 erupted, even though he could have drawn conclusions from similar unrest eight years earlier. This pattern repeated itself in 1936, when the Arab Revolt found Ben-Gurion unready, because “he barely learned the lessons of the 1929 terror,” as Segev notes. “I was quite surprised by the series of security failures for which Ben-Gurion was responsible,” he says.

A major instance in this regard occurred in 1947, when Ben-Gurion paused to examine – for the first time, as he himself attested – the condition of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish defense force, ahead of the inevitable war.

Segev: “I am not looking to destroy a legend, but I thought that at least in security matters, the legend was solid. I was taken aback to discover blunder after blunder.”

The author devoted an intense research effort to tracking down one particular archival item that had been shunted to the margins of the historical margins, but had caught his eye: the fact is that in April 1947, five months before the UN’s authorization of the partition plan, Ben-Gurion proposed his own partition map, which was presented to the British cabinet.

The map, which Segev finally found in the British National Archives, is a source of interesting information. Even before the partition resolution, Ben-Gurion himself drew up a map whose borders were very similar to the Green Line, the cease-fire line that was created in the wake of the War of Independence. So, even before the hostilities began, “Ben-Gurion already had the results in his head,” Segev points out.
Like the historian’s previous books, his Ben-Gurion biography was submitted to the censorship authorities for vetting. This time there was no repeat of the embarrassing incident in 2005, when employees of Keter Books had to white-out by hand half a line from Segev’s book “1967.” Still, Segev relates, “I wasn’t allowed to see some of the existing material, and some of the material I was allowed to see I wasn’t allowed to publish.”

He’s referring mainly to information relating to the Dimona nuclear reactor. As Segev learned from documents he perused, Ben-Gurion, toward the end of his tenure as prime minister, expressed readiness in principle to forgo Israel’s nuclear project in return for a military alliance with the United States. Segev raises the possibility that the fierce debate that flared up on the subject between Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan (who argued that “there is no substitute and no other device for the finished product of Dimona”) contributed to Ben-Gurion’s decision to retire for good.

Another surprising finding in the biography relates to a different subject of great sensitivity: the Holocaust. “I think that most readers will learn with astonishment who told Ben-Gurion about the Holocaust,” Segev says with justice. It turns out that the information that the Germans were employing mass-industry methods to annihilate European Jewry was conveyed to Ben-Gurion in July 1942 by a Christian Arab from Palestine.

The informant, Francis Kettaneh, was born in Jerusalem, studied in Beirut and earned his living from various businesses. In 1942, he immigrated to the United States and became the director of Rotary International. He and Ben-Gurion met in New York shortly before the terrible secret was made known to the world. Kettaneh told Ben-Gurion about talks he’d held with members of the Polish government-in-exile in London. “I was appalled,” Ben-Gurion said afterward about the information. He later told the Jewish Agency Executive that Kettaneh was the person from whom he’d learned about the annihilation of Polish Jewry.

Segev was quite familiar with Ben-Gurion from his earlier books, which include “1949: The First Israelis” and “The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust” (both available in English translation). In his new book he sought to reexamine two of the most fraught issues he’d addressed in the past: Ben-Gurion’s attitude toward the Holocaust and his attitude toward Mizrahi Jews, from Arab or Islamic countries. Segev links the two subjects and proposes a new reading of them. In the new book he explains that Ben-Gurion viewed the Holocaust as a crime against Zionism and the looming State of Israel, because the Nazis killed the people who could have established the state as he envisioned it – a modern Western country. “The state arose and did not find the nation that anticipated it,” Segev quotes him in an acerbic comment.

In the book you don’t treat this as racism. Why not?
“Ben-Gurion was not a racist toward the Jews from the Arab lands. He judged them from the narrow and purposeful
aspect of the need to advance the Zionist movement. He thought that the Jews from the Arab and Islamic states had been raised in backward countries that were in decline, and therefore would find it difficult to integrate into the society and the army, as the Ashkenazi Jews had. Ben-Gurion dreamed of a European country that would be established in Israel, and was disappointed.”

In his earlier books, Segev often quoted racist remarks by Ben-Gurion, which provoked severe criticism of his subject. In the new book, Segev adds other remarks that show how, as he did on other issues, Ben-Gurion contradicted himself and held diverse, sometimes conflicting views.

For example, in a conversation with intellectuals, Ben-Gurion predicted that the Jews from the Arab states, whom he termed primitive, would nevertheless produce “a new Berl Katznelson.” On another occasion he said, “In them, too, are hidden rich wellsprings of pioneering ability, wellsprings of heroism and creativity. If we invest here, too, the efforts we invested in Jewish youth in Europe, we will achieve the same welcome results.”

Segev also tries to get a handle on Ben-Gurion’s callous attitude regarding the Holocaust. “In my previous books I wasn’t cautious enough, and the impression was that I claimed that Ben-Gurion missed possibilities to rescue Jews during the Holocaust,” Segev notes. The new biography also contains quotes in the same off-putting vein, such as Ben-Gurion’s comment as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive: “The disaster of European Jewry is not directly our affair.”

Segev now also displays understanding, however, for the
impossible situation in which Ben-Gurion found himself. “What seems to be indifference toward the Holocaust and lack of leadership, was above all helplessness,” he writes. In light of the impossibility of rescuing the Jews from annihilation, Ben-Gurion preferred “to leave the Holocaust behind, even while it was still at its height, and to focus on the future.” In the end, then, according to Segev, “his main occupation was to wait for its conclusion.”

All in all, your book reveals, together with the image of a leader, a Ben-Gurion who was depressive, anxious, sentimental, treacherous and, some would say, racist. Not exactly the legend that’s taken root.
“Part of the legend has a basis. In almost every situation, Ben-Gurion projects a feeling that he knows what needs to be done, and in this sense he resembles other leaders, such as Lenin and Churchill, who believed in the need to reshape the fate of their people and believed in their ability to do that. People believed him because he believed in himself. But I tried to get to the person behind the poster, and delve into his inner being. Not only for the sake of curiosity and gossip, but so that we will be able to understand ourselves better.”

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