Ben-Gurion visits the Wailing Wall June 12, 1967, after Israeli troops captured Jerusalem's Old City in the Six Day War.(AFP/Getty Images)

David Ben-Gurion looms so large in Israel’s mythology, it’s like he’s George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one—the country’s Founding Father and the architect of many of its earliest and most crucial achievements. But maybe the comparison with America’s greatest presidents is flawed, for while we love nothing more than to discover the humanity of our historical leaders—Washington chopping down that cherry tree, Jefferson and his indiscretions, Lincoln’s melancholia—Ben-Gurion does not lend himself to such intimacy. He appears to be as inscrutable as he is inevitable, there in every major juncture in Israeli history yet never really familiar.

That is, until now: In her new biography, Ben-Gurion, Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s most accomplished historians, offers an elegant summary of Ben-Gurion’s life and achievements, as well as uncommon insight into the man he was, exploring the lifelong friendships he made, and the passions—some political, some fiercely personal—that propelled him forward.

Shapira is the recipient of the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest scholarly honor, a professor of the study of Zionism at Tel Aviv University, and the author of numerous best-selling books, including, most recently, Israel: A History. She speaks with Tablet writer Liel Leibovitz about Ben-Gurion’s unpromising beginnings, his faith in the power of a leader to save a country, and an unforgettable visit she paid to him back when she was a young, unknown scholar and he was very much in retirement.