Ben-Gurion (Gruen), David

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BEN-GURION (Gruen ), DAVID (1886–1973), Zionist leader, Israeli statesman, first prime minister and defense minister of Israel; member of the First to Eighth Knessets.

Early Years

Ben-Gurion was born in Plonsk (then in Russian Poland). His father, Avigdor Gruen, was a member of Ḥovevei Zion and his house was the center of Zionist activity in the town. His mother Sheindel (née Friedman) died when he was 11 years old. He was educated in a modern Hebrew-language ḥeder, and studied secular subjects with private tutors. At the age of 14, Ben-Gurion was among the founders of a Zionist youth group "Ezra." He joined the *Po'alei Zion movement in 1903, traveling and speaking on its behalf in Plonsk, Warsaw, and smaller towns. During the 1905–06 revolution he was arrested twice but released at the intervention of his father. In September 1906 Ben-Gurion immigrated to Ereẓ Israel, working in the orange groves of Petaḥ Tikvah and in the wine cellars of Rishon le-Zion. He was elected to the Central Committee of Po'alei Zion. In 1907 he managed to have the sentence "the Party aspires for political independence for the Jewish people in this country" included in the party's first platform, which was drafted in the spirit of Ber *Borochov's writings. Ben-Gurion's ideological positions during this period combined Jewish nationalism with pragmatic socialism, which stressed the obligation of every member of the movement to settle in Ereẓ Israel and the right of the settlers to manage their own affairs without interference from the Diaspora. He demanded that Hebrew be the sole language of all Jewish public life in Ereẓ Israel, including Po'alei Zion, and refused to collaborate with the Yiddish party organ Der Anfang. In the 1907–10 Ben-Gurion was an agricultural worker and watchman in Sejera and Milḥamiyyah in the Lower Galilee, Kinneret, and Zikhron Ya'akov. In these years he became convinced that "the settlement of the land is the only true Zionism, all else being self-deception, empty words, and merely a pastime." In 1910 Ben-Gurion joined the editorial staff of the new party organ Aḥdut ("Unity") in Jerusalem, together with Izhak *Ben-Zvi and Raḥel Yanait. It was in this publication that he printed his first articles under the name "Ben-Gurion," which he adopted from one of the last Jewish defenders of Jerusalem against the Roman legions. The central theme of these articles was that the yishuv must organize politically, together with Jews in other parts of the new Ottoman state following the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, and strive for Jewish autonomy in Ereẓ Israel. In 1911 he and Ben-Zvi were elected as delegates to the Eleventh Zionist Congress and participated in the third world conference of Po'alei Zion in Vienna. The same year Ben-Gurion joined a group of young Zionists who enrolled at Turkish universities, with the object of establishing close ties with the educated ruling circles in Turkey. At first he lived in Salonika, and established contacts with the large Jewish community there, but after Salonika was taken over by the Greeks in 1912, he moved to Constantinople to continue his law studies


When World War i broke out, Ben-Gurion and his party advocated loyalty to Turkey and the adoption of Ottoman citizenship. However, when the Turkish administration started persecuting the Zionists, both he and Ben-Zvi were arrested and accused of conspiring against Ottoman rule in order to establish a Jewish state. In March 1915 they were exiled to Egypt, where they met Joseph *Trumpeldor, who was engaged in forming the "Zion Mule Corps" within the British army, an activity to which both Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi objected, because they feared that it endangered the yishuv without benefiting the Zionist cause.

