David Gruen loved Shmuel Fuchs.
He loved him intensely, painfully, in that shape adolescent friendships often take. They were teenagers, they were Jews, and they lived deep in Poland, in the miserable town of Płońsk, in the west of the Russian Empire.
“I so miss you, so very much desire and crave to see you, my beloved friend,” the David who would become Ben-Gurion wrote to the boy he so adored. “O, if I only had shaken your hand before you left, if I could only embrace you and bestow kisses on you.”
But they were not lovers. Theirs was a romantic friendship. “It is a kind of love that comes to children before they know its meaning,” was how Evelyn Waugh chose to describe it. “In England, it comes when you are almost men.”
But they were not English. Their world was dark, muddy, almost medieval.
It was a time of pogroms. Before their childhoods were over, the Russian Empire had turned on its Jews. They would read the news from Kishinev and were filled with dread: another 49 dead. They knew the poet Haim Bialik had cried:
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?
And when the Jewish newspapers arrived from Warsaw, they looked at the grainy photo of the man that obsessed them all: Theodor Herzl.
He looked like a prophet, this handsome, beautiful man, this man in a Viennese suit, who looked so proud, so elegant—and so unlike them and the rags that surrounded them. This man had appeared like a messiah, advocating for them in the capitals of Europe like nobody had ever done before, promising to save them.
Gruen and Fuchs would go to the river Płonka. They would undress and get in the water. “We’d swim and speak Hebrew,” is what David—in Yiddish, they would pronounce it Dovid—chose to remember many years later. There was little in their world. Little to read—little that wasn’t Jewish and that revolved around its shuls.
The year was 1903 and on the banks of this river is where Tom Segev begins his powerful new biography of David Ben-Gurion, the boy from Goat Alley, who did more than anyone else to build Herzl’s Jewish state.
On their bathing trip, the friends had taken along the latest issue of Hatze-firah, a Hebrew newspaper published in Warsaw, where they learned that the Zionist movement was considering establishing a Jewish state in East Africa and not in Palestine. Even that great man, Herzl himself, had refused to dismiss the idea out of hand. An exploratory delegation was already being dispatched to Uganda.
The boys broke into tears. They felt betrayed by Zionism. They wept, like by the waters of Babylon, and “on the spot, their emotions rising and their bodies wet with river water, they took an oath to leave Poland and settle in Palestine.” Only one of them made it there.
It’s a powerful moment, one of many powerful, literary moments in a powerful, literary book.
But something else struck me about these two boys. Not only is it that one made history and one didn’t. But also that Segev, by beginning here, has more than juxtaposed two lives. He has contrasted two Jewish choices, two Jewish stories, two destinies: one leading to America, the other to Israel.
Fuchs was the first to leave Płońsk. In 1904, he left for London, hoping to study at a Rabbinic college, but struggled to support himself. “Your brother embraces you with fierce love and kisses you,” wrote David.
Before Fuchs left Poland for good, he visited Ben-Gurion, who had, in turn, left Płońsk for Warsaw. As was the fashion of the times, they posed together for a photograph. The set was made to look like a salon of an aristocratic mansion. Fuchs—taller, broader, and almost a head higher—looks decisive and dominant. Ben-Gurion is slight, dependent, almost fragile. He called Shmuel his “big brother.”
But Fuchs was heading not to Palestine, but first to London and then over the ocean to New York. “I feel so much alone as if I have been left on a lonely and deserted island,” Ben-Gurion wrote to him. “At night, I dream that they have captured you and brought you back to Płońsk in chains.”
Fuchs did not return. He arrived in New York, like millions of others, and stayed.
This is where Shmuel Fuchs becomes not only a person but a history—the linear, predictable, mellow history of American Jews that could have been plotted for him and his family from the moment Fuchs arrived in New York. He studied dentistry at New York University, settled in Brooklyn, opened a successful practice, married, had children, bought an apartment building, became a run of the mill landlord, and started calling himself Sam Fox.
He drifted away from Zionist circles like he was almost embarrassed by them. Instead, Sam Fox joined half a dozen socialist organizations that promoted Yiddish culture. He spent the war giving to Yiddish poets in New York and ignoring the Zionists. He supported the Yiddish theatre. He had stopped believing in sacrificing, or in changing himself, for a Hebrew state. Sam Fox believed in his life and the role of his American diaspora. We know this as he once visited Poland briefly to do his tikkun olam, distributing 21,576 toothbrushes to Polish Jews. By the time he grew old, he was frightened of nuclear war. And then, after many years of silence, he wrote to David. He said he was not wealthy but not poor. He never visited Palestine. His friend never stopped asking why.
