David Ben-Gurion

Summary

David Ben Gurion (b. 16 October 1886, Płońsk, Russian Empire – d. 1 December 1973, Ramat Gan, Israel) was an Israeli social democratic politician and statesman, a Jew originally from Poland, one of the main leaders and ideologues of the Zionist movement for self-determination of the Jewish people and founder of the State of Israel. He was Israel”s first Prime Minister. He presided over the Israeli government in two periods: 14 May 1948 – 26 January 1954 and 3 November 1955 – 26 June 1963. He was also Israel”s first Defence Minister and one of the leaders of the social-democratic Zionist Labour Movement.

Ben Gurion was at the forefront of the political and military struggle to create a modern Jewish state in Palestine, even at the cost of partitioning the country, and it was he who proclaimed the founding of Israel on 14 May 1948.

He was a leader of the Zionist movement and chairman of the Jewish Agency leadership in Jerusalem, and then led Israel in its early years. He vigorously defended the authority of the created state and nipped in the bud attempts by the right and left to preserve alternative military entities to the single national army (the Altalena case, Palmach). This vision led him to decide on the eve of Israel”s War of Independence to disband the Jewish paramilitary defence forces Haganah (including Palmah), Irgun (Etzel) and Lehi (Stern Group) and establish the Israeli army (Tzahal).

During his rule Israel successfully dealt with the onslaught of Arab states in the region in 1948-1949 and integrated large numbers of Jewish immigrants from around the globe.In the 1950s Ben Gurion promoted a policy of improving relations with West Germany, agreeing with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on substantial financial aid to Israel as compensation for Nazi Germany”s crimes against the Jewish people during the Holocaust (Shoah).

During Ben Gurion”s tenure as Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Israel retaliated to Palestinian Arab guerrilla and terrorist attacks on the territory of Jordan (West Bank) and the Gaza Strip against Israel”s civilian population, as well as involving Israel in alliance with France and Britain in the military conflict generated by the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Ben Gurion was also one of the founders of the trade union confederation Histadrut and its first general secretary and one of the leaders of the Jewish population in Palestine under the British Mandate. He was the leader of the Mapai Party and after retiring from that party and resigning as Prime Minister in 1963, he founded the opposition Rafi party. He retired from political life in 1970. He then retired a second time to the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev desert, where he lived out the last years of his life. Since his first retreat to Sde Boker in 1953, Ben Gurion has called for the development and settlement of the Negev, which he saw as a goal of great significance for the future of the country.

Childhood and youth

David Ben Gurion was born in 1886 as David Josef Grün in the small Polish town of Płońsk (Płock governorate), 60 km from Warsaw, then in Congress Poland, part of the Russian Empire, into a Jewish family. In 1881 Płońsk had 7,800 inhabitants, of whom 4,500 were Jews. David was the sixth child of Viktor or Avigdor Grün and Sheindl, née Fridman. The family had a total of 11 children, but only five survived, David being the fourth of these. Avigdor Grün was the son of a family of “mitnagdim”, the traditional Jewish movement that opposed the Hasidic movement that had become prevalent among Jews in the area. He worked as a teacher and merchant, and later became a licensed editor of complaints and represented individuals in court. Sheindl Grün was the daughter of a farmer. David studied at the Heder or Talmud Torah, the traditional Jewish school, then at the so-called “Heder metukan” (Heder with modernized school curriculum) that his father, who was a member of the pre-Zionist movement “Hovevey Tzion” (Friends of Zion), founded in Płońsk. At the age of 11 David was orphaned after his mother died of a complication during childbirth. In 1900, although he was only 14, at his father”s urging, David Grün, together with two friends, Shlomo Tzemah and Shlomo Lewkovicz Lavi, founded an association of young Jews called “Ezra” which aimed to prepare its members for emigration (“Aliya” – “ascent”) to Palestine or the Land of Israel and to revive the current use of the ancestral Hebrew language. The members of the association took the obligation to speak only Hebrew among themselves and promoted the learning of this language by the young people of the village. From his childhood Ben Gurion was won over by three boundless passions: that for Jewish Bible books, for the Hebrew language and for the Land of Israel.

In 1904 David Grün moved to Warsaw, where he earned his living by teaching and joined Zionist circles. He tried to study engineering at the Imperial University in Warsaw, but failed the entrance exam. For a year he was a member of the Zionist and socialist Jewish Poaley Tzion (Workers of Zion) party, which was fiercely opposed to the autonomist and Yiddish ideology of the Bund, and was involved in organising Jewish self-defence groups against pogroms. At the time of the 1905 Revolution the young David Grun was also arrested twice by the Tsarist authorities.

Departure to Palestine and his life in the Ottoman Empire

In 1906, at the age of 20, he decided to give up his studies for the time being and go to Palestine, which was then under Turkish rule. He later confessed that the day of his arrival in Palestine (landing in Jaffa on 6 September 1906) was the greatest day of his life, the second most significant being the liberation of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the Six Day War.