Later in 1915 Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi proceeded to New York, where their main efforts were directed to the establishment of the *He-Ḥalutz organization, preparing young Jews for settlement in Palestine after the war. In 1917 Ben-Gurion married Paula Munweis (born in Minsk, Russia, 1892), who was a nurse in New York, and an active member of Po'alei Zion. After the *Balfour Declaration Ben-Gurion was among the first in the United States to call for the formation of Jewish battalions to participate in the liberation of Palestine, writing that "England shall not return the country to us.… A country is acquired by a people only through the pain of labor and creation, construction efforts and settlement. The Hebrew people itself must turn this right into a living and existing fact." Volunteering for the British Army in May 1918, he reached Egypt in August as a soldier in the *Jewish Legion – the 39th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. There he met volunteers from the labor movement in Palestine and with them started planning for the establishment of a united workers' movement in Palestine after the War that would prepare for the mass Jewish immigration expected to follow the liberation of the country from Ottoman rule. However, they did not manage to see active service, since their unit arrived in the country after the British had already conquered it.

At the 13th conference of Po'alei Zion in Jaffa in February 1919, Ben-Gurion called upon Jewish workers in Palestine and abroad to unite in forming a political force that would direct the Zionist movement toward the establishment of a Jewish socialist society in Palestine, based on the collectivist principles embodied in the kevutzot (see *Kibbutz Movement). In 1919 Ben-Gurion opened the founding conference of *Aḥdut ha-Avodah in PetaḥTikvah. He also participated in the world delegation of Po'alei Zion which prepared a blueprint for the future development of Ereẓ Israel. After the Jerusalem riots of Passover 1920, Ben-Gurion traveled to London, where he and Shelomo *Kaplansky headed the Political Bureau of Po'alei Zion, which established contacts with the British Labour Party.

Building the Histadrut

On his return to Palestine at the end of 1921, Ben-Gurion was elected as the first secretary of the *Histadrut, which had been founded in 1920 – a position which he was to hold for the next 14 years. He was active on all levels – the struggle for the improvement of workers' conditions, the organization of strikes, the employment of Jewish workers in all sections of the economy, including government works, and provision for the unemployed. Since Ben-Gurion's objective was to turn the Histadrut into an instrument for settlement, as well as an economic and political body, he proposed that it become a cooperative "workers' society" (ḥevrat ovedim), which would undertake agricultural settlement, the promotion of industry and construction, as well as providing workers with all the financial and welfare services that they required. A version of this vision was adopted by the second Histadrut conference in 1923. In the early 1920s Ben-Gurion tried to develop economic relations between the Histadrut and the Soviet trade unions and economic bodies, in the hope that such relations would facilitate the operation of the He-Ḥalutz movement in the Soviet Union and Jewish emigration from there to Palestine. He visited the Soviet Union in 1923, when the Histradrut participated in the Moscow Agricultural Exhibition, but his efforts to gain Soviet support failed.

During the 1920s the non-socialist middle class within the Zionist Movement and in the yishuv gained in strength, and the *Revisionist movement declared its opposition to the idea of an all-embracing socialist workers' organization. The Revisionist leader Ze'ev *Jabotinsky called for the "breaking" of the Histadrut ("ja brechen"). Ben-Gurion's reaction was to strive to unite the various Zionist workers' parties, with the goal of attaining hegemony for the labor movement in the World Zionist Organization. In 1930 he was instrumental is getting Aḥdut ha-Avodah and *Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir to unite into a single party that assumed the name *Mapai – an acronym for Mifleget Po'alei Ereẓ Yisrael. In the next four years Ben-Gurion concentrated on efforts to prevent the Revisionists from gaining ascendancy in the Zionist Movement. At the 18th Zionist Congress in 1933, in which the workers parties comprised close to 50% of the delegates, Ben-Gurion became a member of the Zionist and *Jewish Agency Executive. In an attempt to prevent a split in the Zionist movement, he reached a tentative agreement with Jabotinsky which would establish a modus vivendi on labor matters between the Histadrut and the Revisionist workers. To Ben-Gurion's great regret, however, this agreement was rejected by the members of the Histadrut. Ben-Gurion regarded the rejection as a "grave error" but accepted the verdict. In 1935 Ben-Gurion was elected chairman of the Zionist Actions Committee and the Jewish Agency, and during the next 11 years, he and the president of the Zionist Organization, Chaim *Weizmann, were to run all Zionist affairs. These two very different leaders frequently clashed over both strategy and tactics, but together they saw the movement through its most fateful years. After 1946 Ben-Gurion bore most of the burden on his own.