Sam Fox, like many a zayde, was no fool. He wrote to Ben-Gurion again and again, in the twilight of their lives asking him: “Could the Jewish nation be reborn in its ancestral land without incurring the curse of having to live by the sword? What was the connection between Israel and the Jews of the rest of the world? And what was secular Judaism?”
Writing to Ben-Gurion, this nobody, this everyman, this Brooklyn dentist, communicated with history. Not only with the man who made it, but with the whole other path of Jewish history that Ben-Gurion willed into existence: the zigzagging, contingent, extreme history of Israeli Jews.
Writing this as I am in New York, as yet another university trained Jew obsessed with Israel, surrounded by dozens of people also trained to think about history structurally, it’s easy to forget the makers like Ben-Gurion forge it in darkness.
Few books can truly capture it. In so many big, sweeping, national histories, especially of Israel, causation or argumentation takes over. By highlighting the patterns and chronologies they discover, great historians often efface the uncertainty and complexity that obscures the reality of the past.
The beauty of Segev’s biography of Ben-Gurion is that it chooses not to do that. Segev is less an analyst and more a meticulous historical detective. We are not offered a treatise on anti-Semitism, nationalism, or the historical migration patterns of Jews to the Land of Israel, but instead given a Ben-Gurion’s eye view of events. And this is enormously useful.
Useful, because Jewish history is clouded with politics. It is cluttered with terms that belong to today’s fights and feelings that do little to help us understand what was happening in a place like Płońsk 120 years ago.
These phrases trip off the tongue after the word Zionism: “national self-determination,” “settler colonialism,” “secular nationalism,” or “national liberation.” But they obscure how messy, confusing, and unformed Zionism was in the towns and villages of Eastern Europe when David Gruen was young.
The shtetl Zionism of Gruen’s childhood was as much a religious impulse as a secular one. His father, a Zionist, would lay tefillin daily, scolding his son when he gave up doing so. Educated, like so many townsfolk, in little outside the Bible, his old man, Avigdor, responded viscerally to Herzl’s promise to “take them home” to the land in the only book they had ever read.
The same could be said with Ben-Gurion’s first step into politics. When he and Fuchs established Ezra—what might generously be called a “society” to promote Hebrew in everyday life—on Hanukkah in 1900, it would have looked more like a religious gathering than anything else to a traveling Russian Imperial ethnographer. The same could be said for shtetl Zionism as a whole. Imagining that St. Petersburg ethnographer in Płońsk a little longer: For him, these dreamers, saving coins to depart for the land of their ancestors, would have looked like a printing press-infused version of what charismatic Rabbis had been doing for centuries: gathering the pious and setting out for the Land in the Bible.
It is also easy to understand why Fuchs left for New York, and not Jaffa, in 1904.
Even to a Jew with barely any formal education, it was obvious the hope of building a Jewish state in a province of the Ottoman Empire with hardly any Jews in it was vanishingly slim. Theodor Herzl’s movement had motivated the Yiddish masses of Eastern Europe; it brought hundreds of thousands of supporters like the Gruens into its orbit; but it was seen as a quixotic, rather risible thing by the European governments Herzl had sought to win over.
The pamphleteer behind Der Judenstaat had, after all, lived and died on a linear timeline, a timeline that broke down in 1914, ten years after his death. The safe assumptions of who was crazy and who was sane—between the choices Fuchs and Gruen made—were only turned on their headlong after Herzl had died.
Segev’s framing teaches us to think messily and not impose our own frames on the past. By situating us, moment by moment, with Ben-Gurion, he shows us just how zigzagging, contingent, and improbable the timeline that gives us the Israeli history really was. It is impossible not to think, reading Segev’s book, that had it not been for at least two dozen of the least probable outcomes succeeding each other, this timeline would never have culminated in a Jewish state.
As I read the book, I began to circle Israel’s improbable contingencies. Had the First World War not broken out; had the Ottoman Empire not collapsed as a result; had Lord Balfour not been convinced by Chaim Weizmann and Lord Rothschild to issue his declaration for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine—had any of these things not happened, then the grandchildren of Sam Fox might have done their doctoral dissertations on the weirdly millenarian settlements that had once attracted men like Ben-Gurion. They would be busy explaining the curious occurrence of Petach Tikvah and Rishon Lezion as superficially secularized versions of that centuries-old phenomenon our Russian Imperial ethnographer would have noted: that of pious believers, like the Vilna Gaon’s perushim, who followed their Rabbi’s messianic dreams to live and die in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.