In his early years in Palestine, he worked in agricultural work in the moshava settlement of Petah Tikva, where he also became ill with malaria, in Sejera (now Ilaniya), where he was also a guard in the Hashomer guard association, then in Menahemiya, Zihron Yaakov, Kfar Saba and in the Kineret farm (havat). From Petah Tikva to Sejera in Galilee he walked, accompanied by Shlomo Tzemah, for three days. According to the calculations of his biographer, Shavtai Tevet, he would have stayed there for about a year and three months, but according to him – three years. He worked as a guard, but was not part of the Bar Giora and Hashomer guard organizations. On 12 April 1909, after an Arab from Kafr Kanna was killed in a robbery attempt, Ben Gurion took part in a clash in which a guard and a farmer from Sejera were killed

For a while he returned to Plonsk to report to the Russian army recruitment centre to save his father from paying a fine if he didn”t. He did three months of training, eventually, however, failing to get a medical exemption for a sight problem, he deserted and returned to Palestine. At the Poalei Tzion party congress in 1910 he was appointed editor of its Ahdut newsletter. He signed his first article with his new Hebrew name, Ben Gurion, which recalled that of Yosef Ben Gurion, one of the leaders of the free administration in Jerusalem during the years of the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans in the 1st century A.D. He then visited his family again in Poland, passing through Vienna, where the World Congress of the Brit Poalei Tzion was held. Back in Palestine, he also worked in the cooperative settlements of Menahemia, Kfar Saba and the Kineret farm.

With the idea of organizing a political force to represent the Jews of the Ottoman Empire in the Istanbul parliament, Ben Gurion decided to study law in Istanbul. To do this he needed a high school diploma and knowledge of Turkish. After his friend Itzhak Ben Tzvi procured him a false baccalaureate diploma, Ben Gurion left in early November 1911 to study Turkish in Thessaloniki, a city with a large Jewish population among whom the Poalei Tzion movement hoped to awaken Zionist consciousness. He lived there with a traditionalist family and after successfully passing the Turkish baccalaureate exam, he moved to Istanbul in October 1912 and began his law studies there. He only got to study for a month, because with the outbreak of the First Balkan War he decided to return to Palestine until the situation was clarified. At his request, his father sent him a grant to cover his debts in Palestine, as well as his rent in Thessaloniki and tuition and other expenses in Istanbul. At the beginning of March 1913 Ben Gurion returned to Istanbul, where he shared a studio apartment with Itzhak Ben Tzvi.At the end of April the two resumed their studies. In the course of the year he went once to Vienna to attend the World Conference of the “Poalei Tzion” and the Congress of the Zionist Organization.In December 1913 the academic year reopened. In January 1914 Ben GUrion fell ill with malaria, was admitted to hospital, then stayed for convalescence in his sister”s house in Łódź. At the end of April 1914 he returned to Istanbul for his exams. In the summer he and Ben Tzvi went on holiday to Palestine aboard a Russian ship. They were by this time dressed in modern Ottoman fashion, with red caps, and had grown moustaches. During the trip they learned of the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany. Because of the circumstances they never resumed their studies in Turkey.

World War I

After the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914, the citizens of the enemy states (members of the Entente), including Russia, were forced either to “Ottomanize” or to leave Ottoman Palestine. After a preliminary reflection among the Jewish immigrant public, Poalei Tzion”s party decided to adopt the Ottoman identity and remain in the country. Fearing a serious Turkish reaction to the Jewish population in the region and the loss of their gained position in Palestine, Ben Gurion and Ben Tzvi opted for the choice of Ottoman citizenship. However, after the suspension of mass expulsions of foreign citizens following the intervention of foreign diplomats, the Ottoman military governor Djamal Pasha decided to expel all those involved in Zionist activities from Palestine. Because their names were on the list of delegates to the Zionist Congress, both Ben Gurion and Ben Tzvi were ordered expelled “for life”. When he told Yehiya efendi, an Arab colleague with whom he had studied in Istanbul, about the order he had received, he said: “As a friend – I am sorry, as an Arab – I am glad”. It was the first time Ben Gurion had encountered a manifestation of Arab nationalism. At the end of March 1915 Ben Gurion and Ben Tzvi were taken aboard a ship, without documents, to Alexandria in Egypt. There they were arrested by the British as citizens of an enemy power, eventually released at the intervention of the American consul, and after a few weeks boarded a ship to New York. They arrived in New York on 17 May 1915, where they were allowed to disembark as immigrants.

