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Reviewed by:
  • David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Renaissance
  • Asher D. Biemann
David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Renaissance, by Shlomo Aronson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 476 pp.

Historians of the past decades have looked at the legacy of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, in a less than flattering key: a utopianist turned statesman, a ruthless leader and, at times, tyrannical pragmatist, whose political failures—and successes—have frequently been interpreted as seeds of contemporary conflict. In his recent book, Shlomo Aronson, an eminent Israeli historian, whose previous scholarship includes important works on the history of Nazi Germany and on the politics of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, turns to the figure of Ben-Gurion to offer a thoughtful and richly nuanced reassessment, even "rehabilitation," of his leadership. Ben-Gurion, Aronson argues from the start, was no ordinary leader, but embodied a particular type of "leader-intellectual," a "statesman-scholar," whose political and philosophical selves were so intimately entwined that one cannot be explained without the other. In itself, this observation, presents, of course, no radical revision, considering that scholars have long portrayed Ben-Gurion as a passionate disciple of Spinoza and Nietzsche, an intellectual kinship of epidemic dimensions among his generation.

To Aronson, however, this intellectual kinship was by no means one-dimensional. Rather, it must be viewed as emblematic of a state of mind Aronson describes as "renaissance." To understand the mind and statesmanship of Ben-Gurion requires us to understand him as a "self-proclaimed Renaissance man," whose affinities with the historical Renaissance were as deep as with the renaissance as an idea. Renaissance, for Aronson, is defined as "an extraordinary historical trend of thought, of psychology, and of behavior that allowed its adherents intellectual freedom of a kind not experienced before and after, a freedom that doctrinarians—both religious [End Page 160] and secular—later present as heresy" (xvi). Indeed, it is against doctrinarians— of any kind—that Aronson writes his portrait of the legendary Israeli prime minister, and it is the idea of the renaissance as a mindset of hybridity, "synthesis and renewal" that enables us to think of Ben-Gurion as anything but a doctrinarian. Here, perhaps, lies Aronson's most important contribution: to offer an intellectual and historical portrait that maintains, without judgment and hagiographic distortion, the "eclectic, Renaissance-like jumble of Ben-Gurion's vision" (298). In a three-pronged approach, Aronson unfolds Ben-Gurion's emergence and tenure as a leader as that of a man of renaissance, man of the Jewish State, man of great historical intuition, each developed with impressive detail and breadth. Writing about Ben-Gurion's intellectual origins, he situates the leader in the tradition of the humanists, drawing fine distinctions among his own "Jewish renaissance" and its much better known German Jewish and cultural Zionist variations. Discussing Ben-Gurion's politically formative struggle with the impacts and lessons of the Holocaust, Aronson casts a new look at the pragmatic politics and, indeed, virtues of "Zionization." Resituating Ben-Gurion between the emerging right and left, and presenting a compelling analysis of his apparent anticonstitutionalism, he invokes a again a fluid, antidoctrinarian, though not unprincipled, leader, whose political thinking was shaped by a sense of repeated entrapment and resistance to lofty intellectualism of the "German-Buberian" kind. And taking us, step by step, through Ben-Gurion's thought and actions during the Suez-Sinai Campagin, the Lavon Affair, and the Six Day War, Aronson reinforces the image of a complex and, more than once, conflicted leader, who, in times of crisis, returned to his intellectual roots, reading Plato and the classics not—as often assumed—in the vein of the authoritarians, but "in the best tradition of the rivaling umanisti of the Renaissance" (289).

What emerges, then, in Aronson's book, which is an expanded and updated version of his 1999 Hebrew book, David Ben-Gurion and the Waning of an Age, is a refined and fresh, yet also critical and sincere, reconsideration of a political figure who has been at the heart of historical debates and current political discourse. The book is dense, detailed, and exceptionally well developed using extensive archival material...


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pp. 160-162
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