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David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Renaissance
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2011
David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Renaissance offers an insightful and fresh examination of the decades just preceding and following the founding of the State of Israel through the lens of its first Prime Minister. The book begins with a study of the philosophical issues surrounding the renewal of Jewish nationalism in the modern world including Ben-Gurion's synthesis of Greek philosophy and Biblical ethics and the effort of Ben-Gurion as both a statesman and practical politician to transform the Jewish People from living as a powerless minority into an independent society able to deal with the complexities of geopolitics and democratic governance. Aronson examines both Ben-Gurion's political philosophy and how he dealt with the major activities involved in the founding of the state: the creation of a citizen army that would serve also as the vehicle for uniting diverse groups of Jewish immigrants from European Holocaust survivors to Jewish refugees from the Arab world; sustaining a realistic foreign policy in a volatile region among enemies determined to prevent and then destroy the Jewish State; developing a framework for governing a fractious people in a manner that allows for democratic expression and minority rights while giving the political leadership sufficient authority to govern for a sustained period of time, an objective that ultimately eluded Ben-Gurion. Aronson contrasts and defends Ben-Gurion's approach, despite his occasional errors and failures, with and against that of both the Left and the Right with the adherence of the Left to ideological preconceptions and of the Right to a romantic vision of political power. The book is particularly helpful in showing the value of Ben-Gurion's mix of idealism and pragmatism in the development of relations with Germany and with the establishment of a nuclear deterrent (in which France played a key role). The author also explains the impossibility of effective action against the Nazis by the leadership of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine) concurrent with the need to try something and the unfairness of the charge in light of this reality from the Left and the Right that Ben-Gurion didn't do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust (most Jews having been murdered before the tide of war changed and the fear of the Allies that rescue of Jews would be seen as proving Hitler's contention that they were fighting for the Jews). Last, Aronson discusses Ben-Gurion's ambivalent relationship with the British, his philosophical admiration for the British Parliamentary system and his difficult position during World War II as a leader who strove to fight the White Paper barring further immigration into Palestine while fighting with the British against Hitler, at one point the only hope for the survival of democratic civilization. Some of the philosophical discourse in the book is difficult compared to the narrative of political events but it enriches one's perspective of a flawed but great visionary and practical statesman. The insights and facts contained in this volume are helpful in understanding the current domestic and geopolitical circumstances facing Israel today. Lawrence Kohn
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2011
Ben Gurion's vision for Israel was that of a renaissance, a rebirth of the Jewish people, both grounded in the past, but also oriented towards the future.

Chapter 1 "The Intellectual Origins of Ben-Gurion's Zionism" was an amazing read. Aaronson provides an intriguing discussion showing the interplay of BG's political roots, exploring a complex equilibrium between Athens and Jerusalem, Rome and Rabbinics, Marx and Locke, Herzl and Heine. Above all BG was a philosopher and democrat, pragmatic but not dogmatic, focused on the general goal of state building. BG sought power not for its own sake, but in order to build a political structure that would work, sustain itself and not tear itself apart. To the "Old Man" as a young man, Israel was not necessarily a general case of how a nation should be built, but a particular case suited to the history and nature of a particular people.

Chapter 2 explores the special position of Jewish Yishuv with respect to the Holocaust and the problem of Jewish rescue. On one hand BG was doing his part to build the safety net in Palestine for Jews to fall in to, and on the other hand some 30,000 Jews had joined the Palestine Brigade the Hagana had deployed agents in Turkey and in the south of Europe to help Jews escape . Aronson also argues that Hitler's propaganda was geared very much towards branding the Allied and Soviet counteroffensive as a "Jewish War", so much so that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin took pains not to undertake actions that would be seen to benefit Jews preferentially, in spite of Hitler's preference to target Jews. (Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: makes a similar case.) As such BG was aware of the difficulty of pressing his case too hard with the Allies. Additionally it was illegal in America to funnel money into Nazi Germany, even if the purpose was to bribe Nazis for Jewish rescue, and though this proved to be controversial, some of the money allocated for building Palestine was applied in this way. (Ref in book: Arrows in the Dark: David Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv Leadership, and Rescue Attempts during the Holocaust)