His first stop in the United States was the office of the Poalei Tzion movement. Even before leaving Palestine, the Poalei Tzion leadership meeting decided that its members would establish the Hehalutz agricultural pioneer movement in the United States and would recruit young Jews willing to go to Palestine and work there. Party activists in New York organized visits to Jewish communities throughout the United States by Ben Gurion and Ben Tzvi, but ultimately failed to recruit more than 150 volunteers. Ben Gurion”s name, hitherto completely unknown in the United States, began to reach the ears of the American Jewish public after the reprinting in Yiddish of his book Izkor (Requiem) (1916) (which had been published in 1911 in Hebrew in Palestine) which included literary fragments and evocations of the murdered Hashomer guards, as well as Ben Gurion”s memoirs from the period of the second wave of emigration. After some time Ben Gurion republished this book in an enlarged version in the form of an album: in place of Yitzhak Ben Tzvi”s preface he wrote an enlarged version of his memoirs “In Judea and Galilee” Following the success of the book, the leadership of the Poalei Tzion movement granted him and Ben Tzvi a monthly salary for the publication of a new book, “The Land of Israel” (Eretz Israel), two-thirds of which was written by Ben Gurion. During the time Ben Gurion was writing this book, he spent many days in the 42nd Street Municipal Library in New York. The meeting place of Poalei Tzion activists in New York was the home of a Jewish doctor, where Paulina or Paula Munweiss, a young Jewish girl (born in Minsk in 1904), one of eight children of a small haberdasher, lived and worked, who had gone to America alone at the age of 17 and was learning to be a nurse. Pola, as Ben Gurion called her, already had a good command of English and asked him in the summer of 1916 to copy for her in the library some excerpts from books she needed to study. Ben Gurion courted her for a year and on 5 December 1917 the two were married in a civil ceremony at New York City Hall, attended only by city officials.

In 1917, following the Balfour Declaration and the conquest of Palestine by British forces, Ben Gurion was among those who campaigned for enlistment in the Jewish Detachments (Gdudim ivriyim) and was also among the first volunteers in their ranks. In April 1918 he enlisted in His Majesty”s 39th Rifle Detachment of the British Army. The detachment was organized in Canada, then went to England, and from there to Egypt. There, however, Ben Gurion fell ill with dysentery and was admitted to hospital in Cairo. This ended his military service. A telegram from Paula was waiting for him in Cairo, informing him of the birth of their daughter on 11 September 1918. The child was given the name Gheula (Salvation), as Ben Gurion had requested in the will he left before leaving for England and Egypt. After three years” absence Ben Gurion returned to Palestine. In 1919 he founded there, together with Berl Katznelson, the Ahdut Haavodá (Labour Union) party, which was formed by uniting the Poalei Tzion party with an organisation of “non-partisan” Zionists.

In November 1919, Paula and Gheula also arrived in Palestine. Ben Gurion was sent to London to set up the World Union of Pole Tzion office there and to cultivate relations with the British Labour Party. His wife and child joined him. In London in August 1920 his son Amos was also born. After the end of the World War and the Soviet-Polish War, communications with Plonsk were renewed, Ben Gurion, Pola and the children visited the Gryns in Poland. Then Ben Gurion went to new conferences and meetings and left his wife and children in Plonsk for more than a year. In 1921 after the American section of the Poalei Tzion stopped funding what was considered an inefficient office in London, Ben Gurion returned to Palestine.

In Jewish leadership in Palestine

In the early 1920s Ben Gurion became one of the prominent leaders of the ishuv – the Jewish community in Palestine. In 1920 he was one of the founders of the Histadrut – the General Organization of Jewish Workers in the Land of Israel, the main trade union movement in the country, and became its general secretary for 15 successive years. He saw the Histadrut not only as a professional organization, designed to defend the rights of the working people, but also as a social and economic instrument to lay the foundations of an independent workers” economy. The Histadrut also had, in Ben Gurion”s view, a political role – that of directing the enlargement of the Jewish settlement and laying the foundations of the future Jewish state.

In 1923 Histadrutul received an invitation to present his achievements at the Moscow Agricultural Exhibition in the newly proclaimed Soviet Union. Ben Gurion and his comrade Meir Rothberg, as delegates of the Histadrut, sailed to Odessa and from there crossed Ukraine to reach Moscow. On the way they were shown places where pogroms against Jews had taken place in Ukraine. In Moscow, the Palestinian flag of the Histadrut, on which the Zionist flag was hoisted, enjoyed great success. During his visit, Ben Gurion saw the Hebrew-language performance of An-sky”s play Dibuk at the Habima Jewish Theatre, established in the capital of Soviet Russia, which left a deep impression on him. He stayed there for three months, and on his return to Palestine he secretly brought with him the collection of letters of the Jewish writer Yosef Haim Brenner, who had been murdered in his home in 1920 along with other Jews by militant Arab nationalists.

The Arab violence of 1929 led to a change in Ben Gurion”s views towards the Arabs of Palestine. Whereas in 1924 he had declared that there was no Arab national movement there, in October 1929 he stated that:

“The controversy surrounding the existence or non-existence of an Arab national movement is superfluous… This movement concentrates masses of people…We do not see in it a renaissance movement and its moral values are questionable. But politically, it is a national movement.”

