Israel’s founding father
1. David Grun was born in Plonsk, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) in October 1886. His father was a lawyer and ardent Zionist. In this case, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. The son was educated in a Hebrew school and at age 14, with two friends, formed Ezra, a club intended to promote emigration to Palestine. Its members spoke only Hebrew among themselves.
2. As a student at the University of Warsaw, he joined Poalei Zion. In the 1905 uprising that shook the Tsarist regime, he was arrested. In 1906 he left for Palestine, though he insisted that it was not because life in Poland had become untenable; rather it was “for the positive purpose of rebuilding a homeland….Life in Plonsk was peaceful enough.” Following his arrival in Jaffa, he was elected to the central committee of the newly formed branch of Poalei Zion.
3. At age 20 he was involved in creating the first agricultural workers’ commune (“Kvutzah,” eventually “Kibbutz”). He was a laborer, picking oranges in Petach Tikvah, doing other agricultural work in the Galilee, withdrawing from politics. In 1908 he joined an armed group acting as watchmen at Sejera and fought a skirmish there. Then he volunteered with Hashomer, a force of volunteers being organized to guard isolated settlements.
4. In 1911 he went to Thessalonika to learn Turkish in preparation for law school. By 1912, he was studying law in Istanbul. It was then that he adopted the name David Ben-Gurion (after the medieval historian Joseph Ben Gurion).
5. At the start of World War I, he was living in Jerusalem. Believing that the future of the Jews lay with the Ottoman Empire, he joined with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (with whom he’d attended school in Istanbul, and who would later become Israel’s second president) to recruit a Jewish militia to assist the Turks. No dice: he and Ben-Tzvi were deported anyway, in March of 1915. They made their way to the United States, where they tried to raise funds for an army to fight for Turkey. He married in New York in 1917; and that same year following the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, he changed his thinking about what was best for the Jews. In 1918 he returned to Palestine as a member of the Jewish Legion to fight with the British against the Ottomans.
6. Following the war, and through the 1920s, Ben-Gurion increasingly took leadership of labor politics. Amid opposing ideas and factions, he was a founder of Histradut, which became a central force in the economic and social affairs of the Jews under the British Mandate. Its role, as he saw it, was to build a Jewish economy under the leadership of a Jewish working class. Labor Zionism became dominant in the World Zionist Organization, and by 1935 he was chairman of the Zionist Executive, the movement’s highest directing body, and head of the Jewish Agency, its executive branch. As such, he led the struggle for an independent Jewish state. He was an early supporter of the partition of Palestine, having tried in the 1920s to make peace with the Arabs, and failed. Initially a proponent of restraint with regard to using violence, he called for a “fighting Zionism” when Britain took a pro-Arab stance on the even of World War II.
7. He believed the Negev offered an opportunity for Jews to settle unimpeded and settled in a kibbutz there called Sde Boker. He also resided in Tel Aviv in what is now called Ben-Gurion House. It was in Tel Aviv in May 1948 that he declared the new State of Israel, a nation that, he said, would “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race.” Had he ever doubted this time would come? In 1946, he’d met and become friends in Paris with Ho Chih Minh. The latter offered a Jewish home-in-exile in Vietnam. Ben-Gurion turned it down, certain that a government would be established in Palestine. So it’s fitting that he was the first to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which he’d helped write, and that he became the first Prime Minister.
8. He knew war would immediately come, and when it did he looked upon it as a means to conquer – and therefore confirm ownership of – the land. To do so, he consolidated the army, uniting the various Jewish militias – by force, when necessary – into the IDF, the Israel Defense Force.
9. As the first Prime Minister, he built state institutions and oversaw development of the country, including the absorption of great numbers of diaspora Jews. Among the national projects he presided over: “Operation Magic Carpet,” the airlift of Jews from Arab countries; construction of new towns and cities, settlements in the Negev, and construction of the national water carrier; creation of a unified school system. One controversy (there were many, but this one stood out) surrounded his working with West Germany to secure compensation for Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. Reparations in the amount of $715 million were paid.
10. Ben-Gurion continued in office as Prime Minister and then Minister of Defense and then Prime Minister again, until 1963, when he stepped down from office. In 1970, he retired from political life entirely. His years in office were marked by remarkable events (Suez Canal campaign, capture of Eichmann, establishment of a secret nuclear facility, to name a few), and always by intense political conflict. Even today, historians argue about his actions toward the Arabs, whether or not he was involved in a policy of forced expulsion.
11. What cannot be denied is the extraordinary way in which he combined a vision of Jewish unity with pragmatic politics and military tactics – plus a great sense of humor. Charismatic and controversial, he remains one of history’s great characters. Time Magazine named him one of the hundred most important people of the twentieth century. Consider this summary just a start: a dozen things can’t begin to scratch the surface of Ben-Gurion’s life and contributions. He wrote memoirs and published his collected speeches and essays. Start there. Then there are the biographies of him, the histories….
“Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.”
“If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.”
12. David Ben-Gurion died of cerebral hemorrhage in December 1973. He is buried alongside his wife, Paula, at Midreshet Ben-Gurion, a research center in the Negev.
In Tel Aviv, Sederot David Ben-Gurion runs toward the sea from the northwest corner of Rabin Square. In Haifa, it runs from the Bahai Gardens down toward the port.
The largest airport in Israel is named in his honor, as is the university in Beersheva. His home in Sde Boker is now a visitor’s center, the one in Tel Aviv a museum.