Nation-building in the Middle East

David Ben-Gurion was so important a figure in the formation and governing of early Israel that his biography also serves as a biography of Israel - from its early 20th-century roots through its independence in 1948, the 1967 war, until Ben-Gurion's passing in 1973, two months after Israel had defended itself from Egypt's surprise attack across the Suez Canal.

The approach of Dan Kurzman's book, ''Ben-Gurion: Prophet of Fire'' is ''great man'' history. While including much about Ben-Gurion's private life, Kurzman focuses on the sweeping events of Zionism in the 20th century. It is on this basis that the book can be recommended.

Like Menachem Begin, his longtime rival and ideological opposite, Ben-Gurion was a Polish Jew who suffered through the pogroms of Eastern Europe and made his way to Palestine determined to build a nation that would protect the Jewish people. As a young man, Ben-Gurion was a committed Marxist; later he became a more moderate socialist. Always an organizer, he in many ways engineered the very structure of early Israel.

Shortly after his arrival in Palestine in 1906, Ben-Gurion embarked on a long process of encouraging kibbutz building, forming Jewish labor unions, and arranging these social building blocks in the labor-industrial movement, the Histadrut. That, in turn, was the backbone of Israel's Labor Party, which dominated the country's political life for its first 30 years. From these efforts also came the Hagana military force, which served as the nucleus of the country's famed Army.

It was mainstream, state-building politics that Ben-Gurion employed. His political base was European and American Jewry, the Ashkenazim. The early Israel that America and the Western world came to know seemed a plucky little David - a state made up of Holocaust survivors, a state culturally similar to those in Europe and America - holding out against a menacing Arab Goliath. The latter was not a completely accurate perception, given the fratricidal weakness of the Arab world. But the perception translated into widespread public support for Israel in America and Europe.

Begin, on the other hand, took the radical approach, engaging in terrorism against British-mandate forces in Palestine, agitating and fighting his way to the top. He was a leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a military force involved in atrocious attacks on Arab villages. Begin was much more rightist in ideology, as was the Likud coalition he forged, which carried Israel into the controversial policies of annexation of east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, de facto annexation of the West Bank, bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor, and invading Lebanon.

Few can doubt that Israel dominates the Middle East and intimidates its Arab neighbors. But post-Ben-Gurion Israel, while more powerful, also seems less sure of its goals than the nation of his day - and decidedly less popular in Europe and the US.

As for Ben-Gurion, it is in his pangs of conscience, not in his strong-willed public persona, that one sees the true qualities of the man. Chastened by the ill-conceived Suez attack of 1956, Ben-Gurion was reluctant to launch a preemptive strike on Egypt in June 1967. He argued repeatedly against occupying the West Bank. A pragmatist, Ben-Gurion initially was willing to see an autonomous Jewish state set up within the Ottoman Empire. He even tried to form a Jewish legion to fight alongside the Turks in World War I. But he soon switched sides and supported the British.

Ben-Gurion shunned the strong-arm tactics of Begin and his mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky. He also disliked the more mild-mannered approach of Chaim Weizmann. He respected the Arabs and worried about an Israel that employed cheap Arab labor in its economy.

Kurzman knows his subject well, and his extensive research shows. But the approach tends to be too action packed and not as reflective as it might have been, given the author's knowledge of Israel.

His prose also tends to get overdone. Early in the book, Kurzman calls Ben-Gurion ''in a modern sense, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, a messiah who felt he was destined to create an exemplary Jewish state.'' Later, it becomes clear that Ben-Gurion often actually felt he was fulfilling a prophecy of Isaiah that called for a new Jewish state.

If the Ben-Gurion biography is valuable as the story of a great man and events of moment in Israel, John S. Badeau's remembrances are valuable as a parallel view of 20th-century Arab culture as seen by a kindly missionary-turned-ambassador-turned-educator.

Badeau and his wife arrived in Mosul, Iraq, in 1928 as missionaries for the Dutch Reformed Church. Traveling extensively throughout Iraq, Badeau gives intriguing insights into the tattered ethnic and religious groups that people that remote region sandwiched between Turkey, Russia, and Persia.

He later taught at the American University of Cairo, becoming president of the school in 1945, and he speaks of the revolutionary impact of American-style education on a culture that had been used to rote learning from French and British masters.

During this period (1936-53), Badeau watched Egyptians growing more and more disenchanted with British rule and with the Egyptian monarchy, first under King Fuad, then his son, Farouk. When the revolution came in 1952, says Badeau, ''the surprising thing was that it was done in a sense so quietly. The Throne simply flowed away, and there were no great convulsions.'' The overthrow of Farouk was led by Gamel Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and a group of fellow Army officers, with the popular Muhammad Naguib as figurehead. It was a coup d'etat, Badeau says, but a genuine cultural revolution followed.

In 1961, Badeau was appointed ambassador to Egypt by President Kennedy and charged with initiating a ''fresh start'' with the Nasser regime. That initiative ultimately failed. From a diplomatic point of view, Badeau's memories of this period are the important part of the book. The book (taken from an oral-history project) is not heavy on political theory and criticism, however.

Looking back at his career in the Arab world, Badeau admits that it would be difficult for a young American today to repeat his experiences. When he and his wife headed for Mosul in 1928, he says, ''it was with the belief, and indeed the desire, that we were going to establish a new and lifelong residence for ourselves.'' Thus they learned the language and became part of the community.

Not so today, he says. Because of the ease of air travel, Americans tend to be peripatetic or intermittent in their lives in foreign lands.

Moreover, the modern Arab world does not welcome missionaries - whether religious, cultural, or educational. Today there is a desire to replace Western institutions and ideas with those from Arab and Islamic culture. After 50 years, Badeau notes, the Middle East ''has developed its own institutions, its own technical proficiency and the glamour has worn off a great deal of Western life.''

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