In the 1930s Ben-Gurion held talks with various leaders of the Arab national movement, but finally reached the conclusion that an agreement with the Arabs would be attained only after the latter became convinced that they could not defeat the Zionist endeavor by force of arms.

Toward the Founding of the Jewish State

Together with Weizmann and Moshe *Sharett, who after the murder of Chaim *Arlosoroff was appointed head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, Ben-Gurion accepted the plan for the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, as recommended by the Peel Commission Report in June 1937, believing that even a small Jewish state was better than none, and that the Zionists should accept whatever was offered. This position was opposed by Berl *Katznelson and Yiẓḥak *Tabenkin. When the British government abandoned the partition plan, Ben-Gurion participated in the St. James Round Table Conference held by the British in London in 1939, with separate Jewish and Arab delegations, since the Arabs refused to sit with the Jews. Following these talks, and with the clouds of war already looming on the horizon, the British declared their White Paper policy, which called for limited Jewish immigration to Palestine in the next five years, with future immigration dependent on Arab consent, and restrictions on Jewish land acquisitions. Ben-Gurion condemned the White Paper as a betrayal, and called for active resistance to its implementation, by means of intensified "illegal" immigration and enhanced land settlement in restricted areas. Upon the outbreak of World War ii Ben-Gurion declared that the yishuv would fight on the side of the British against the Nazis as if there were no White Paper, and continue to fight against the White Paper as if there were no war against the Nazis. Active protests against the British policy continued until June 1940, when Italy entered the war, opening a second front against the British in the Mediterranean. Many members of the yishuv joined the British army, and in September 1944 the Jewish Brigade was formed. But at the same time Ben-Gurion started to plan for the struggle that would follow the war, and turned to the United States for moral and material support. In May 1942, while in New York and contrary to Weizmann's wishes, he was instrumental in drawing up the *Biltmore Program, which called for the opening of Palestine to free Jewish immigration and settlement, and defined the Zionist goal as the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine that would be integrated into the structure of the new democratic world. When, towards the end of the war, the dissident underground organizations – the Irgun Ẓeva'i Le'ummi (iẒl) and Loḥamei Ḥerut Israel (Leḥi) – carried out armed attacks against British targets in Palestine, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to act against them. He even went so far as to cooperate with the British authorities in apprehending members of the dissident organizations, a policy nicknamed the "Saison" (i.e., the hunting season) that aroused much controversy within the ranks of the Haganah and the yishuv.

When, following the war, it became clear that the British government had no intention of abandoning the White Paper policy, Ben-Gurion led the active struggle against the British, for a time in cooperation with the dissident organizations, which came to be known as the Hebrew Resistance Movement (Tenu'at ha-Meri ha-Ivri), and intensified "illegal" immigration. In the meantime he embarked on a policy of acquiring arms from all available sources in preparation for a possible armed clash with the Arabs.

On June 29, 1946, known as "Black Saturday," when members of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine were arrested by the British, Ben-Gurion was in Europe. Though he refused to reach a compromise with the British, he ordered a pause in the armed struggle in Palestine. Ben-Gurion's policy was approved at the 22nd Zionist Congress held in December 1946, which failed to reelect Weizmann as president of the World Zionist Organization but reelected Ben-Gurion as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, to whom the defense portfolio was added. After returning to Palestine, he started planning for the possibility of an armed clash not only with the Arabs in Palestine but also with the armies of the Arab states that had started to organize in the Arab League. Ben-Gurion was one of the chief Zionist spokesmen before the Anglo-American Inquiry Commission in 1946 and the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (unscop) in 1947.

