Born on October 16, 1886 (Plonsk, Poland)
Died on December 1, 1973 (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Prime Minister of Israel
Revered among Israeli leaders, David Ben-Gurion is often referred to as Israel's "father." More than the architect of the state of Israel, Ben-Gurion served as the country's first prime minister and led his nation through two wars: the 1956 Suez Canal crisis when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, and the Six-Day War of 1967 during which Israel took territory from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt displacing more than one million Palestinian Arabs. Ben-Gurion helped Israel establish itself as a legitimate country, weathering the intense criticism of those who expected Israel to return the Palestinian lands that were captured during the wars, and refusing to bow to the demands of powerful Western countries, such as Britain, France, and the United States, at the expense of Israel. He joined in several peace initiatives with his Palestinian neighbors in hopes of ensuring stability along the country's borders, but after decades of disagreement on both sides, the instability in the region remains.
"We do not seek an agreement with the Palestinian Arabs in order to secure the peace. Of course we regard peace as an essential thing. ... But peace for us is a means, and not an end."
Embraced Zionism from an early age
David Ben-Gurion was born David Ben Gruen on October 16, 1886, in Plonsk, a poor town in Poland, which at the time was situated in Russia. He received a very strict, traditional Jewish education that consisted of long days studying Jewish history and learning Hebrew, the ancient language of the Jewish people that was revived as the official language of Israel. His father, a committed Zionist and lawyer, founded the Hebrew school he attended. He also dedicated much of his time to a political movement called the Lovers of Zion. This group worked to mobilize Jews around the world to immigrate to Palestine, the area now known as Israel. Zionism is an international political movement that originated in the late nineteenth century, calling for the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine.
Ben-Gurion shared his father's political ideology from an early age. As a teenager he showed remarkable leadership skills when he founded and led a Zionist youth group called Ezra, in which the young conservative members were allowed to speak only Hebrew among themselves. Ben-Gurion's passion for learning pushed him to the top of his class. His teachers recognized his intellectual talents and ensured that he attended Warsaw University at the age of eighteen; attending a university was not common for the children in his town. At Warsaw University, Ben-Gurion's Zionist activism flourished when he joined a more sophisticated group called Poalei Zion—"the workers of Zion"—a group that promoted the ideals of Zionism.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a wave of pogroms, or organized attacks against Jews, swept Europe. Mobs of people in Poland, Russia, and other parts of Europe rounded up Jews and beat them, or smashed Jewish shop windows. Jews were also arrested for crimes they didn't commit. Ben-Gurion grew up surrounded by this hostile European attitude toward Jews.
In 1906 Ben-Gurion immigrated to Palestine, a region in the Middle East on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, roughly defined now as within the greatest claimed borders of the modern nation of Israel. At the time, Palestine was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), which tolerated groups of various religions. Ben-Gurion first worked as a farm hand in Palestine, and the grueling work required long hours and offered little pay. Ben-Gurion often went hungry, and also contracted the infectious disease malaria, which he suffered from for the rest of his life. The time he spent on the farm constituted the first kibbutz, a communal settlement where settlers share all property and work collaboratively.
Life in Palestine had a profound impact on Ben-Gurion's political thinking. He changed his name to David Ben-Gurion, the name of a defender of Jerusalem who died in 70 ce. He became more and more active with Zionist groups, and was elected to the editorial board of the Poalei Zion newspaper in Jerusalem in 1910. He came to believe that Jews from all over the world had an obligation to move to Palestine and to settle the land in order to build their own country. He also advocated that Jews speak only Hebrew among themselves. If they did not, he said, their survival could not be ensured. Ben-Gurion wanted Jewish cultural institutions, including the Jewish faith, to thrive in a recognized Jewish state. He also believed that the Jewish state should be ruled by the principles of socialism, a theory or system of social organization by which the major means of production and distribution are owned, managed, and controlled by the government, by an association or workers, or the community as a whole.
Ben-Gurion's political fervor and Zionist activities worried the Ottoman authorities in Palestine. Although the Ottoman Empire was tolerant toward Jews when compared to European countries, it did not want Zionists to create a political base from which to stage a challenge to Ottoman authority. Ben-Gurion's regular Zionist meetings were drawing much attention. In 1915 he was expelled from the area along with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (1884–1963), who would later become Israel's second president. The two developed a lifelong friendship, and came to be known as "the two Bens." They traveled to New York together, learned English and, not surprisingly, got involved with local Zionist groups.
Although Ben-Gurion was a committed socialist, his biographers believe that his time in the United States had a profound impact on his political thought. He was fascinated by American-style democracy and believed that it was a system under which people could flourish. Years later, as prime minister, Ben-Gurion was often asked to "suspend democracy" due to regional instability, but he always refused to do so. His biographers attributed this to his experience in the United States.
In America Ben-Gurion met a Russian girl named Paula Monbaz. She was a trainee at the Brooklyn Jewish Nursing School. The two married in 1917 and would eventually have three children.
