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David Ben Gurion

1886 - 1973.

David Ben-Gurion (born David Grun) was an Israeli politician and the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel.

Born in Poland, he grew up in a Jewish Zionist family. His father was a Hebrew teacher and member of the Hovevei Zion movement. As a young teenager, David established the "Ezra" youth group for Zionist education and the renewal of the spoken Hebrew language.

He emigrated to the Land of Israel in 1906, when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. He first worked in agriculture in Petah-Tikva, Kfar Saba, Rishon Letzion, Rechovot, and Sejera (Ilania).

He joined the Poalei Zion, a Zionist socialist party.

In 1910, he became a journalist for the party's newspaper in Jerusalem and adopted the Hebrew name Ben Gurion. The name was inspired by Josef Ben Gurion, a Jewish leader who fought against the Romans in the year 66.

In 1912, he studied law at the University of Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He wanted to forge links with the future Ottoman elite to make them more favorable to the Zionist project. In 1914, at the start of World War 1, Ben Gurion stuck to a loyalist attitude towards the Empire and promoted it within the Yishuv.

After the United States entered the war and the Balfour Declaration, he distanced himself from the Ottoman Empire. In 1917, he married Paula, and joined Jewish units formed by the British army to wage war in the area.

In 1919, Ben Gurion participated in the creation of the Ahdut Ha'avoda (Labor Unity), the socialist Zionist party that succeeded the Poale Zion.

In 1921, Ben Gurion was elected secretary general of the Histadrut ("General Association of Workers of Eretz Israel"). His leadership was efficient, but sometimes authoritarian.

David Ben Gurion
Ben Gurion speaking at a foundation ceremony at the Histadrut Building in Jerusalem, 1924. Photo: Israeli Government Press Office

He played a decisive role in the merger of Ahdut Ha'avoda and Hapoel Hatzaïr, Zionist left movements, to create a new political party called Mapai.

Also, as one of the leaders of the right-wing of Zionist socialism, he opposed non-Jewish workers (Arabs) from being part of the Histadrut.

In 1935, he resigned from the Histadrut, became president of the Jewish Agency, and became the main leader of the Yishuv.

At that time (1939), the British published their third “White Paper”, limiting the Jewish population in the Land of Israel to 75,000 Jews. Ben Gurion managed the Yishuv's opposition to this policy, and in the years following, to the British mandate as a whole. Illegal immigration was carried out through the Mossad Aliyah Beth.

The British and the Zionist movement had a worsening relationship. In 1942, Ben-Gurion demanded a Jewish State for the whole Land of Israel, which meant the British had to leave. Earlier, in 1937, the Peel Commission proposed a plan where the British wanted to retain a portion of the Land of Israel under their control, leaving only 15% for the Jews.

Additionally, a divergence has arisen between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Zionists. The Haredim didn't accept the idea of a non-religious Jewish state imposed by secularists before the Messiah's coming. Ben-Gurion didn't want religious opposition to the existence of the Jewish State and negotiated in 1947 a compromise, called the Status Quo.

On May 14th, 1948, in the middle of the War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion read, in Beit Dizengoff in Tel Aviv, the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel (YouTube video here). Video below.

From the days of the World Zionist Conference in 1920 in London, until the founding of the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion participated in all important decisions of the Zionist movement: As a delegate at the Zionist congresses, as a member of various committees, and as the Chairman of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

On the 26th of May, he created the IDF (Tsahal), which gathered the different Jewish forces: the Hagana, the Lehi, and the Irgun. Later, he also dissolved the Palmach, Hagana's elite unit.

From 1948 to 1953, Ben Gurion served as Israel's first Prime Minister.

  • This period was marked by a significant influx of Jewish refugees. A lot came from Europe. Another significant part came from Arab countries. Their integration will be difficult. Many consider this issue one of Ben-Gurion's main failures.

  • The other major issue was Israel's security. Attacks by Arab refugees were frequent and some of them were backed by the neighboring Arab countries. Ben Gurion kept the defense portfolio and encouraged reprisals. Military cooperation between France and other Western countries helped Israel get arms and the Atomic bomb.

  • He worked intensively to ensure Jerusalem's status as the capital of Israel. About a year after the War of Independence, he initiated the decision to move the Knesset and all of the government offices to Jerusalem. He claimed that this move would abolish the demand to internationalize Jerusalem, a demand that kept appearing in various international contexts. His attitude toward Jerusalem was most likely influenced by the fact that the Old City was lost to Israel during the War of Independence.

In December 1953, David Ben-Gurion announced his retirement from the Prime Ministership and settled in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. This step was intended to create a settlement boom in the Negev, based on his vision. Some say that it was a calculated act, to show that it is not possible to run the country without him and to receive more power upon his return. Moshe Sharet was appointed as his replacement.

Indeed, after almost 2 years of absence, he came back to his functions in 1955, until 1963. During this period, David Ben Gurion:

  • Organized the 1956 Sinai War against Egypt, in response to Egyptian threats to destroy Israel. The war was a military success: Sinai was occupied and Ben Gurion planned to keep it. However, with the opposition of the United States and the Soviet Union, Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1957.

  • Set in motion the process to establish diplomatic ties with West Germany.

  • Favored rapprochement with Turkey and signed an economic and military agreement.

In 1963, Ben Gurion resigned again from the government due to political pressure and recommended Eshkol as his successor.

In 1965, a Mapai conference revealed Ben-Gurion's minority support, leading to his retirement from Mapai and the creation of RAFI with notable members like Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan. In the November 1965 elections, RAFI won only 10 seats compared to Mapai and Ahdut Haavoda's 45. In December 1967, RAFI members joined Mapai and Ahdut Haavoda to form the Labor Party, Haavoda.

David Ben Gurion remained a Knesset member until 1970.

He retired at age 84 and died in 1973 at age 87.



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