War of Independence, 1947–1949

When the *War of Independence broke out in December 1947, following the adoption of the partition plan by the un General Assembly on November 29, Ben-Gurion stood at the head of the defense effort, involving the raising of funds, the acquisition of arms, the recruitment of military experts, and the outlining of military goals, though he did not direct the actual military operations. It was he who, at the end of the war, ordered a withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, and refused to allow Yigal *Allon to conquer the West Bank from the Arab Legion. In his determination to free the newly established idf from all separatist influences, Ben-Gurion ordered the disbanding of the *Palmaḥ command and the complete integration of all its units in the general framework of the new army, which was led by officers, most of whom were veterans of the British Army. He also had to deal with the dissident organizations – the iẒl and Leḥi. In the case of the iẒl, any chance for independent activity on its part was ended with the controversial order given by Ben-Gurion in June 1948 to sink the Altalena, an iẒl arms ship, while the fate of Leḥi was decided by the assassination of the Swedish un emissary, Count Folke *Bernadotte, by its men.


As the termination of the British Mandate drew near in the spring of 1948, Ben-Gurion decided, despite the doubts of many of his colleagues and pressure from the American government to the contrary, to declare the establishment of the Jewish State. This he did in the Proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. He became prime minister and minister of defense in the Provisional Government, and after the elections to the Constituent Assembly on January 25, 1949, continued to serve in these posts as the head of a coalition government. By 1963, when he resigned for good, Ben-Gurion had headed eight coalition governments, frequently using the tool of resignation from the premiership in order to get his way vis-à-vis his unruly coalition partners. In December 1949 Ben-Gurion declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, even though there were few states that were willing to recognize it as such. As minister of defense, Ben-Gurion devoted most of his efforts to strengthening Israel militarily while introducing civilian control over it. In the international arena he struggled to win international support for Israel's right to security. In his domestic policy he insisted on mamlakhti'ut – a statist as opposed to a partisan approach.

In 1951 he traveled to the United States, where he launched the first *Israel Bond Drive. He used his full weight to get the emotionally loaded *Restitution Agreements with the Federal Republic of Germany approved, and this primarily because of Israel's grave foreign reserves situation.

Ben-Gurion was instrumental in making the in-gathering of the exiles a supreme principle in the ideology of the state; introducing a free, unified national education system; using the army as a means of integration and social consolidation; and making the advancement of science and research a central factor in the development of the state and its people.

In December 1953 Ben-Gurion announced his resignation from the premiership and retirement from active politics, citing his need for a rest after 18 years at the helm as his main reason for doing so. As part of his advocacy for the settlement of the Negev, he joined Kibbutz *Sedeh Boker. During his period in retirement Moshe Sharett was chosen by Mapai as prime minister, even though Ben-Gurion preferred Levi *Eshkol.

In February 1955, following the collapse of an Israeli intelligence network in Egypt, in what came to be known as the "esek bish" or "mishap," and the resignation of Defense Minister Pinḥas *Lavon, Ben-Gurion returned to active politics, at first as minister of defense under Sharett. In this period Israel's international position deteriorated as a result of the Bandung Conference of Nonaligned States of April 1955, which refused to accept Israel into its ranks, and the Czechoslovak-Egyptian arms deal concluded with the blessing of the Soviet Union in September 1955. Terrorist activities from across Israel's borders increased, and Ben-Gurion decided on a policy of military reprisals across the armistice lines. Following the elections to the Third Knesset in November 1955, Ben-Gurion once again assumed the twofold position of prime minister and minister of defense. He now concentrated on the development of close relations with France, which due to its own struggle in Algeria, viewed Egyptian President Gamal Abdul *Nasser as a bitter enemy. These ties became even closer when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. In October 1956 Ben-Gurion went to France for a secret meeting with representatives of the French and British governments. At this meeting an agreement was reached on concerted military action against Egypt. On October 29, 1956, the Israeli Army moved into the Sinai Peninsula (see *Sinai Campaign), while Britain and France closed in on the Suez Canal. However, under international pressure Britain and France were forced to give up their effort to reverse Nasser's actions, and Israel was compelled to agree to the withdrawal of its forces from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. This withdrawal was completed in March 1957, and relative quiet was attained after un forces were stationed in the Gaza Strip and the sea route to Eilat through the Straits of Tiran was reopened to Israeli shipping. Following the Sinai Campaign, and the election of Charles de Gaulle as president of France, Israel's relations with France remained cordial. However, Ben-Gurion increased Israel's efforts to diversify its sources of arms to include West Germany and the United States.