Equally fascinating were the 3rd and 4th chapters which examine the positioning of BG's Mapai party in the political centre. BG was a great admirer of the British system in general, and of the ideal of the British Civil Servant as an impartial agent of parliamentary will. The disparate Zionist political movements were anything but, even to the point of each political movement having its own set of schools. Yet in order to build a unified state one needed a unified civil service, answerable not to individual movements but to the State as a whole. Gradually Ben Gurion poured both the IDF and the Histadrut (general labour union) into this conceptualized mold. He was also opposed to the notion of a Constitution; however there is no discussion as to whether he examined the American case. Rather he saw the parliament as the source of law, rather than the judiciary. Here BG felt he was dealing with the particularity of the Jewish experience - Jews already had a Constitution as such in Jewish tradition, including laws dealing with civil and criminal offenses, and had a habit and long history of excessive argumentation around such law. Better to avoid that particular sandtrap than become bogged down in it. Israel's democratic charter was its Declaration of Independence, which guaranteed equal rights for all. "The question is whether the rule of law and democracy, which Israel needs, would best be assured by an overarching constitution of special status or by a set of basic laws that would be no different in status from other laws." (pp 237). The approach of basic law won.

The issues of Chapter 5 were less philosophical and centred largely around foreign relations during the mid 1950s to early 60's. BG, having been central to the birth of the state, withdrew from government at the end of '53 only to be brought back in '55 as Defense Minister. One of the controversies that sprung up during his absence was the failed Lavon Affair, the details of which are not as well covered here as elsewhere (i.e.: Ben-Gurion's Spy), but Aronson is more concerned with the legal principles that BG wished to apply to Pinchas Lavon's responsibility as a Minister. Also interesting was the schism BG generated with regard to pursuing diplomatic relations with postwar Adenauer Germany. Whereas Begin and the right rejected this course as wrong on a moral basis, citing both bad memories and the help that Nasser had been receiving from individual German scientists to bolster his military program, BG argued that at least West Germany itself had changed, and that it was better and advantageous to create ties with the new Europe, Germany included. Another interesting relationship was with France who had agreed to help with Israel's nuclear option, which, apropos of the times, BG thought of as a critical need for Israel's long term survival.

Chapter 6 and the epilogue I found a bit sad. BG resigned in 1963 and was replaced by Levi Eshkol. He came back in '67 with a new but smaller political party Rafi, but in old age never attained the same political stature, the main stage being left to his political offspring.

I'll add, should you have the opportunity, visit Ben Gurion's home in Tel Aviv. The entire 2nd floor of this two story building is filled with 15,000 books - and there are another 10,000 at his other home in Sde Boker. Ben Gurion slept maybe 5 hours a night and was a voracious reader with a huge range of interests from including agronomy, education, economics, history, religion, art, culture, political philosophy, electronics, biology and even artificial intelligence. Not only did he strive for a renaissance for the Jewish people, he lived it himself. May his memory be a blessing.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2013
i'm not smart enough for this book. i was about to spend 3 weeks in israel, & wanting an overview of the country's modern history i thought a biography of david ben-gurion would enlighten me. this is not that book. it gets high ratings, probably well-deserved, but i'm guessing they're from zionist theory intellectuals & experts. if you don't have an at-hand, working knowledge of the theories of schopenhauer, nitzsche, hegel, kant, marx & countless other thinkers from ancient cultures & the renaissance plus talmudic law, don't bother - you will likely get hopelessly bogged down. if you do, you'll probably love it. i struggled through the first quarter of this arcane book & realized i was only getting deeper & deeper in the weeds. i give it 2 stars because it impressed me with how deeply ben-gurion, katznelson, weitzmann et. al thought through their zionist principles, but i would've had to study for years to follow the nuances of them. thankfully, a historian friend of mine turned me on to tom segev's "one palestine complete", which turned out to be just what i was looking for & i highly recommend.
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on August 22, 2014
Very happy with purchase!
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