But even once the British Mandate was in place, the bird’s eye view of Ben-Gurion shows us nothing was inevitable. What if there had not been an economic crisis in Poland in the 1920s that ensured just enough immigrants to fill Tel Aviv with just enough Jews to be viable? What if there had not been just enough friendly Commissioners in Jerusalem or Zionist-friendly Prime Ministers in London? The answer is clear: Ben-Gurion would never have been able to play his historical role and build a state with a state, seize control of the country’s labor market, and forge an underground army. And we would instead have a world where Sam Fox spent long afternoons with his friend Mani Leib at his Yiddish club off Atlantic Avenue in the 1960s, talking of the tragic error he and “Dovid” had made as teens to believe in Herzl’s colonialist fairy tales instead of the socialist cause.
And had the Depression not hit in 1929, had Central European democracy not begun to collapse as a result, then had the Nazi Party not risen to power 1933, what would have happened then? Palestine’s left-leaning community of 150,000 Jews—less than the Jewish population of East London—peripheral to world Jewry demographically and its cause spurned by most of them, would have been unlikely to amount to much beyond an immigration-restricted British protected zone, unlikely to have survived Harold Macmillan’s “winds of change.”
And, as the book goes on, the glaring contingencies pile up right until the turning of the war in 1948. Had the British not defeated the Germans and their gas trucks en route to Palestine at El-Alamein; had the war not been so harsh as to crack apart the British Empire; had Roosevelt, who opposed partition, not died in 1945; had the Soviet Union not voted for partition; had Joseph Stalin in the Kremlin not so badly miscalculated the role the Jewish state would play in the Cold War to permit Czechoslovakia to arm it; had that last one not occurred, the IDF could have lost that war. As Segev explains, the United States feared it would have been obliged to land in Tel Aviv to prevent a massacre in 1948.
The population of this unworldly and absurd experiment, their kibbutzim abandoned, crammed behind American GIs and barbed-wire into Camp Tel Aviv, would have had to emigrate or be evacuated, as Palestine was partitioned—not between Israel and the Hashemites, but between Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. Sam Fox would undoubtedly have been raising funds for this tragic, obscure, little cause.
There was a third choice between Ben-Gurion and Sam Fox: the choice for Europe. It was the choice my family made. And so did most of their world.
If you wanted to, you could leave Płońsk and drive about four and a half hours to Rybnik, in the forests at the edge of Silesia. As Herzl was crisscrossing Europe by train with his message, some of my family were calling this home. They chose Germany.
They probably considered Herzl not much more than a pompous and dangerous fool. And when I see their photographs—the thin lips, rather arrogant faces, and narrow eyes—I don’t only see a bit of myself. I see the people whom the Zionists like Ben-Gurion, but also the Yiddish socialists like Sam Fox, disdained.
The Haas of Rybnik were the industrial revolution in this small town. They ran a large leather factory. And at the very edge of the Kaiser’s realm, they wanted to be as German as possible. “There was like a racism,” I remember my grandmother saying in the German accent she never quite lost, “between the German Jews and the Eastern Jews.” And the closer to kith-and-kin with them, the worse it got.
On that linear timeline, they were the lucky ones. Until 1914.
Borders changed. What would have been a teenage cousin was killed by Poles for agitating for Rybnik to stay German in the Upper Silesian plebiscite of 1921. After the murder, the whole family moved to Berlin, where they were still the lucky ones.
Even up until 1933, to choose America, let alone Palestine, was still a bad option for the people that Ben-Gurion needed most to settle in Tel Aviv—the professionals and industrialists of the Jewish bourgeoisie. Why choose to be someone else’s cheap labor or be forced to work in a profession—like a dentist—that didn’t require faultless writing or unaccented speech? Why be shot at by Arab fedayeen scraping together a living trying to export oranges in Rehovot when you could be a journalist, a filmmaker, a politician—almost anything—in Germany?
