David Ben-Gurion, Israel's First Prime Minister



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David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion, (1886-1973) was the chief statesman and political leader of the modern state of Israel. He became the first prime minister and chief architect of the state of Israel. He is still revered as the "Father of the Nation."

Early Years

Ben-Gurion was born David Gruen on Oct. 16, 1886, in the town of Plonsk, Poland. His mother, Sheindel, died when he was eleven years old. His father, Avigdor Gruen, a lawyer, was a leader in the movement Chovavai Tzion which believed in reclaiming Palestine as a homeland for the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe. The Gruen house was the center of Zionist activities in the town.

Ben Gurion was educated in a modernized Hebrew language cheder and studied secular subjects with private tutors. He was amongst the founders of the Zionist youth movement "Ezra".

"We are following a new path," Ben Gurion explained in 1921, "which contradicts developments in the whole world except Russia." This led him to pay homage to the Soviet Union for "her great spiritual influence on our movement and our work in Palestine." In these years Ben Gurion came to "idolize Lenin" and "he even adopted the dress of the Soviet leaders - a quasi military uniform of rough wool." Ben Gurion's affinity towards communism and socialism from his early years accompanied him in developing institutions later in Israel.

In Eretz Israel


Inspired by a Hebrew-Zionist upbringing, shocked by anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, he went to Turkish Palestine "to build it and be rebuilt by it," as was the motto of those days. He became a pioneer, a farmhand, active with early Zionist-socialist groups. At age 19 he was what he would remain all his life: a secular Jewish nationalist who combined Jewish Nationalist visions with socialist and communistic ideals, a man with fierce ambition for leadership, extraordinary tactical-political skills and a sarcastic edge rather than a sense of humor.

The idea of an independent Israel became the leading motivation in Ben-Gurion's life. At age 20 he immigrated to Palestine and worked for several years as a farmer. He settled in Eretz Yisrael in 1906, first working in orange groves and wine cellars. As a watchman and farm worker, he became convinced that true Zionism meant settling the land. He adopted the Hebrew name Ben-Gurion and joined the Zionist Socialist movement. At the 1907 Socialist convention he made sure that the party platform contained the statement: "The party aspires to the political independence of the Jewish people in this land."

In Politics


Ben Gurion stressed that every member of the Zionist movement must settle in Israel. He pushed that Hebrew be the language of the people and the party. Through his influence Hebrew was adopted as the language of the Po'ale Zion in Israel. He refused to collaborate with the Yiddish party organ. The years between 1907-1910 were years when he worked as an agricultural worker in the Lower Galilee. These years left a strong impression on his life. After his experience he commented, "the settlement of the land is the only true Zionism, all else being self-deception, empty verbiage and merely a hobby."

In 1910, Ben Gurion joined the editorial staff of the new party paper, Ahdut in which he joined Yitzhak Ben Zvi (who later became a president of Israel). He published articles declaring that the Jews must form a political force and strive for Jewish autonomy in Palestine. In 1911, he and Ben Zvi were elected as delegates to the 11th Zionist congress in Vienna.

Later Ben Gurion decided to learn law in Turkey since Turkey controlled Palestine and he traveled there in 1912. However with the outbreak of World War I, In 1915,Ben Gurion and his friends were arrested and accused of conspiring against the Ottoman Empire in order to establish a Jewish state. He was subsequently exiled to Egypt.

In 1915 Ben-Gurion, expelled from Palestine for his nationalist and socialist activities, chose to go to New York City, to establish a group to aid in preparing young Jews to settle the land. He hastily taught himself English and plunged head on into perpetrating the local Zionist-socialist movement. His authoritative, almost despotic character and his enchantment with Lenin's revolution and leadership style were tempered during his three years in the U.S. by the impact American democracy left on him. Many years later, Ben-Gurion, who was urged by some countrymen to "suspend" democratic value, he refused to do so. Here he met his wife, Paula Munweis, a nurse and activist in the Po'ale Zion organization. She later died in 1968 being his faithful companion for all of their life.

After World War I he returned to Palestine, now governed by Britain and--after 1920--designated by the League of Nations as a "National Home" for the Jewish people. He rose to prominence in the growing Zionist-socialist movement. The increasing anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1920s and '30s sent waves of Jewish immigrants into the country. Furious Arab leaders launched a rebellion against the British and a holy war on the Jews. Much earlier than others, Ben-Gurion recognized the depth and rationale of Arab objection to Zionism: he was aware of the tragic nature of a clash between two claims to the same land. He saw the creation of an independent homeland for the homeless Jewish people as, first and foremost, a crucial provision for the survival of persecuted Jews. He was one of the first to foresee that in order for the Jews to avoid a showdown with the Arabs or to survive such a showdown, they must set up a state and a military force.