During the election campaign for the Fourth Knesset at the end of 1959, Ben-Gurion raised the issue of electoral reform. He advocated a system of personal elections in constituencies, which he believed would cure Israel's political ills by reducing the number of parliamentary groups in the Knesset. His opponents argued that Ben-Gurion's intention was to "gerrymander" the constituencies in such a way that Mapai would win an absolute majority of Knesset seats. The elections, however, produced no significant change in the composition of the Knesset, and Ben-Gurion did not have the power to change the electoral system.

In the years 1960–62 Ben-Gurion traveled a great deal, visiting the United States, where he met with President John *Kennedy, Western Europe, where he met with German Chancellor Konrad *Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle, and Burma. Towards the elections to the Fifth Knesset, what now came to be known as the Lavon Affair, concerning responsibility for the bungled intelligence operation in Egypt back in 1954, reemerged, not least of all because Ben-Gurion wanted the truth to be uncovered as to who had given the order for the operation. Ben-Gurion believed that Pinḥas Lavon, now secretary-general of the Histadrut, was responsible. Ben-Gurion's obsession with this affair was severely criticized by his opponents both within Mapai and outside of it. However, a commission of seven ministers, set up to examine the relevant documents acquitted Lavon of responsibility, a verdict that Ben-Gurion refused to accept. He submitted his resignation in January 1961 and, before new elections were held for the Fifth Knesset, demanded that the Mapai Central Council make a choice between himself and Lavon. On February 4 the Central Council decided by 159 votes to 96 to remove Lavon from his office as Histadrut secretary-general. However, this was a Pyrrhic victory for Ben-Gurion, whose position in the party was greatly undermined. In the elections Mapai was greatly weakened and Ben-Gurion experienced much difficulty forming a new coalition. He would not let the crisis over the Lavon Affair subside, and in June 1963 once again resigned from the premiership – this time for good.

Ben-Gurion in Opposition

Eshkol became prime minister upon Ben-Gurions' recommendation and Ben-Gurion once again retired to Sedeh Boker and devoted himself to writing. But soon he was back, once again advocating a reform of the electoral system, and expressing his opposition to the establishment of the Alignment between Mapai and Aḥdut ha-Avodah. However, the Lavon Affair was still under his skin. In the autumn of 1964 he submitted a dossier of documents that he had prepared to Minister of Justice Dov *Joseph and to the attorney general and demanded that a judicial inquiry be opened on the issue. At a meeting of the Mapai Central Committee party conference in January 1965, a majority voted against Ben-Gurion's demands. Though it was only a minority that supported Ben-Gurion, Eshkol decided to put an end to the matter and resigned from the premiership, with the demand that the government be allowed to decide on the matter without party interference. He then formed a new government, with the same makeup as the outgoing one. Ben-Gurion's response was to leave Mapai with a group of his followers, who included Moshe *Dayan, Shimon *Peres, and Yosef *Almogi, and set up a new parliamentary group called *Rafi (Reshimat Po'alei Yisrael), which ran in the 1965 Knesset and Histadrut elections. While Rafi gained 10 seats in the Sixth Knesset, and Ben-Gurion was to remain a member of the Knesset until May 1970, to all intents and purposes he had lost his political clout and influence. Rafi rejoined Eshkol's government on the eve of the *Six-Day War, with Dayan assuming the Defense portfolio, and shortly after the war joined with Mapai and Aḥdut ha-Avodah to form the *Israel Labor Party, a move to which Ben-Gurion objected, leaving him as a single Member of Knesset when the other nine members of Rafi joined the new parliamentary group. In the elections to the Seventh Knesset Ben-Gurion ran at the head of a new party – the State List – which received four seats. Half a year after the elections, at the age of 84, he resigned from the Knesset and returned to Sedeh Boker, where he once again dedicated himself to writing and studying, and occasionally expressing his views on the political situation, generally advocating an Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied during the Six-Day War. Though in his last years Ben-Gurion cut a solitary figure, he continued to be admired as the most influential Zionist and Israeli leader in the modern age, an individual who had made some of the most fateful decisions in the history of the Jewish nation in its early years, more or less on his own. Though he had little formal education, he was a learned man, and throughout his life he never ceased to study the Bible, Greek philosophy, Buddhism, the philosophy of Baruch *Spinoza, and many other subjects. Though he was frequently accused of having resorted to undemocratic methods to get his way, he had a deep belief in democracy, and his well-known statement in the early years of the State that the communists and the Ḥerut movement could not be members of his government stemmed from his belief that neither was truly democratic. To the end of his life he believed that all Jews should immigrate to Israel, and expressed contempt for those who considered themselves Zionists but remained in the Diaspora. After his death Beersheba University, Lydda International Airport, the government compound in Jerusalem, and many other Israeli institutions and locations were named after him.

