Biography and Historiography: The Case of David Ben-Gurion

Article excerpt

As is well known, David Ben-Gurion had an enormous impact on the history of modern Israel. Rarely have one person's thoughts, decisions, and actions had such an effect, for not only is the writing of Israeli history dominated by the towering figure of Ben-Gurion, but that history--in fact, the history of the entire Jewish people in the modern era--often takes the form of life-writing by or about Ben-Gurion. Therefore, Ben-Gurion biography and Israeli historiography are strongly interrelated. This may allow us to observe transformations in Israeli historiography by observing changes in the biographical literature on Ben-Gurion, which itself impacts these changes.

By outlining these transformations, this paper attempts to both highlight the relationship between biographical work and historiographical change, and to provide a conceptual framework for an analysis of that relationship. The case study discussed here allows us to do so because of Ben-Gurion's dominance in modern Israeli history, but there is reason to believe that the relationship may hold in a wide range of cases. This is so because biographical work is an important part of any society's self-consciousness about its history--and "historiography" may be defined as such self-consciousness. My argument is that biographies published on political leaders in a given polity play an important historiographical role, and may be analyzed both in terms of the historiographical trends they reflect, and the impact they have on these trends. The exact nature of the relationship between biography and historiography could of course be determined only after wide comparative analysis. One would want to know, for instance, how the biographies of Churchill, De Gaulle, Gandhi, Mandela, Nasser, and others written over the years reflect and affect historiographical changes in these leaders' respective countries. Though one case study is obviously no replacement for such a comparative study, it may be helpful in demonstrating the usefulness of exploring the biography-historiography relationship and in providing a conceptual framework for such an endeavor.

In what follows, I propose a typology for the classification of biographies, and analyze changes over time in categories of Ben-Gurion life-writing in relation to changing historiographical trends. I conclude with a note on the usefulness of the conceptual framework proposed here for future research.


Biographies are mostly classified by their subjects. Bookstores, for instance, sort them by the name of the person whose life is being told (Lenin's biography, Kennedy's biography, and so on), or by a broader occupational category (literary biography for writers, political biography for political leaders). Current biographical research is often interested in classifications like "new" vs. "old" or "modernist vs. post-modernist" biography. The typology proposed in Figure 1 is concerned no less with the biographer than with the subject of the biography. I employ two criteria: "orientation," defined by the overall approach the biographer takes towards the subject; and "focus," defined by the perspective the biographer takes on the subject's position in his or her environment.


Identification, investigation, and utilization are the three variables of orientation.


Biographers may approach a subject with a feeling that by telling the life story, their own lives are affected. Such identification does not necessarily have to involve a positive approach to the subject, although it most likely does. In theory, one may identify with a subject whose evil character is being recognized. Although identification is often seen as stemming from psychological motives, this does not necessarily have to be the case: one may identify with the subject of a biography on sociological grounds, for instance, as when the subject fulfills a social function, or provides political symbols to a community lacking them. …