Vision of a Jewish State


After the Balfour Declaration, Ben Gurion called for the formation of a Jewish army to liberate Palestine. He volunteered for the British Army and reached Egypt. In Egypt he met many like minded volunteers and all agreed on the necessity for a united movement to prepare for the day of Jewish rule in Israel.

The evolving socialist nature of Zionism in Palestine was ultimately accepted and actively supported by most of the leaders of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Men like Chaim Weizmann, who were not themselves socialists or communists, nonetheless became convinced that it would only be by a socialist line of economic development that all available resources could be directed toward the rapid absorption of a maximum number of Jewish immigrants.

In the 20's he founded the Histadrut together with Berl Katznelson and headed it for nearly 14 years. The Histadrut was pivotal in providing workers with work and political alliances. Ben Gurion proposed that the Histadrut be turned into a communistic type communal society to provide wide provisions for the worker. However his proposal was not accepted.

At this time Ben Gurion developed "enemies" in the form of the Revisionist led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. The Revisionists were opposed to the socialist doctrine. To this day, the modern Labor party is an extension of the Histadrut, whereas the modern Likud party is an extension of the Revisionists.

Partition Plan of Palestine


In 1937, the British Royal Commission of Inquiry proposed the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a separate Jewish state. Whereas Ben-Gurion looked forward with favor on the partition plan, the provisions of the plan also included a curtailment of Jewish immigration to Israel. This was unacceptable to Ben-Gurion; instead he backed the continuation of illegal immigration.

With the outbreak of World War II, Ben Gurion expected more favorable treatment from the British. However the British exploited the war to suppress the Jewish aspirations in the Holy Land. Nevertheless, Ben Gurion looked forward to the war's end and the subsequent establishment of the aspirant Jewish state. When dissident underground groups, such as the Lechi and Etzel organized armed attacks against the British government in Palestine, Ben Gurion ordered the Haganah to take actions against their fellow Jews. Ben Gurion went so far as to apprehend these Jews and turn them over to the British. This was perhaps a mistake that cost him much popular support in the future.

With the end of World War II and no change in the notorious "White Paper" which forJewish immigration to Israel, Ben Gurion realized that he must support the armed rebelliof the underground Jewish groups. He authorized the Haganah to begin to amass arms for an eventual struggle with the Arabs and British. During this time he was elected to the head of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization.

War of Independence


When the War of Independence broke out, he busied himself with consolidating the various fighting groups and raising monies from abroad to support the struggle. In opposition to the United States government's request not to declare an independent state, on May 14, 1948, he declared the establishment of the Jewish state. He became the first prime minister and minister of defense.

Although he retired from politics in 1953 and settled in Sedeh Boker in the Negev, he came back in 1955 to bolster a government in trouble. During his service as minister of defense under the Moshe Sharret government, he decided upon systematic reprisal actions beyond the armistice lines. He was subsequently re-elected prime minister a second time in 1955.

Ben Gurion re-retired again from politics in 1963. Although he tried to come back in 1965, his party voters did not accept him.

David Ben Gurion was a strong and outspoken champion of the Jewish people. Although he was not religious, he was a strong defender of the Jewish day of rest, the Sabbath, being on Saturday and not on Sunday in order to preserve the unity and national character of the Jewish people. He was also against the establishment of a television station which he felt would take away from the pioneering spirit of the youth, and as we see, the youth today are into the Western values that are portrayed on the television.

On His Thoughts


Ben Gurion enjoyed studying and studied both philosophy and Buddhism. Some of the more popular statements of Ben Gurion are repeated here:

In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.
Not the absorption capacity of the land, but the creative ability of a people, is the true yardstick with which we can measure the immigration potentialities of the land.
The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.
The State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, not by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values.
We don't consider manual work as a curse, or a bitter necessity, not even as a means of making a living. We consider it as a high human function, as the basis of human life, the most dignified thing in the life of the human being, and which ought to be free, creative. Men ought to be proud of it.
Without moral and intellectual independence, there is no anchor for national independence.

The above article is only a capsule of achievements by this great leader.


from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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