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Ben Gurion acted at that time in the direction of uniting the workers” parties. In 1930 his efforts were successful. The Ahdut Haavoda and Hapoel Hatzair (Young Workers) parties united to form the Mapai party (short for Mifleget Hapoalim miEretz Israel – the Workers” Party of Eretz Israel or Palestine). Ben Gurion was elected leader of the new party. Together with its equivalents abroad, the Mapai Party became the largest party in the World Zionist Organization. In the early 1930s, Ben Gurion built a house in a working-class neighborhood of Tel Aviv, near the sea, now Ben Gurion Avenue (formerly KaKaL Avenue). The two-story house was the largest in the neighborhood, and it buried Ben Gurion in debt, which reached 1000 Palestinian pounds.In September 1930 Ben Gurion visited Berlin at the time of the elections for the Fifth Reichstag, days when the number of voters for the far-right National Socialist German Workers” Party NSDAP- as the Nazi party was called- increased tenfold. The day after the election, in a letter to Heshel Frumkin, Ben Gurion compared the Nazis to his rivals, the revisionist Zionists, and the texts he read in the Nazi Party newsletter to those of the revisionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky in the newspaper Just Hayom (Post of the Day) . After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, at a gathering at the People”s House (Beit Haam) in Tel Aviv on 18 February 1933, Ben Gurion nicknamed Jabotinsky “Vladimir Hitler”. In April 1933 Ben Gurion went to Poland to recruit voters for Mapai in the Zionist Congress elections. He recruited young activists from the Hehalutz movement and other youth movements and sent them all over Poland to sell “shkalim” – which conferred the right to vote in the Zionist Congress. He himself spoke to packed halls in many Polish cities, including Galicia, as well as in the Baltic States. During the election campaign Haim Arlosoroff, also a Zionist Social Democratic leader and head of the political section of the Jewish Agency, was assassinated in Tel Aviv. Ben Gurion was elected to the post vacated by Arlosoroff. He served in this post in parallel with the post of Secretary General of the Histadrut until 1935. After reading Hitler”s book Mein Kampf, and less than a year after the Nazis” rise to power in Germany, Ben Gurion described to the second session of the 4th Histadrut conference in 1934 the prospects for the future as he saw them:

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In October 1934 Ben Gurion had several meetings in London with Zeev Jabotinsky, the leader of the Zionist Revisionists, and at the end they signed an agreement. The agreement with Jabotinski enjoyed the support of the majority in the Mapai centre, but in order to prevent a split in the Zionist socialist movement, Ben Gurion had to put the agreement to a plebiscite among the members of the Histadrut, and it was rejected by a clear majority of votes.

At the head of the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Executive

In 1935 Ben Gurion was elected, on behalf of the Mapai Party, chairman of the Jewish Agency, which represented the central body of Jewish leadership in Palestine, and chairman of the Executive Committee of the World Zionist Organization. In front of the 19th Zionist Congress he decided to take it to heart and speak in Yiddish, in order to convey the vision of bringing the Zionist program to life to all the delegates, most of whom did not understand Hebrew. His use of Yiddish was for him an impediment and a violation of ideology. He confessed to his colleague, Eliezer Kaplan:When I finished, I was all sweat up to my collar.

With the outbreak of the great Arab uprising in Palestine in 1936, Ben Gurion was among the initiators of the “policy of restraint”, i.e. restraint in reacting to violent acts of the Arabs, well-considered action and avoidance of striking innocent people.

In his testimony before the Peel Commission sent by the British government to investigate the causes of the Arab uprising, Ben Gurion made the claim:

“The mandate is not our Bible, but the Bible is our mandate”

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In 1937, together with Haim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok (Sharet) Ben Gurion accepted the recommendation of the Peel Commission to divide Palestine west of the Jordan between Jews and Arabs. But he understood that an enthusiasm among the Jews would attract fierce Arab resistance, and therefore the Jewish side had to play the “fussy bride”, whom you had to work hard to persuade to consent. In February 1937 Ben GUrion submitted to the Mapai centre a plan for its division, accompanied by a detailed map. It was the first time that a plan for the division of Mandatory Palestine had been discussed.To Golda Meyerson”s question about the need to consider the future growth of the Jewish population, Ben Gurion replied:The future generations will take care of themselves, we must take care of this generation.

The British government”s White Paper, the Second World War and the Biltmore programme

After the failure of the partition of Palestine into two states, in 1939 the British Mandate authorities published the White Paper limiting Jewish immigration quotas to Palestine and the purchase of land by Jews. Ben Gurion called for a silent struggle against the British, which included organising clandestine immigration and establishing Jewish settlements even in places forbidden by British law.

When the Second World War broke out Ben Gurion supported the enlistment of Palestinian Jewish volunteers in the British army in its military efforts against Nazi Germany, without, however, abandoning his opposition to White Paper policy. On 12 September 1939 Ben Gurion told the Mapai Centre plenary:

“We must help the English in the war as if there were no White Paper, and we must oppose the White Paper as if there were no war”

Anti-British actions by Jews in Palestine ceased and their enlistment in the Jewish Brigade and other units of the British Army began.