Two World Wars
Britain came to control Palestine after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (1848–1930) issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which committed Britain to supporting Jewish interests in Palestine, but also pledged that such support would not come at a cost to the Arab communities that had existed in Palestine for hundreds and hundreds of years. Ben-Gurion seized on this important international sanction and called on all Jews to take up arms to free Palestine from Ottoman rule. In 1918 he arrived in Egypt in military uniform with a regiment of volunteers ready to do battle against the Turks. But he was too late; World War I had just ended, and Palestine was now free from Ottoman rule. Ben-Gurion then traveled to Palestine, which Britain now ruled by mandate, or a form of rule over a conquered territory granted by the League of Nations following World War I, which gave Great Britain and France control over much of the Middle East. The League of Nations was an international organization of sovereign countries established after World War I to promote peace. The terms of the British mandate were similar to the Balfour Declaration, in that they declared the area to be a future Jewish national homeland. In 1920 the League of Nations declared Palestine to be the national home for the Jewish people. But achieving this sovereignty was not to be easy and the state of Israel would not founded until over thirty years later, in 1948.
Palestine was undergoing a period of intense political instability. During the 1920s and 1930s thousands of Jews fled Europe due to the increasing anti-Semitism there, and immigrated to Palestine. Jewish emigration from America was also increasing. The Zionist movement called for total control over the region. The Palestinian Arabs were struggling with their own goals for statehood, and Ben-Gurion was quick to see that the Arabs had a legitimate quarrel with the Jews over the land. He predicted that the two peoples would constantly be at odds over this issue, and he was right.
Planning a nation
After World War I Ben-Gurion advocated a form of socialism based on the cooperative principle of the kibbutz movement. He founded the powerful Jewish Federation of Labor in 1921 and was secretary general for fourteen years. In the early 1930s he became head of the Labor Party and later chairman of the Zionist and Jewish Agency Executives, the official representative of the Jewish community. Ben-Gurion accepted the British Royal Commission's proposal to divide Palestine between the Arab communities and the Jewish ones, since he believed even a small Jewish state would serve the purposes of Zionism. Despite his sympathy toward the Arabs, he firmly believed that to avoid a full-scale war between the two peoples, he must create an independent state and build a military force. In order to understand how to go about this he joined the Jewish Legion of the British Army and trained as a member of the 40th Royal Fusiliers.
The Holocaust was the murder of approximately six million Jews by the German Nazis and those who allied with them. Holocaust is a Greek word that means to sacrifice through fire. The Nazis rose to power in 1933 and believed that the Jewish people were racially inferior to the Germans. They also targeted gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics, the Slavic peoples, the handicapped, communists, and socialists. In 1933 there were over nine million Jews in Europe, but by 1945 two out of every three had been murdered as part of the Nazi's Final Solution—their policy to murder all the Jews in Europe. Nazis built concentration camps all over Europe, many of which had specially designed killing facilities. Many Jews died in gas chambers in these camps. At the end of World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) the German army surrendered, and Allied troops liberated these concentration camps. There were many survivors of these camps who lived to tell their stories to the world.
In 1942 Ben-Gurion declared that the sole aim of the Zionist movement was to create a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. British policymakers, who were fearful of Arab unrest, had put restrictions on Jewish immigration into the region as well as on the sale of land to Jews. These policies remained unchanged after World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), despite the Jewish tragedy during the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion was furious with Britain's lack of support and called on all Jews to stage an armed struggle against the British. He strongly opposed British policies, which he believed threatened to turn Palestine's Jewish community into a permanent minority.
Ben-Gurion set about preparing for armed struggle with the Palestinian Arabs, which he saw as inevitable. In 1947 he spoke before the United Nations (UN), an association of countries set up in 1945 to promote peace, security, and cooperation between nations. He used the Holocaust and the horrible images of abuse toward Jews to influence world opinion. He was successful, and slowly but surely the world grew more sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish nation. Later that year the UN voted to split Palestine into two halves—one controlled by the Jews and one controlled by the Arabs. The Palestinians rejected the plan, and fearing that Palestine would be lost to the Jews, Arab neighbors such as Jordan, Syria, and Egypt sent armies into Israel.
On May 14, 1948, just before the expiration of the British Mandate, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independence of the state of Israel from his home in Tel Aviv, in accordance with the UN resolution. He ignored pleas from the United Kingdom and the United States not to do so because of the fear of war between the Arabs and the Jews.
Within hours of Ben-Gurion's announcement, Arab armies had gathered on Israel's borders. Five Arab nations invaded Israel, together with several Palestinian militias. The War of Independence had begun. This was a particularly bloody war in which 1 percent of the Jewish population died, along with thousands of Arabic soldiers and civilians. By 1949 the state of Israel declared itself victorious, and the new nation claimed 78 percent of the former Palestine as its homeland. As a result of the war, almost one million Palestinians fled or were forcibly removed from their homes and became refugees.
