David Ben-Gurion: A Profile of a Leader

David Ben-Gurion was born in Plonsk, Poland in 1886. His father, Avigdor Grün, was a lawyer and a leader in the Hovevei Zion movement. His mother, Scheindel, died when he was 11 years old. Ben-Gurion’s birth certificate, when rediscovered in Poland in 2003, indicated that he had a twin brother who died shortly after birth.

He was 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). In 1905, as a student at the University of Warsaw, he joined the Social-Democratic Jewish Workers’ Party – Poalei Zion. He was arrested twice during the Russian Revolution of 1905. 

He moved to  Israel in 1906 and became he became involved in the creation of the first agricultural workers’ commune (Kibbutz), and helped establish the Jewish self-defense group, “Hashomer”. A month after his arrival, he was elected to the central committee of the newly formed branch of Poalei Zion in Jaffa, becoming chairman of the party’s platform committee.He advocated a more nationalist program than other more leftist or Marxist committee members. The following year he complained about the Russian domination of the group. At the time the Jewish population in Palestine was around 55,000 – of whom 40,000 held Russian citizenship.

Ben-Gurion worked picking oranges in Petah Tikva, and in 1907 he moved to the kibbutzim in Galilee, where he worked as an agricultural laborer and withdrew from politics. The following year, he joined an armed group acting as a watchmen. On 12 April 1909, following an attempted robbery in which an Arab from Kafr Kanna was killed, Ben-Gurion was involved in fighting during which one guard and a farmer from Sejera were killed.

Ben-Gurion was living in Jerusalem at the start of the First World War, where he and Ben Zvi recruited forty Jews into a Jewish militia to assist the Ottoman Army. Despite this he was deported to Egypt in March 1915. 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. He returned to Israel in the uniform of the Jewish Legion, created as a unit in the British Army. David and Paula Ben-Gurion had three children: a son, Amos, and two daughters, Geula Ben-Eliezer and Renana Leshem.

Ben-Gurion was a founder of the trade unions and the national federation, the Histadrut, which he dominated from the early 1920’s. Beginning with the Arab revolt of 1936-39, and continuing with the struggle for the Jewish state in the 1940s, the Jewish community of Palestine was bitterly divided over the use of armed force.The position of Ben Gurion and the Hagana–the official Jewish self-defense force–was that Arab hostility should be met with restraint–havlaga. This was needed both in order to prevent the escalation of violence and to preserve good relations with the British, whose support was crucial for the fulfillment of Zionist aims. This position changed with the publication of the 1939 White Paper, in which the British government declared its support for the creation of an Arab Palestinian state and effectively froze Jewish immigration.

During World War II, Ben Gurion declared that the Zionists would fight with Britain against the Nazis as if there was no White Paper, and would fight the White Paper as if there were no war. In 1942, he was instrumental in drafting the Biltmore Program, which called for open Jewish immigration and the creation of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine.

Following the United Nations’ 1947 decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and with the departure of the British in May 1948, he made the momentous decision to declare the establishment of the State of Israel. He became the first prime minister of the State of Israel and guided the country during the War of Independence.  In May 1948, Ben-Gurion became Prime Minister and Defense Minister. 

As Premier, he 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.”  Ben-Gurion remained active politically, with a rivalry developing between him and Eshkol 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, which won four Knesset seats in the 1969 elections. In June 1970, Ben-Gurion retired from political life and returned to Sde Boker where he passed away in 1973.

Ben Gurion believed that socialism and Zionism were two sides of the same ideological coin. Jewish nationalism sought not only to achieve Jewish economic self-sufficiency, but also to create a new kind of Jew: proud, independent, and living off the fruits of manual labor. Ben Gurion saw the Jewish working class as the carriers of this revolutionary spirit, and, in line with his slogan, “From class to nation,” saw the interests of workers and the Jewish people as a whole as the same. The role of the Histadrut, as he saw it, was to build a Jewish economy under the leadership of the Jewish working class. His uncompromising vision of Jewish unity and statehood, together with a genius for pragmatic political and military tactics, enabled him to establish the State of Israel and guide it through the social, economic, and military challenges of its early years. But Ben Gurion’s career was marked by a series of intense conflicts, and he remains one of the most debated figures in Israeli politics.

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David Ben-Gurion proclaiming Israel’s independence.

Related Article:

The war of the Jewish underground in Israel against the British Army 1945-1947

Sources:

[http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/ben_gurion.html]

[http://www.myjewishlearning.com/israel/History/1948-1967/Building_the_State/David_Ben_Gurion.shtml]

David Ben Gurion’s Quotes:

  • Anyone  who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.
  • If  an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.
  • Ours  is a country built more on people than on territory. The Jews will come from  everywhere: from France, from Russia, from America, from Yemen… Their faith is  their passport.

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