David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion
דָּוִד בֶּן-גּוּרִיּוֹן
Ben Gurion 1959.jpg
1st Prime Minister of Israel
In office
3 November 1955 – 26 June 1963
PresidentYitzhak Ben-Zvi
Zalman Shazar
Preceded byMoshe Sharett
Succeeded byLevi Eshkol
In office
17 May 1948 – 26 January 1954
PresidentChaim Weizmann
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi
DeputyEliezer Kaplan
Preceded byNew office
Succeeded byMoshe Sharett
Chairman of the Provisional State Council of Israel
In office
14 May 1948 – 16 May 1948
Preceded byNew office
Succeeded byChaim Weizmann
Minister of Defense
In office
21 February 1955 – 26 June 1963
Prime MinisterMoshe Sharett
Himself
Preceded byPinhas Lavon
Succeeded byLevi Eshkol
In office
14 May 1948 – 26 January 1954
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byNew office
Succeeded byPinhas Lavon
Personal details
Born
David Grün

(1886-10-16)16 October 1886
Płońsk, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
Died1 December 1973(1973-12-01) (aged 87)
Ramat Gan, Israel
Nationality Congress Poland
 Ottoman Empire
 Mandatory Palestine
 Israel
Political partyMapai, Rafi, National List
Spouse(s)Paula Ben-Gurion
Children3
Alma materUniversity of Warsaw
Istanbul University
Signature

David Ben-Gurion (n/ GOOR-ee-ən; Hebrew: דָּוִד בֶּן-גּוּרִיּוֹן [daˈvid ben ɡuʁˈjon] (About this soundlisten); born David Grün; 16 October 1886 – 1 December 1973) was the primary national founder of the State of Israel and the first prime minister of Israel.

Ben-Gurion's passion for Zionism, which began early in life, led him to become a major Zionist leader and Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization in 1946.[1] As head of the Jewish Agency from 1935, and later president of the Jewish Agency Executive, he was the de facto leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, and largely led its struggle for an independent Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine. On 14 May 1948, he formally proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, and was the first to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which he had helped to write. Ben-Gurion led Israel during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, and united the various Jewish militias into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Subsequently, he became known as "Israel's founding father".[2]

Following the war, Ben-Gurion served as Israel's first Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. As Prime Minister, he helped build the state institutions, presiding over various national projects aimed at the development of the country. He also oversaw the absorption of vast numbers of Jews from all over the world. A centerpiece of his foreign policy was improving relationships with the West Germans. He worked very well with Konrad Adenauer's government in Bonn, and West Germany provided large sums (in the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany) in compensation for Nazi Germany's confiscation of Jewish property during the Holocaust.[3]

In 1954 he resigned as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, although he remained a member of the Knesset. However, he returned as Minister of Defense in 1955 after the Lavon Affair resulted in the resignation of Pinhas Lavon. Later in the year he became Prime Minister again, following the 1955 elections. Under his leadership, Israel responded aggressively to Arab guerrilla attacks, and in 1956, invaded Egypt along with British and French forces after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal during what became known as the Suez Crisis.

He stepped down from office in 1963, and retired from political life in 1970. He then moved to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev desert, where he lived until his death. Posthumously, Ben-Gurion was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Important People of the 20th century.

Early life

David Ben-Gurion Square—site of the no longer existing house where Ben-Gurion was born, Płońsk, Wspólna Street.
House at town square in Płońsk, Poland, where David Ben-Gurion grew up
David and Paula Ben-Gurion, 1 June 1918.

Childhood and education

David Ben-Gurion was born in Płońsk in Congress Poland – then part of the Russian Empire. His father, Avigdor Grün, was a lawyer and a leader in the Hovevei Zion movement. His mother, Scheindel (Broitman),[4] 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.[5] At the age of 14 he and two friends formed a youth club, Ezra, promoting Hebrew studies and emigration to the Holy Land.

From left: David Ben-Gurion and Paula with youngest daughter Renana on BG's lap, daughter Geula, father Avigdor Grün and son Amos, 1929

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. Ben-Gurion discussed his hometown in his memoirs, saying:

"For many of us, anti-Semitic feeling had little to do with our dedication [to Zionism]. I personally never suffered anti-Semitic persecution. Płońsk was remarkably free of it ... Nevertheless, and I think this very significant, it was Płońsk that sent the highest proportion of Jews to Eretz Israel from any town in Poland of comparable size. We emigrated not for negative reasons of escape but for the positive purpose of rebuilding a homeland ... Life in Płońsk was peaceful enough. There were three main communities: Russians, Jews and Poles. ... The number of Jews and Poles in the city were roughly equal, about five thousand each. The Jews, however, formed a compact, centralized group occupying the innermost districts whilst the Poles were more scattered, living in outlying areas and shading off into the peasantry. Consequently, when a gang of Jewish boys met a Polish gang the latter would almost inevitably represent a single suburb and thus be poorer in fighting potential than the Jews who even if their numbers were initially fewer could quickly call on reinforcements from the entire quarter. Far from being afraid of them, they were rather afraid of us. In general, however, relations were amicable, though distant."[6]

Ottoman Empire and Constantinople

In 1906 he immigrated to Ottoman Mutassarifate of Jerusalem. 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.

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.[7]

On 7 November 1911, Ben-Gurion arrived in Thessaloniki in order to learn Turkish for his law studies. The city, which had a large Jewish community, impressed Ben-Gurion, who called it "a Jewish city that has no equal in the world". He also realized there that "the Jews were capable of all types of work". Some of the city's Jews were rich businessmen and professors, while others were merchants, craftsmen and porters.[8]

In 1912, he moved to Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, to study law at Istanbul University together with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and adopted the Hebrew name Ben-Gurion, after the Jewish leading figure Yosef ben Gurion from the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans. He also worked as a journalist. Ben-Gurion saw the future as dependent on the Ottoman regime.

World War I

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. From there he made his way to the United States where he remained for three years. On his arrival he and Ben Zvi went on a tour of 35 cities in an attempt to raise a pioneer army, Hechalutz, of 10,000 men to fight on Turkey's side.[9]

After the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the situation changed dramatically and in 1918 Ben-Gurion, with the interest of Zionism in mind, switched sides and joined the newly formed Jewish Legion of the British Army. He volunteered for the 38th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, one of the four which constituted the Jewish Legion. His unit fought against the Turks as part of Chaytor's Force during the Palestine Campaign.

Ben-Gurion and his family returned permanently to Palestine after World War I following its conquest by the British from the Ottoman Empire.

Ben-Gurion in his Jewish Legion uniform, 1918

Marriage and family

Settling in New York City in 1915, he met Russian-born Paula Munweis. They were married in 1917. The couple had three children: a son, Amos, and two daughters, Geula Ben-Eliezer and Renana Leshem. Amos Ben-Gurion would become Deputy Inspector-General of the Israel Police, and also the director-general of a textile factory. He married Mary Callow, a gentile who converted to Judaism;[10][11] Joachim Prinz, a German rabbi who claimed to have converted her to Judaism, stated in 1946 that Mary was from the Isle of Man.[10] Amos and Mary Ben-Gurion had two daughters and a son, and six granddaughters. Geula had two sons and a daughter, and Renana, who worked as a microbiologist at the Israel Institute for Biological Research, had a son.[12]