Leader of his country
Ben-Gurion served his country as prime minister and minister of defense between 1948 and 1963, except for a short retirement from 1953 to 1955. His years in office were considered a great success, and his colleagues described him as a natural leader and statesman. He defended Israel against Palestinian and Arabic invasion by establishing a well-equipped and well-trained Jewish army. He built a modern and democratic country with a parliament, something that had never before existed in the Middle East. During his premiership more than one million Jews from eighty countries, and speaking many languages, came to live in their new homeland. The successful integration of the immigrants, and developments in housing, agricultural settlement, employment, and industry under Ben-Gurion's government were enormous accomplishments. He also insisted that Israelis study the Bible in order to better understand themselves and their homeland.
His last years as prime minister, from 1960 to 1963, were marred by the controversial Lavon Affair, which split his political party down the middle. The Lavon Affair was the name given to Israel's explosion of bombs in Egypt, including detonations around a United States' diplomatic facility, with the intent to blame Arabs. When the ploy was publicized, Ben-Gurion resigned from office, and retired to his desert retreat to write a history of Israel. However, he never abandoned politics and kept in touch with many of his colleagues. Although he had no formal power, he continued to exert extraordinary authority in Israel. He died in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 1, 1973, from a brain hemorrhage. His body was buried in the courtyard of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelis visited his grave and the nation's flags flew at half-staff for weeks in his memory.
For More Information
Ben-Gurion, David. Israel: A Personal History. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1971.
Edelman, Maurice. David! The Story of Ben-Gurion. New York: Putnam, 1965.
St. John, Robert. Ben-Gurion: The Biography of an Extraordinary Man. New York: Doubleday, 1959.
Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
"Prime Minister David Ben Gurion," Prime Minister's Office, Israeli Government.http://www.pmo.gov.il/PMOEng/Government/Memorial/PrimeMinisters/Ben_Gurion.htm (accessed on January 25, 2005).
Ben-Gurion, David 1886-1973
David Ben-Gurion, along with Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) and Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952), is considered one of the three architects of Zionism and the most effective figure in founding the state of Israel. An early convert to Zionism, Ben-Gurion migrated to then Ottoman Palestine in 1906 at a point when the territory housed about 55,000 Jewish inhabitants—only about 1 percent of whom were Zionist pioneers—as opposed to nearly 700,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs. He devoted himself fully to organizing the Yishuv, or Jewish community, in Palestine prior to 1948 and to encouraging Jewish immigration to create a sufficient demographic basis for a Jewish state. In 1921 he became the secretary general of the Histadrut, the General Federation of (Jewish) Labor in Palestine, a position he retained until becoming the chairman of the Jewish Agency in 1935 before finally becoming the first prime minister and minister of defense of Israel in 1948, positions he held, except for a brief period (1953–1955), until his retirement in 1963. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Ben-Gurion adopted a more confrontational policy with Arab states than many of his compatriots in the leadership of labor, and his return to the cabinet in 1955 corresponded with preparations for the Sinai Campaign in 1956 in which Israel sought to invade Egypt in collaboration with Britain and France during the Suez crisis.
Ben-Gurion also played a key role in formulating a synthesis of labor ideology and Zionist nationalism, as evident in his early affiliation with Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), which he represented during a three-year stay in the United States from 1915 to 1918, then the Mapai party and the Labor Party and as the first leader of the Histadrut. The Histadrut functioned as both a trade union and large employer in its own right, representing Jewish workers and creating Jewish economic enterprises. Its membership was exclusively Jewish, and it actively discouraged Jewish businesses from hiring non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. During the British Mandate period following World War I until 1948 when Palestine was administered by Britain, Ben-Gurion developed a working relation with the British administration, which allowed him to emerge as the face of the more “moderate” section of the Zionist movement at the same time that it facilitated his building of the paramilitary Haganah, which by 1948 had become the strongest and best organized military group in the land.
While far more pragmatic than other Zionist leaders, notably Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880–1940) and, later, Menachem Begin (1913–1992), Ben-Gurion’s vision of Zionism made, in fact, little accommodation to the Palestinians. Throughout his life Ben-Gurion regarded the Arab Palestinians as economically, socially, and culturally inferior to the Jewish immigrants. Early in his career he believed that Arab Palestinians had no collective sense of nationalism and that a Jewish state could be built without infringing on them. He never accepted that they had political rights. Significantly, while he was versed in nine languages, he never made an effort to learn Arabic. Thus, in addition to being one of the greatest figures in the history of Zionism, he was also one of the main architects of an enduring conflict.
SEE ALSO Zionism
Ben-Gurion, David. 1971. Israel: A Personal History [Medinat Yiśra’el ha-mehudeshet ]. Trans. Nechemia Meyers and Uzy Nystar. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1971.
Cohen, Mitchell. 1987. Zion and State: Nation, Class, and the Shaping of Modern Israel. New York: B. Blackwell.
Sternhell, Zeev. 1998. The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mohammed A. Bamyeh
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.
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."
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). □