In May 1940 Ben Gurion visited Italy, which had not yet entered the war, and Paris on his way to London. While he was in England, Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and a new cabinet was formed in London under Winston Churchill. German bombing raids on England began, but Ben Gurion refused to go down into the dugouts.In early October 1940 he arrived in New York. His trip to the United States took on the significance of changing the perception of Ben Gurion”s place from that of leader of the Jews of Palestine to that of leader of the Zionist movement in the world and, by virtue of the circumstances, also spokesman for the great masses of the Jewish people. In America he came to the conclusion that in order to have the necessary influence in the ruling circles of the United States he had to win American public opinion to his side. Only when the Zionist movement enjoyed the support of the press, members of Congress, churches, union leaders and intellectuals, could it also win the support of the administration. After a three-month stay in the US. Ben Gurion returned to Palestine, then in August 1941 he returned again to London. In November of that year he left again for New York. This time he stayed there for over ten months. After the publication of the White Paper and as events in the war unfolded, his conviction in adopting a United States rather than a British-centred orientation was strengthened. In 1942 Ben Gurion advocated the so-called Biltmore Programme which signalled the struggle for the establishment of a Jewish state, despite significant opposition within the Zionist movement and even within his own party because of its territorial significance.Following the Biltmore Conference where Ben Gurion presented the Biltmore Programme, there was a rift between him and Haim Weizmann, then chairman of the Zionist Organisation. On the eve of Weizmann”s meeting with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Ben Gurion drafted a memorandum on Palestine”s future ability to integrate new immigrants after the war, to be presented to the American president. On 19 September 1942 he flew back to Palestine. On the way he made a stopover in India and South Africa, colonies where he witnessed manifestations of racism by the British colonial administration. On 2 October he arrived in Cairo and a few days later received news that Zionist leaders had approved the Biltmore programme. On 10 November the programme was also adopted by the Zionist Executive Committee.

On July 1, 1945, he convened a meeting in New York at the home of Rudolf Sonneborn, attended by 17 wealthy Jewish businessmen from throughout the United States, who were asked to establish a special fund to purchase surplus American military equipment for the purpose of creating a military industry in the Jewish-populated areas of Palestine. The codename of the fund was the Sonneborn Institute, and Ben Gurion would later see its creation as one of the three great feats of his life, alongside his emigration to Palestine and the proclamation of the State of Israel. He later returned to Europe aboard the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth. In October 1945 Ben Gurion was the first Jewish leader to visit Jewish refugee camps in Germany occupied by the Western Allies. At the first refugee camp, Zeilsheim, he arrived in the car of the chief rabbi of the American occupation army and was greeted with joy. When he began to speak in Yiddish to the survivors, his voice choked and there were tears in his eyes. The enthusiastic reception was repeated in the other camps he visited. Among others, he visited the former concentration camps at Dachau and Bergen Belsen, where he also met a cousin from Lodz who survived. He learned that his brother”s niece had been burned alive by the Nazis.In November 1945 he returned to Palestine. At that time he had to spend a long time abroad. In 1945 he was out of the country for 249 days and in 1946 for 310 days.In January 1946, when he learned that an Anglo-American commission was to inspect the Jewish refugee camps in Germany, he went there too, to see that the refugees were properly guided by their leaders. During its visit, the commission found that the vast majority of refugees were asking to emigrate to Palestine, and it therefore recommended issuing 100,000 emigration certificates Both during the war and the Holocaust and afterwards, the British government opposed the settlement and emigration of Jews to Palestine, ignoring the desperate situation of Jews in Nazi-controlled territories. After the victory over Germany the leadership of the Ishuv intensified its struggle against the British, and at the end of October 1945 the Jewish Revolt Movement (Tnuat Hameri haivri) was formed, in which the three resistance movements joined forces: Hagana, including Palmach, also Etzel or Irgun, led by Menahem Beghin, and Lehi, led by Itzhak Shamir. At the same time, political activity for the establishment of the Jewish state continued.In a British police operation on 29 June 1946, members of the Zionist leadership who were in the country were arrested on the so-called “Black Saturday”. Ben Gurion managed to escape arrest because he was in Paris at the time, where he met Ho Si Min, the leader of the anti-French resistance in Vietnam, who suggested he set up a government in exile. But Ben Gurion preferred a government that would enjoy international recognition.In August 1946, at his urging, the Zionist leadership meeting in Paris allocated $3 million to buy heavy armaments. Following the Etzel bombing, which destroyed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and caused numerous casualties, Ben Gurion dissolved the alliance called the Revolt Movement and since then the underground Etzel and Lehi organisations have resumed full autonomy. In the run-up to the Zionist Congress in Basel in December 1946, the Zionist leadership found itself divided between the more moderate camp led by Haim Weizmann, who was in favour of ending violent action against the hostile British administration in Palestine, and the ”activist” camp led by Ben Gurion, who supported continued resistance. The two sides agreed, however, to stop the hostile acts until the congress. In October 1946 Ben Gurion visited the Jewish refugee camps in Germany for the third time. At the conclusion of the Zionist Congress, Ben Gurion announced at the Zionist Executive meeting that he was taking over the defence portfolio in the leadership of the Jewish Agency. He energetically resumed his efforts to acquire weapons and make the necessary logistical preparations to transform the Hagana organization into an army that could face not only the irregular forces of the Palestinian Arabs, but also a possible invasion by the armies of Arab countries. He explained to Hagana militants who wanted to resume actions against the British by violent means, that they should refrain from doing so in order not to give the British pretexts to destroy the defence capacity of the Jews in the country before the military confrontation with the Arab military forces.

