Remembering Shabtai Teveth, David Ben-Gurion's Official Biographer

Born in 1925, Teveth was an admired journalist, historian and best-selling author as well as biographer of Israel's first prime minister.

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Undated archive photograph of David Ben-Gurion (left) speaking to Shabtai Teveth.
Undated archive photograph of David Ben-Gurion (left) speaking to Shabtai Teveth.Credit: Daniel Rosenblum
Maya Sela
Maya Sela

Shabtai Teveth, an admired journalist and historian, best-selling author and David Ben-Gurion’s official biographer, died after a long illness Sunday. He was 89.

Born in 1925 in Migdal Tzedek, near Petah Tikva, Teveth was laid to rest in the Kfar Shmaryahu cemetery Monday.

Teveth began his career as a journalist after his army discharge in 1950. He joined the editorial board of Haaretz and, over 23 years, filled many roles: political writer, military correspondent, columnist, investigative reporter and correspondent in North Africa, Europe and the United States.

“Teveth was a journalist of whom it could be said that my father, Gershom Schocken, raised him,” said Amos Schocken, Haaretz’s publisher, whose father was the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and publisher during Teveth’s time.

“He came to Haaretz as a very young man,” said Amos Schocken. “I remember that Teveth told me once, ‘I came out of your father’s office with the fourth draft of my article after your father went over it line by line, asking about each thing: “What did you mean by that? And why didn’t you write about the additional aspect? And this needs to be rewritten,” and so on throughout the whole article. I asked myself why I needed to be a journalist.’ But Teveth developed into one of the journalists whom my father admired most. He had excellent investigative ability, and never let go of any relevant detail. He had a precise understanding of the issues he wrote about and a sharp eye that took in the situation, giving his writing a richness of information that made the reader feel that he was gaining excellent familiarity the issues being written about.”

In a 1980 interview with Hedda Boshes in Haaretz, Teveth recalled his meetings with Gershom Schocken: “The thing I was most afraid of were the meetings with the editor to discuss the things he had questions about. We sat in the room, the two of us, and I had no way out of dealing with something he questioned that I couldn’t explain. I think it was excellent training.”

“Shabtai Teveth was the star of Haaretz when I first came there 50 years ago,” said journalist Dan Margalit, who worked with him at Haaretz. “There were two stars at that newspaper: him and Amos Elon. Later on, I heard Gershom Schocken say that the difference between them was that Shabtai Teveth published half of what he knew while Amos Elon published double what he knew. He behaved like a superstar in the editorial department, and with good reason. He wrote wonderful and intelligent series.”

Racheli Edelman, who is Gershom Schocken’s daughter and runs Schocken Publishing House, remembers her father’s fondness for Teveth. “He was my father’s star,” she recalled. “They admired one another. The admiration was mutual.”

Schocken gave Teveth time to write books while he worked at Haaretz. During that period, Teveth published 11 books, including “The Tanks of Tammuz,” an account of Israel’s Armored Corps during the 1967 Six-Day War, “The Cursed Blessing,” about the beginning of Israel’s military administration in the West Bank; and a biography of military leader Moshe Dayan, subtitled “ The Soldier, the Man, the Legend.”

Teveth was awarded a research scholarship from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1981, and in 1985 he joined the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies as a research fellow. Itamar Rabinovich, the former president of Tel Aviv University and Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, knew him well from their work together at the Dayan Center.

“We were part of a small group that established the center in Tel Aviv University,” said Rabinovich. “Teveth played a key role in founding the center, and later on he worked on Ben-Gurion’s biography as a senior research fellow at the Dayan Center. He was a good friend. He was blunt — he always said what he thought and you always knew where you stood with him. Another thing: he was an excellent researcher and a gifted writer.”

Teveth began writing Ben-Gurion’s biography in 1973, the last year of Ben-Gurion’s life. He interviewed Israel’s first prime minister and received his permission to write his biography, which was published in four volumes, the first in 1976 and the final one in 2004. The first installment in English translation, “Ben-Gurion: The Burning Ground, 1886-1948,” was published in 1987 and comes to 967 pages.

Teveth took breaks during that time to write other books, including “The Arlosoroff Murder” and “Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War.”

Teveth “was blessed with a sense of humor and wrote an erudite satirical column for some years,” said Amos Schocken. “But his development was in the direction of historical research. When he wrote Ben-Gurion’s biography, he would not let any relevant detail get by him. He set up an amazing archive of all the information he gathered in various places in Israel and the world. His need to know everything possible was also a handicap to him in a certain sense. The enterprise became something enormous. Even though quite a few volumes of the biography were published, he did not get to complete it before he fell ill.”

Teveth’s daughter, the writer Yael Tevet Klagsbald, said her father had a good sense of humor.

“In addition to being a groundbreaking journalist and a courageous and honest human being, he was a sensitive writer with a wonderful sense of humor,” she said. “This is the part of him that people are less familiar with.” Tevet Klagsbald said some of her father’s writing, such as the personal recollections of Tel Aviv in the 1930s and ’40s he set down in “Diaries of Yesterday,” “have sections that describe the moment with such precision and distilled emotion so heartfelt that it goes right to the gut.”

“He left Israeli culture with assets that can never be taken away, that many people will enjoy,” she said. “To his family he left the knowledge that he loved them very much. Even when he was very ill.”

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