Hitler destroyed both the family and their assumptions. They left for France when the Nazis took power. The Reich arrived in Paris in 1940. Rybnik turned out to be an hour from Auschwitz. My grandmother narrowly survived. Her mother, uncle, and her grandmother from Rybnik did not. Those who did had made it to America, Britain, or to Palestine on rare immigration visas negotiated by the Zionists. When the Germans entered Rybnik the townsfolk—as if in a fever—dug up the Jewish cemetery and threw all the bones they found into a pond. By the time the Nazis left, six million were gone. Ben-Gurion’s darkest visions had come true.
Zionism, which had never been the dominant movement in the Jewish world, or even the dominant narrative, was the one proved right by the Holocaust. But that validation by history was bound up, for Ben-Gurion, in his greatest defeat.
“The Zionist movement,” Segev finally judges, “had always failed to persuade most of the world’s Jews that it was right—that was its greatest failure. It proved helpless against Hitler and Stalin; that was its greatest tragedy.”
If it says anything, the life of Ben-Gurion shows that the Jews have rarely thought as one. The idea of one political Jewish people, is a myth, an illusion. It would have been insulting to my Sephardi ancestors and irrational to those in Rybnik.
It is an idea which briefly settled on American Jews after 1967, when they began to make Israel integral in those dizzying weeks of pride and relief—the Exodus moment, when the Zionist bestseller became—almost—a common script.
But, half a century on, the choices made by Ben-Gurion and Sam Fox are still playing themselves out. And they have left us with two parallel understandings of history—the linear and the zigzagging—that we will have to break through.
That Exodus myth, once hegemonic, is now giving way to these two incommensurate worldviews. One, in America, sees history, like America, as made great by sweeping moral change. In this world, the logic of progress and tolerance must surely triumph. The other, in Israel, sees history, like Israel, hanging by a thread. In this world, the logic of war and nation tends to prevail.
The linear sees peace as a fight that should never stop, a long march, a culture war like the civil rights movement. The zigzagging sees it, like Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Rabin as something that cannot be forced, that comes once in a generation, when it must be seized. Both are damaging. Linear histories can make you absolutist, naive, or convinced there must always be progress. Zigzagging, contingent histories can make you paranoid, cruel, or prone to believe in miracles.
All too often, I think, these visions come down to family history. And in Israel, most have Jewish histories which means they live without an American faith in progress. They are not surprised, like Sam Fox was, that their country must “live by the sword.” And they think what is happening there, in Israel, in the Middle East, is the true flight of the Angel of History. The American experience, insofar as it is even comprehensible, seems dangerously idealistic at best.
Today less than a third of Israeli Jews are, shall we say, spiritually from Płońsk—secular Ashkenazi Jews whose families arrived in the lifetime of Ben-Gurion. Today the majority are overlaid waves of immigrants and religious groups, each with histories as contingent—if not more so—than Ben-Gurion’s pioneers.
They are Haredi Jews in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, countless sects who followed their Rabbis to rebuild after the Holocaust; Middle Eastern Jews from Ramat Gan to Kiryat Shmona, whose families were either expelled by Arab regimes or incited to flee them; Messianic settlers building their own reality in the West Bank; Soviet Jews in Ashdod and Be’ersheba who exited 1990s chaos or looming authoritarianism; Beta Israel airlifted from famine in Ethiopia; and many more.
“You perturbed the entire universe,” the Iraqi Jews would sing about Ben-Gurion in his refugee camps. “A bug drove us mad and we all jumped headlong.”
And leaped we have, to a country he’d hardly recognize. Israel today has a thriving economy, a powerful army, and more than 128 billionaires. Yet it is only a half-functioning democracy. Not only its human rights record, but its entire future, inextricably bound up with the Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. And facing this, relitigating Sam Fox and Ben-Gurion isn’t going to help.
But we still insist on arguing, here in New York, in the nomenclature of their letters, as if these facts on the ground did not exist. We call ourselves Zionists, or Bundists, or anti-Zionists, labeling ourselves as if we are still in Płońsk. But none of these terms really mean anything for how the most affluent and assimilated diaspora in Jewish history should interact with a state they seek to influence in the Middle East. Which is to say not as Jews but as Americans: who either want U.S. policy to shield the occupation—or not; who either want to help support those building new democratic coalitions across a complex society—or not.
We don’t have to agree, fall silent, or follow some line. We have our own values. But we should not forget, as we stand by them, that, strange as it may sound, of all the Jewish experiences in the 20th century, it was not that of Ben-Gurion, whose life was shaped by the storm, that was exceptional. It was that of Sam Fox, the dentist.