Compromise:UN plan to partition Palestine adopted

In January 1947 Ben Gurion was received by British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, the first time since the Labour Party came to power in the U.K. By then Bevin had refused to meet him and characterized Ben Gurion as an “extremist fanatic”. Talks between the Zionist leadership and senior British Foreign Office officials ended in a stalemate and in early January the British cabinet announced that it was transferring the question of Palestine”s future to UN bodies.In May-July 1947 Ben Gurion initiated a series of conferences and studies later known as the ”Ben Gurion Seminar” (one of three such seminars held at the time in the defence field). During those months Ben Gurion surveyed materials written in the aftermath of World War II and met with veterans of the war and commanders of Palmah and Haganah. During the seminar he came to the conclusion that the Jewish population of Palestine and its settlements and institutions could not be defended by partisan means of warfare, and moved on to plan the creation of a regular army immediately after the proclamation of the Jewish state. The seminar has had a decisive influence on the development of Israel”s national military concept to this day.

In September 1947 Ben Gurion wrote the so-called “status quo” letter to the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Agudat Israel. In this letter he promised that in the future Jewish state Saturday would be established as an official day of rest, that civil marriage would not be introduced (although he himself had been married in such a marriage) and assured them that the different streams of religious education would enjoy autonomy. He did this in order to secure the support of the entire Jewish public in Palestine for the creation of the state, and by this letter he sealed the characteristics of the future state of Israel in matters of relations between the state and religious denominations for many decades to come.

Ben Gurion led the official Jewish institutions in Palestine in efforts to adopt the plan for the partition of Palestine into two states – Jewish and Arab, as recommended by the UN commission and approved by the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947. He succeeded in getting the Palestinian Jewish leadership to approve the partition plan despite fierce resistance until the last moment from many political circles on the right, the left and even within his own party, Mapai. On 12 April 1948, as a preparatory step to the proclamation of the Jewish state, the Executive Committee of the Zionist Organisation elected a forum called the People”s Directorate – Minhelet Ha”am, headed by Ben Gurion. This Directorate was to direct the affairs of the Jewish population in Palestine and the war of defense.

Proclamation of the State of Israel and his first years as Prime Minister 1948-1953

On the day set for the end of the British Mandate over Palestine, 14 May 1948, according to the Jewish calendar on the 5th of Yiar 5708, Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence (Meggilát Haatzmaút), the final version of which he drafted, during a ceremony proclaiming the Jewish state held in Tel Aviv, and was the first signatory. The new state was named Israel. Ben Gurion was appointed Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in the provisional government of the Jewish State, and after the first general elections to the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – on 25 January 1949, he continued to hold these positions. Ben Gurion served them for a total of 13 years, (being surpassed in the number of years at the head of the government only by Binyamin Netanyahu after 2018) This period was in addition to the previous 13 years in which he headed the Jewish Agency, which had functioned before 1948 as a kind of “government of the state in formation”

The military confrontation with Palestinian Arab neighbours and their irregular units had already taken on worrying proportions after the UN General Assembly resolution to partition Palestine, which was rejected by the Arab world, including the Palestinian side.As soon as the British Mandate ended and Israel was proclaimed, five Arab states – Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq – sent military forces into Palestinian territory that advanced towards Jewish-populated territories. On 26 May 1948 Ben Gurion ordered the creation of the Israel Defense Army – Tzahal. As Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, he coordinated military operations throughout Israel”s War of Independence until victory and the armistice agreements were signed in 1949. As the official head of the new state of Israel, the chairman of the Provisional State Council, Haim Weizmann, returned to the country only a few months after the proclamation of the state, it was Ben Gurion who received the first diplomatic representatives to arrive in Israel and present their letters of accreditation to him, first and foremost the United States” legate, James McDonald, and the Soviet Union”s legate, Pavel Erssov.

Ben Gurion saw the establishment of the Israeli army as the most significant achievement of the early period of the State of Israel.The army had in his vision not only defence objectives but also a social and civic vocation in times of crisis.It was to be a crucible for the integration of the younger generation from different communities and social backgrounds.The army was given missions to strengthen the educational system and to populate the border areas and those with smaller Jewish populations. In this context of building a single national army, he took two controversial decisions:1

During his first term as Prime Minister from May 14, 1948 to January 26, 1954, due to large waves of immigration, the number of Jewish inhabitants of Israel doubled from 650,000 to 1,370,000. Although at times in favour of immigration screening, Ben Gurion was generally strongly opposed to those members of the Israeli leadership who believed that limits and reductions should be imposed on Jewish immigration because of the difficulties in integrating them. Ben Gurion attached great importance to encouraging Jewish immigration and increasing the population of the State of Israel. He also insisted on encouraging birth rates. The birth prize of 100 Israeli pounds awarded to mothers who gave birth to ten surviving children was a symbolic tribute to these mothers.

