Big Jewish Lives

By Robin Jacobson. 

Why read biographies? When I googled that question, all kinds of responses popped up, some grand and lofty, others more prosaic. But whether you read biographies “to stand on the shoulders of giants” or whether (like me) you find that the life stories of famous persons offer an easy, entertaining way to brush up on basic history, two compact new biographies on eminent Zionists fit the bill. Try Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State by Shlomo Avineri and Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel by Anita Shapira (both in our library). The books’ authors are distinguished Israeli professors, both recipients of the prestigious Israel Prize for their scholarship.

Herzl’s Vision

JPEG cover HERZL'S VISIONTheodor Herzl (1860-1904) was not the first to call for a Jewish state. Yet Herzl was crucial to the establishment of the State of Israel, contends Professor Avineri, because he was the first to command attention for the cause from world leaders, the international public, and ordinary Jews. Additionally, says Avineri, the Zionist Organization, founded by Herzl, created an institutional structure that laid the groundwork for the Israeli state.

Born in Hungary and a longtime resident of Vienna, Herzl was a law school graduate, a respected journalist, and sometime playwright. Contrary to popular myth, insists Avineri, it was not the start of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894 (when the French army wrongly denounced a Jewish officer as a spy) that triggered Herzl’s Zionism. Based on a close reading of Herzl’s diaries, Avineri concludes that Herzl became convinced that Jews must have a state of their own by witnessing the rise of anti-Semitism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The increasing prominence of Jews in business and in the arts and sciences provoked widespread, virulent hostility. Nationalist politicians portrayed Jews as menacing “aliens” who were penetrating European economic and cultural life.

In 1896, Herzl published The Jewish State: Proposal of a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question. An instant bestseller, The Jewish State fired the imaginations and aspirations of Jews around the world. For most of the next decade, Herzl tirelessly promoted Zionism, pressing the cause on international leaders – the German Kaiser, the Pope, and others – until his untimely death at age 44.

Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel

Ben_Gurion_coverThe inauspicious early life of David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) offered no hint that he was destined to bring Herzl’s Zionist dream to fruition. No one could have guessed, says Professor Shapira, that he would become a significant political leader, let alone one day proclaim the State of Israel or become its first prime minister. In contrast to the cosmopolitan, sophisticated Herzl, David Ben-Gurion (born David Green) came from a humble Polish shtetl. His family could not afford to send him to high school; he largely educated himself by reading. He had no profession or purpose until he developed a passion for Zionism and socialism and began to grow (slowly) as a leader.

For Shapira, Ben-Gurion’s most momentous actions took place during the crucial decade between 1942 and 1952. He envisioned the establishment of the State of Israel, prepared for and directed the War of Independence, implemented mass immigration (which doubled the population), moved the capital to Jerusalem, and more. In particular, Shapira writes movingly of Ben-Gurion’s courageous decision to send Jews to fight and die for a Jewish homeland only a few years after the Jewish population had been decimated in the Holocaust. Despite all his achievements, Ben-Gurion’s gravestone is inscribed simply, as he requested, only with his name and the dates of his birth, death, and immigration to Palestine.