ben-gurion's works

Rebirth and Destiny of Israel (1952); Israel: Years of Challenge (1963); (ed.), The Jews in Their Land (1966); Anaḥnu u-Shekheneinu (1931); Mi-Ma'amad le-Am (1933); Ba-Ma'arakhah, 5 vols. (1947–49); Be-Hillaḥem Yisrael (1950); Ḥazon va-Derekh, 5 vols. (1951–57); Ẓava u-Vittaḥon (1955); Ma'arekhet Sinai (1959); Pegishot im Manhigim Arviyyim (1967); Mikhtavim el Paula ve-el ha-Yeladim (1968; Letters to Paula, 1971); Medinat Yisrael ha-Meḥuddeshet (1969; Israel: A Personal History 1971); Negotiations with Nasser (1970); Memoirs (1970); My Talks with Arab Leaders (1972); Ben-Gurion Looks at the Bible (1972); Iggerot David Ben-Gurion (1972); David Ben-GurionRosh ha-Memshalah ha-Rishon: Mivkhar Te'udot 19471963 (David Ben-Gurion – The First Prime Minister: A Selection of Documents 1947–1963) (1996).


S. Lachower, Kitvei David Ben-Gurion (a bibliography, 1960); R. St.-John, Ben-Gurion (Eng., 1959); B. Litvinoff, Ben-Gurion of Israel (1954); M. Edelman, Ben-Gurion, A Political Biography (1964); M. Pearlman, Ben-Gurion Looks Back (1965); O. Zmora, Days of David Ben-Gurion (1967); M. Bar-Zohar, The Armed Prophet: A Biography of Ben-Gurion (1967); J.Comay, Ben-Gurion and the Birth of Israel (1967). add. bibliography: R. St.-John, Ben-Gurion: A Biography (1971); S. Peres, With Strength and with Spirit (1974); M. Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion: A Biography (1978); D. Kurzman, Ben-Gurion: Prophet of Fire (1983); S. Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War (1985); Y. Navon, David Ben-Gurion, Builder and Warrior (1986); S. Teveth, Ben-Gurion: The Burning Ground (1987); R.W. Zweig (ed.), David Ben-Gurion: Politics and Leadership in Israel (1991); S. Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust (1996); idem, Ben-Gurion's Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal That Shaped Modern Israel (1996); J. Heller, The Birth of Israel 19451949: Ben-Gurion and His Critics (2000); G. Goldberg, Ben-Gurion Against the Knesset (2003).

[Yehuda Slutsky /

Susan Hattis Rolef (2nd ed.)]