David Ben-Gurion

The Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) served as Israel's first prime minister and minister of defense.

The son of a lawyer, David Gruen was born on October 16, 1886, in Plońsk (Czarist Russia; now Poland). He received a traditional Jewish education, later adding some secular studies in Warsaw. In 1900 he was among the founders of the Zionist youth club Ezra; in 1903 he joined the Zionist socialist movement, Poalei Zion.

Early Political Career

Gruen arrived in Palestine in September 1906. Working as a laborer, he became politically active in the Poalei Zion party and was soon elected chairman. In 1910 he joined the party organ Ha'ahdut, beginning his long writing career. He changed his name at that time to the Hebraic David Ben-Gurion, after a defender of Jerusalem who died in 70 A.D. Zionism and socialism were both seen by the young Ben-Gurion as necessities for the future of the Jewish people. To him Zionism meant the obligation to come to Palestine, settle the land, and use Hebrew as everyday speech.

At the outbreak of World War I, Ben-Gurion was deported, and in 1915 with Yitzhak Ben Zvi (Israel's second president and a lifelong friend) he embarked for the United States. There he married Paula Munweiss, a trainee at the Brooklyn Jewish Nursing School. After the Balfour Declaration (1917) proclaiming the Jewish right to a national homeland in Palestine, Ben-Gurion called for volunteers to liberate Palestine from the Turks. In August 1918 he arrived in Egypt with the Jewish Legion, but the war ended shortly afterward. In 1920 Britain acquired Palestine as a mandate of the League of Nations. The terms of mandate echoed the Balfour Declaration in declaring the area to be a future Jewish national homeland. Progress toward achievement of this goal was slow, however, and the proposed Jewish state was not established until 30 years later.

After the war Ben-Gurion advocated a form of socialism based on the cooperative principle of the new kibbutz movement. During the 1920s and 1930s he emerged as the leader of Labor Zionism. He was among the founders of the important Jewish Federation of Labor (the Histadruth) in 1921 and acted as its secretary general for 14 years. In the early 1930s he became head of the Labor party (Mapai) and a member and later chairman (1935-1948) of the Zionist and Jewish Agency Executives, which was the official representative of the Jewish community. In 1937 Ben-Gurion agreed to the British Royal Commission's proposal to divide Palestine between the Arabs and Jews, since he believed that even a truncated Jewish state would serve the purposes of Zionism. But he was an outspoken opponent of the British White Paper of 1939, limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine and restricting land purchases by Jews.


Israeli Independence

In 1942 Ben-Gurion's Biltmore program, supported by all segments of the Zionist movement, openly declared the Zionist aim as nothing less than the creation of a Jewish state. However, British policy remained unchanged after World War II, despite the catastrophe that had befallen European Jewry in the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion then authorized an armed struggle against the British and adamantly opposed immigration and land-sale restrictions, which threatened to turn Palestine's Jewish community into a permanent minority and made no provision for the great number of displaced Jewish people who wished to immigrate to Palestine.

Ben-Gurion, who throughout the years had made many attempts at Arab-Jewish rapprochement, now set about preparing for armed struggle with the Palestinian Arabs, which he saw as inevitable. In 1947 he was a major spokesman for the Zionist cause before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which later that year proposed the partition of Palestine and the formation of a Jewish state. As the British mandate was about to expire, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the restoration of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. After ending the 2,000-year exile of the Jewish people, he then led them to victory in the war of independence against seven invading armies from the Arab League nations.


Head of State

Serving as prime minister and minister of defense from 1948 to 1963 (except for a brief retirement from 1953 to 1955), Ben-Gurion revealed himself to be not only an astute party leader but also a great statesman. He protected Israel from sudden invasion by establishing a well-equipped and well-trained people's army. He forged the image of Israel as a modern democratic country based on parliamentary rule, a unique sociological and political phenomenon in the Middle East. During his premiership more than a million Jews, from 80 countries and speaking many languages, came to the homeland. The absorption and integration of the immigrants and the Israeli achievements in housing, agricultural settlement, employment, industry, education, health services, and trade, under the Ben-Gurion government, were among the remarkable accomplishments of the 20th century.

Ben-Gurion's premiership was characterized by his fiery oratory. Noted for his integrity and imbued with a messianic vision, Ben-Gurion met every challenge with the inspiration and determination of an Old Testament prophet. He urged the Israelis to study the Bible in order to understand themselves and their homeland. The supremacy of the spirit and the concept of a model state were also ideas on which he often spoke.

Among his significant achievements were negotiation of the reparations agreement with West Germany; establishment of French support prior to the Sinai campaign; consultations with leaders of France, West Germany, and the US (1959-1961) which consolidated Israel's international position and obtained economic assistance; initiation of aid programs to developing African and Asian countries; settlement of the Negev Desert; and resumption of trade at the port of Eilat. In 1956 Ben-Gurion answered Egypt's seizure of the Suez Canal by taking the Sinai Peninsula in a swift thrust almost to the banks of the Suez which inflicted a crushing defeat on the Egyptians. (Israel returned control of the Sinai but occupied it again from 1967-1979).


Resignation and Later Years

His last years as prime minister (1960-1963) were marred by the controversial Lavon affair, which split the Mapai party. Rather than compromise his principles, Ben-Gurion resigned from office. He retired to his desert retreat at Sde Boker and began writing a history of Israel. However, he never abandoned politics and subsequently formed his own Labor party (Rafi), a number of whose members were elected to Parliament. Feeling lonely after the death of his wife and lifelong comrade Paula in 1968, Ben-Gurion was often compared to an old, but still ferocious, lion in a desert retreat. Although he had no formal power, his roar was still loud enough to shake the country. He died in Israel on December 1, 1973. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defense minister, later wrote of Ben-Gurion: "The man and his leadership were one and inseperable."


Further Reading on David Ben-Gurion

Ben-Gurion's Israel: A Personal History (1971) tells the story of his life and of the establishment of Israel. One of the best books on Ben-Gurion is Robert St. John, Ben-Gurion: The Biography of an Extraordinary Man (1959). Other works include David Ben-Gurion, Ben-Gurion Looks Back in Talks with Moshe Pearlman (1965); Maurice Edelman, David! The Story of Ben-Gurion (1964); and Michel Bar-Zohar, The Armed Prophet: A Biography of Ben-Gurion (1966; trans. 1967).