Ethnic Cleanser – A Biography of David Ben Gurion

segev.jpegA biography of the first Prime Minister of Israel 

“For Ben-Gurion, the ‘Arabs’ were no more than one-dimensional objects on the landscape that had to be removed. They had no right to be in Palestine let alone the right to stay there. Had he seen them as equal human beings he could not have been a Zionist.”


Tom Segev, A State At Any Cost. The Life of David Ben-Gurion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), 804pp. ISBN-13: 9781789544626. Paperback. 

Citation Information: Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies, Volume 22 Issue 1, Page 129-138, ISSN 2054-1988 Available Online Apr 2023
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In 1940 the Haganah bombed the Patria, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Romania to Palestine. About 250 of them plus some British servicemen who had boarded the ship in Haifa port were killed. [The British were going to send the Jews to Mauritius. This was intended to look like the Jews blew themselves up rather than be deported.]
Asked his opinion, Ben-Gurion approved of the bombing as a ‘Zionist action’ although ‘no one expected so many victims’. 

Deluding himself again, he said it was an ‘act of God’, not of the Haganah. In 1948, another ship, the Altalena — Jabotinsky’s pen name — arrived with a cargo of refugees, arms, and ammunition. Menahim Begin and Ben-Gurion could not agree on how the arms should be shared. Ben-Gurion was prepared to shoot it out and did: the ship was raked with gunfire, ‘Jews shooting Jews’ as Yitzhak Rabin remarked, and eventually set it on fire. The next morning Ben-Gurion responded with this comment: ‘Blessed is the cannon that bombed the ship. The cannon is worthy of standing in the Temple, if it gets built’ (435)…


He fought with Zionist allies and enemies alike. His hatred of his own Jewish stock could be even greater than his contempt for the ‘Arabs’. Weizmann was turned into a ‘loathsome carrion, like a trampled corpse’ (351), Jabotinsky was ‘Vladimir Hitler’, and the Revisionists a ‘Jewish Nazi Party’. (252). The insults were returned in full measure.

‘At any cost’ meant lying and dissembling endlessly: whatever Ben-Gurion said for propaganda purposes, he always knew what he wanted, which was the removal of the Palestinians from the land that belonged to them, according to all logical legal, historical, and moral criteria but to which Ben-Gurion believed only Jews had a moral and historic right. 

On this basis he set the Zionist state on the course it has followed to the present day, with the devastating consequences it has had for the Palestinians, the surrounding Arab world and the Jewish communities who lived in that world for thousands of years until deliberately uprooted by Zionism’s ‘ingathering of the exiles’.

For Ben-Gurion, the ‘Arabs’ were no more than one-dimensional objects on the landscape that had to be removed. They had no right to be in Palestine let alone the right to stay there. Had he seen them as equal human beings he could not have been a Zionist. 

Indeed, he hardly saw them as human beings at all. They were lesser beings, to be disposed of when the time came. The old, the young, women, children, babes in arms, they all had to go, as they did in 1948. 

Driven out on the orders of this man or what was tacitly understood of what he wanted and moving further away with each step from the massacres that had been the fate of many others, they streamed in long columns toward Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Many died on the road even as the homes they had been forced to abandon were being plundered and destroyed.

Ben-Gurion did not establish ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ because it was only a democracy for Jews and therefore — like his socialism — not a democracy at all. What he sowed were the seeds of what has gradually taken shape since 1948, a Jewish supremacist state from which the ‘Arabs’ must be purged or reduced to ethnic remnants waiting for the next busload of American or Japanese tourists.

Even in the twentieth century, the politician as an unindicted war criminal is a familiar figure in history. Ben-Gurion’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine earns him his place in this pantheon of the wicked. His crimes were not as great as some but greater than many. In Zionist history he is a heroic figure: across the long span of Jewish history, his place is less certain. Herzl, Weizmann, and then Ben-Gurion pitched Jewish life out of the sanctity of the metaphysical into the physical, quickly showing that, when given a state, Jews could behave as badly as anyone if not worse than many. Ben-Gurion took the lead in driving them further in this direction.

From the beginning there were Jews, not only but notably Neturei Karta, who regarded Zionism as apostasy and a stain on the Jewish faith. For the Palestinians and other Arab victims of Zionism, the Star of David, embossed on the wings of warplanes and the sides of tanks pulverizing Lebanon or Gaza or scribbled on the walls of Palestinian homes on the West Bank are the symbols of a savage, remorseless enemy, just as the Zionists wanted Israel to be seen. The gross historical irony, needless to say, is that the sight of the swastika had the same effect on its victims.

Notoriously humorless, veering in his youth between suicidal thoughts and grandiose ideas, searching for meaning, Ben-Gurion found it in Zionism. It took him out of a small Polish town and eventually projected him onto the world stage, as it had done to Herzl, a dreamer and minor literary figure, and Weizmann, the practical chemist. Ben-Gurion claimed to be a socialist but socialism only for the Jews and not the ‘Arabs’ was not socialism to anyone but a doctrinaire Zionist.

Zionism promised redemption, but at the cost of the blood of other people, there can be no redemption, only a struggle between occupier and occupied which after more than seven decades shows no sign of ending.


1 See Benny Morris and Benjamin Z. Kedar, ‘Cast Thy Bread: Israel’s Biological Warfare During the 1948 War’, Middle Eastern Studies online, 19 September 2022. See also Ettay Nevo, ‘The Science Behind Israel’s Fight for Independence’, the Davidson Institute, an affiliate of the Weizmann Institute.

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