(1886 - 1973)
David Ben-Gurion was the first Prime Minister of Israel and widely hailed as the State’s main founder.
David Yosef Gruen was born in Plonsk, Poland on October 16, 1886, and educated in a Hebrew school established by his father, an ardent Zionist. By his mid-teens, Ben-Gurion led a Zionist youth group, “Ezra,” whose members spoke only Hebrew among themselves.
At the age of 18 he became a teacher in a Warsaw Jewish school and joined the Socialist-Zionist group “Poalei Zion” (Workers of Zion).
Ben-Gurion arrived in the Land of Israel at Jaffa port on September 7, 1906. In his first postcard home after arriving he wrote, “My dear ones, Hurrah. Today at the ninth hour I alighted on the shore of Jaffa…We’re going to Petah Tikvah. I’ll write in more detail from there. I wasn’t ill on the journey even once! I’m feeling well, full of courage, and full of faith.”
Ben-Gurion believed realizing the Zionist dream took priority over the Marxist ideology of the Russian Poalei Zion. The party’s 1907 platform made this clear: “The party strives for political independence for the Jewish People in this land.”
In 1910, David Green became a member of the editorial board of the party newspaper Ha-achdut. He signed his first article with his new name, Ben-Gurion, taken from one of the Jewish generals who led the revolt against the Romans in the time of Bar Kochba.
He became involved in the creation of the first agricultural workers’ commune (which evolved into the Kvutzah and finally the Kibbutz), and helped establish the Jewish self-defense group, Hashomer (The Watchman).
In 1912, he went to Constantinople where he began to study law. Following the outbreak of World War I, he was deported to Egypt by the Ottoman authorities with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (later, Israel’s second President) on the suspicion of being involved in Zionist activity.
Ben-Gurion traveled on behalf of the Socialist-Zionist cause to New York, where he met and married Paula Monbesz, a fellow Poalei Zion activist. His speeches around the country enhanced his political standing in the Diaspora and allowed him to meet influential American Jewish leaders. He returned to Israel in the uniform of the Jewish Legion, created as a unit in the British Army by Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.
Following the publication of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, Ben-Gurion wrote: “England has not returned the Land to us... A land is not acquired without tribulations of work and creativity, without the effort of building and settlement. The Hebrew nation itself must change this right to a living and existing fact.”
In 1919, Ben-Gurion participated in the founding of the Ahdut ha-Avodah Party, and was elected as its leader. He was also a founder of the national trade union, the Histadrut, and was its secretary-geneal from 1921 until 1935. He also served as the Histadrut’s representative in the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency, and was elected chairman of both organizations in 1935.
In 1930, Ahdut ha-Avodah merged with HaPoel Hatzair and formed the “Labor Party of the Land of Israel” (called Mapai by its Hebrew acronym).
Ben-Gurion opposed declaring statehood until it was possible to ensure its acceptance and survival. In 1937, he supported the Peel Commission partition plan, which would have created a Jewish state in a small part of Palestine because he believed it would be a steppingstone to achieving the Zionist goal. He later took a similar position in accepting the UN partition plan despite it too offering less land for a Jewish state than the Zionists demanded.
In response to British efforts to restrict the growth of the Jewish community as expressed by the 1939 White Paper, Ben-Gurion encouraged the building of settlements, especially in areas that were forbidden for Jews. When World War II began, he supported the war effort, but declared, “We need to help the English in the war as if there were no ‘White Paper,’ and we need to oppose the ‘White Paper’ as if there is no war.”
Ben-Gurion opposed any compromise with the British, but he also opposed the terror tactics of the Irgun and Lehi.
By 1942, Ben-Gurion began to support the immediate establishment of a Jewish state as called for in the Biltmore Program.
As the UN began to consider how to resolve the conflicting claims of the Arabs and Jews, Ben-Gurion faced the challenge of figuring out how to create a government that would reflect the Jewish character of the planned state while ensuring it was a democracy that guaranteed freedom of religion and not a theocracy. He needed the support of Orthodox Jews, however, to create a unified Jewish position to present to the UN. In September 1947, Ben-Gurion reached a formal status quo agreement with the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, which remains largely intact today. Ben-Gurion promised:
- The future government will do all it can to make sure that the religious demands be answered concerning personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce, and conversions.
- All government-operated kitchens (army, police, hospitals, etc.) will have kosher food.
- Shabbat will be the official day of rest for Jews.
- There will be autonomy in education and the state will not intervene in religious education but will demand and regulate a minimum curriculum in secular subjects such as science, grammar and history.
On April 18, 1948, Ben-Gurion was appointed the head of the People’s Administration and also in charge of security matters of the Yishuv. After Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, Ben-Gurion became the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. He wrote in his diary:
After the war, Ben-Gurion oversaw the establishment of the state’s institutions. He presided over various national projects aimed at the rapid development of the country and its population: Operation Magic Carpet, the airlift of Jews from Arab countries, the construction of the national water carrier, rural development projects and the establishment of new towns and cities. In particular, he called for pioneering settlement in outlying areas, especially in the Negev.
In late 1953, Ben-Gurion left the government and retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. He returned to political life, after the Knesset elections in 1955, assuming the post of Defense Minister and later the premiership.
Continuing as prime minister, Ben-Gurion supported the establishment of relations with West Germany, despite bitter opposition. He also led the country during the 1956 Sinai campaign, in which Israeli forces temporarily secured the Sinai peninsula.
In June 1963, Ben-Gurion resigned as Prime Minister, citing “personal reasons.” Levi Eshkol took over the posts of Prime Minister and Defense Minister. But Ben-Gurion remained active politically, with a rivalry developing between him and Eshkol. In June 1965, the Mapai Party split, with Ben-Gurion establishing Rafi (List of Israeli Workers), which won ten Knesset seats in the following election. In 1968, Rafi rejoined Mapai and Ahdut Ha’avoda, to form the Israel Labor Party, while Ben-Gurion formed a new party, Hareshima Hamamlachtit (The State List), which won four Knesset seats in the 1969 elections.
Ben-Gurion was a political giant but stood just five feet tall.
In June 1970, Ben-Gurion retired from political life and returned to Sde Boker where he passed away on December 1, 1973. His grave is beside his wife’s in Sde Boker.
Sources: Shimon Peres and David Landau, Ben-Gurion a Political Life, (NY: Schocken Books, 2011).
“David Ben-Gurion 1886-1973,” Knesset.