David Ben-Gurion
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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 David Ben-Gurion

5/8/2003

 
     
DAVID BEN-GURION
(1886 - 1973)

Founder of the State of Israel,
Prime Minister 1948-1953 and 1955-1963

 
 

David Ben-Gurion announces establishment of State of Israel

  David Ben-Gurion - Zionist leader and Israel's first and longest-serving Prime Minister - was born David Green in Plonsk, Poland in 1886 and educated in a Hebrew school established by his father, an ardent Zionist. Ben-Gurion became a Zionist and joined the Socialist-Zionist group Poalei Zion at 17.

In 1906, Ben-Gurion immigrated to the Land of Israel, worked as a laborer in agricultural settlements, became immersed in Zionist politics and polemics and helped establish the Jewish self-defense group Hashomer. In 1912 he began to study law in Istanbul, but the outbreak of World War I led to his deportation, together with other leading Zionists, by the Ottoman authorities. Ben-Gurion spent the war years in the United States, where he married Paula Monbesz, a fellow Zionist, and was active in building an "American wing" of Labor Zionism. He returned to Palestine as a soldier of the Jewish Legion, a unit of the British Army created by Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

In the 1920s, Ben-Gurion was elected secretary-general of the Histadrut - General Federation of Labor, a role which he regarded as a potential power base for the realization of Zionist aims. He served as Secretary-General of the Histadrut until 1935, forging it into much more than a trade union: an all-embracing political, social and economic institution with its own network of factories, development corporations, cultural frameworks and health services and a financial institution. The Histadrut thus provided the economic infrastructure, as well as the social and political fabric, for the state-in-the-making. Ben-Gurion subsequently played a central role in the amalgamation of Ahdut Ha'avoda and Hapo'el Hatza'ir into Mapai, which became the ruling party during the first decades of statehood, with Ben-Gurion at the helm. His approach to socialism was pragmatic, seeking to attain national and socialist goals simultaneously. By 1935, Labor Zionism had become the most important faction in the Zionist movement, and Ben-Gurion was appointed to the key post of chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive - the "almost-government" of the Jews in Palestine - a post he held until 1948, when the State of Israel was established.

Throughout these years, Ben-Gurion set the course of Zionist history and molded the character of the Jewish state. Based on a political platform blending vision with pragmatism, Ben-Gurion abandoned the established Zionist policy of caution and gradualism, adopting a strong activist line. During World War II his strategy in the conflict between British restrictions on Jewish immigration and settlement and the fact that Britain was fighting Nazi Germany was succinctly summarized in his statement that Zionists "would fight the war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war." After the war, he challenged British authority by organizing mass "illegal" immigration and set de facto boundaries for a Jewish state by establishing Jewish settlements in all parts of the country. He pushed for development of a Jewish defense capability and pressed for the purchase of heavy armaments - artillery and aircraft - when others spoke in terms of light infantry.

In 1948, as head of the provisional government, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel and the beginning of the "ingathering of the exiles" - moves of daring and vision, "willing" events of historic magnitude to happen. In this sense, Ben-Gurion belongs to the rare breed of leaders who are "event-making men" rather than "eventful men" - as defined by philosopher and historian Sidney Hook - the former being individuals who "drive" history in the direction they chart, the latter merely "the right men at the right time." In the first five years of statehood, Ben-Gurion's forceful and charismatic leadership as Prime Minister led to waves of mass immigration which doubled the country's population. He directed absorption endeavors, investing the majority of the new nation's limited resources in integrating the immigrants; secured outlying areas by building settlements on the periphery; and instituted universal education in a non-partisan public school system. As Minister of Defense, he masterminded and carried out the tense transition from underground organizations to a regular army - molding the character as well as the structure of the IDF. Later he presided over national projects such as "Operation Magic Carpet" (the airlift of Jews from Yemen), the construction of the National Water Carrier and innovative regional development projects.

In the international arena, Ben-Gurion put his political career on the line to force approval of the highly controversial reparations agreement with West Germany. He led Israel out of the bloc of unaligned nations, adopting a pro-Western orientation. This move set the stage for a strategic alliance with France and Great Britain, which strengthened Israel in the diplomatic, economic and military spheres in the 1950s.

In 1953, drained by years of intensive public service, Ben-Gurion resigned from the government for two years. He settled in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, serving as a personal example to Israel's youth. Following the 1955 elections, he again became Prime Minister. Reassessing defense policy, he advocated a more resolute response to terrorism from across the borders and adopted a defense strategy based on close cooperation with France, which lasted for over a decade. The 1956 Sinai Campaign - although Israel eventually withdrew from Sinai under international pressure - brought a halt to sabotage and terrorist attacks on settlements in the south, and an end to the Egyptian blockade of Israeli shipping in the Red Sea.

In 1963 Ben-Gurion resigned from the government once more in protest over the moral aspects of an intelligence fiasco that took place in 1954 - bringing to an end almost three decades of leadership, including 13 years as Prime Minister of the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion made a bid to return to public life in 1965 by supporting electoral reform and the formation of a new party, Rafi, which gained only 10 seats in the Knesset elections. He remained a Member of Knesset for another five years, retiring from public life in 1970 at the age of 84. Ben-Gurion - one of the most influential figures in the course of modern Zionism - died in 1973 and was buried in Sde Boker.

 
 
 
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