In order to finance the integration of the immigrants Ben Gurion pushed for the signing of the compensation agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany, which agreed to compensate the State of Israel for the expenses incurred in the integration of the Jewish immigrants and for the suffering and damage caused by Nazi Germany to the Jewish people during the Holocaust (Shoah). The agreement with Germany met with great public opposition from both the right-wing camp and the Zionist General Party, as well as from the left-wing parties Mapam and the Communist Party (Maki). The fiercest fighter against the agreement was the leader of the Herut movement, Menahem Beghin, who on 8 May 1952 led a large violent demonstration against Ben Gurion in Jerusalem”s Zion Square in front of the then Knesset building. The next day, Ben Gurion addressed the people on the radio, claiming that “men of the fist and of political assassination”, “a savage mob” and “bands of turbulent elements” “have begun to destroy democracy in Israel”.

Ben Gurion based the sovereignty of the newly established state on the principle of etatism. To achieve this he transferred the centres of power from parties and sectoral factors to government institutions. He aspired to unite the people around a common culture according to the concept of the “melting pot”. To this end he took two significant decisions at the very beginning of his work as Prime Minister: the decision to make the Israeli army a “people”s army” and the decision to abolish the education system based on different “currents” and to unify the general education system under the banner of the state education law.

In creating the coalition government Ben Gurion started from the principle of “No Herut and Communists” and used to emphasize ignoring the leader of the right-wing opposition, Menahem Beghin, by using the phrase “MP to the right of MP Yohanan Bader” (later before he died, as private, Until he first withdrew from the leadership of the government, settling in the Sdè Boker kibbutz, except for the provisional government, he made a point of not co-opting the Mapam party, which unreservedly supported the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regime, into his government. Ben Gurion was also the father of the development of Israel”s nuclear energy programme. As early as the War of Independence he met an Israeli engineer, who had emigrated to France and was one of the founders of the French nuclear programme, and received from him information on the resources needed to set up a nuclear reactor and put it into operation. On 13 June 1952 he decided to implement his plan and set up the Nuclear Energy Commission under the leadership of Professor Ernst David Bergmann. In 1958 he began the establishment of the nuclear research centre at Nahal Sorek, and in 1959 he began the establishment of the nuclear research centre in the Negev.

In 1953, Israel was faced with an increase in murderous attacks by Palestinian Fedayeen on its territory from Jordan (West Bank). After several unsuccessful retaliatory actions, Ben Gurion commissioned Ariel Sharon to set up a new commando unit to respond effectively to the Fedayeen infiltrators. Ben Gurion told ShSharon: “The Fedayeen must learn to pay a heavy price for Israeli lives”. Sharon created the commando called Unit 101. In its five months of existence, this unit launched repeated raids against military targets and villages used by the Fedayeen as bases of operations. These actions of the 101st Commando have remained in Israeli history as “retaliatory operations”.In July 1953 Ben Gurion took a three-month leave of absence and Moshe Sharet replaced him. However, even before his leave ended, he participated in the decision to launch a retaliatory operation against the Arab town of Kibiye, then in Jordan, without Sharet”s knowledge. He returned to the helm of government a few days after this action, which took place on 18 October 1952.

Ben Gurion”s retreat to Sde Boker, 1953-1955

Ben Gurion was convinced that the future of the Jewish population in Israel lay in the Negev desert, which covers a large part of Israel”s small area. Imbued with this belief, he resigned on 7 December 1953 from the leadership of the government and moved his residence to a small house built for him in the Sde Boker kibbutz, which had been established a year earlier. Ben Gurion was employed in the day-to-day activities of the settlement, both in the cattle shed and at the local weather station. He and his wife became the oldest members of the young household. According to him, he settled there because he liked the place and wanted to participate in the flourishing of the desert.

And during this period he never ceased to exert a decisive influence on the leadership of the country. Personalities of the younger generation, such as Moshe Dayan, who had become a general and chief of the army”s General Staff, and Shimon Peres carried out missions with Ben Gurion”s knowledge, and without informing the new prime minister, Moshe Sharet. This was also the case for some military actions.

Return to government leadership, 1955-1963

On 21 February 1955 Ben Gurion returned to the government, first as defence minister in Moshe Sharet”s cabinet.In one of the disputes in a government meeting he first used the ironic Yiddish phrase “Um Shmum” (“Um” is Hebrew for “UN”) which was meant to express the limits to which Israel”s policy must feel bound by any action or decision taken by United Nations forums. On 3 April 1955 a vote was taken in a government meeting on a proposal by Ben Gurion to initiate reprisals in the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian occupation) against murderous anti-Israeli actions by Palestinian “Fedayeen”. His proposal was rejected by the government, although most of the ministers of his Mapai party (including Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol) supported it.On 27 April 1955, on the occasion of the military parade held in Ramat Gan Stadium on the occasion of Israel”s seventh anniversary of independence, Ben Gurion gave a speech in which he said, among other things:

“Our future depends not on what the other Gentiles (goyim) say, but on our deeds as Jews”

After the general elections of 26 July 1955 Ben Gurion also returned to the head of the government – from 30 November 1955 he was both Prime Minister and Defence Minister, while Moshe Sharet retained his post as Foreign Minister. Political and personal differences between Ben Gurion and Sharet (which were also exposed in Sharet”s victory over Ben Gurion in the previous government vote with the help of ministers from other parties) contributed to Sharet”s resignation from the government on 19 June 1956 and his replacement as foreign minister by Golda Meir.

At that time Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser rearmed itself with a large amount of modern weaponry supplied by the Soviet Union and endangered the free movement of Israeli ships through the Strait of Tiran out of the Red Sea, adopting a threatening policy towards Israel. On 10 June 1956 Ben Gurion gave his consent to Israeli-French negotiations for collaboration against NasserIn the last week of June a secret deal was concluded which included the purchase of French arms, and on 24 July the first French ship loaded with armaments arrived in Israel. On 26 July Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal On 21 October Ben Gurion went to France and attended a secret high-level meeting at Sevres near Paris with French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau and French Defence Minister Maurice Borges-Monory, with whom he discussed the planning of the joint military operation against Egypt. On 24 October Ben Gurion signed a tripartite agreement with France and the United Kingdom on this military operation against Egypt, codenamed ”Operation Muschetar”. Israel”s part of the operation – the Sinai Campaign – was given the Hebrew name Operation Kadesh (Mivtzá Kadésh). At the Sèvres meeting Ben Gurion dropped his demand for a simultaneous attack, and accepted the British plan, whereupon Israel would take on the role of aggressor: it would attack first and thus provide Britain and France with the pretext for military intervention in the “defence” of the Suez Canal. This was the only time in his life that Ben Gurion decided that Israel should start a war.

The operation began on 29 October, and on 5 November the Israeli army completed its conquest of the entire Sinai peninsula, including the islands of Tiran and Snapir. On that day, the head of the Soviet Union government, Nikolai Bulganin, sent vehement letters to France, the United Kingdom and Israel. In his letter to Ben Gurion he issued a serious threat to Israel:

“The government of Israel is playing criminally and irresponsibly with the fate of the world, with the fate of its own people. It is sowing such enmity towards Israel among the peoples of the East that it cannot fail to influence the future of Israel and calls into question the very existence of Israel as a state.”

“To ensure peace in the Middle East, the Soviet government is now taking steps to end the war and restrain the aggressors”

. In addition to these threats, the Soviet Union has spread rumours that it is recruiting “volunteers” to join the Egyptian army. On 6 November 1956 the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Moshe Dayan, read to the soldiers a letter from Ben Gurion on the occasion of the end of the war, which said:

“Yotvat (Tiran) will become part of the third kingdom of Israel again!”

. On 7 November Ben Gurion delivered a speech in the Knesset on the occasion of the victory of the Israeli army in what he called “the greatest military campaign in the history of our people” and “one of the greatest military operations in the history of mankind”. We have witnessed these days, he said, “a renewed revelation of Mount Sinai”. “Israel has not touched the territory of Egypt”, “but only and only that of the Sinai peninsula”. He also asserted Israel”s right to the island of “Yotvat”, i.e. Tiran, relying on the ancient mention of a Jewish settlement on the island in the writings of Procopius of Caesarea.Regarding pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union, he said these powers preferred to appease Nasser rather than defend respect for international law, and did so “at Israel”s expense”. He further stated, “We will not humiliate ourselves before the powers of the world”. He declared the ceasefire agreement with Egypt null and void and that “Israel will not accept under any condition the presence of a foreign force on the territory or in one of the territories it controls”.

The next day there were angry reactions to this speech, and the UN General Assembly adopted by an absolute majority a resolution calling on Israel to withdraw unconditionally.On 8 November 1956 Ben Gurion received a particularly harsh message from US President Dwight Eisenhower demanding Israel”s withdrawal from Egyptian territory. The letter was accompanied by an unwritten message from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, threatening that if Israel refused to withdraw, the United States would stop giving Israel any financial, governmental or private assistance and the UN would launch sanctions against Israel. On the same day there were numerous news reports of Soviet military intervention. They sowed general panic among the Israeli leadership and impressed Ben Gurion. Fearing a Soviet attack, Ben Gurion decided to accept the withdrawal and wrote two letters of reply to the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. To Bulganin he wrote

“Our foreign policy is dictated by our vital needs and our desire for peace and no foreign factor determines it and will not determine it”

.

President Eisenhower wrote instead that he was willing to accept the withdrawal request. He read the two messages back to the radio stations

On 12 November 1956 Ben Gurion flew a two-day inspection to the Sinai. He landed at Sharm a-Sheikh and on the second day inspected the Gaza Strip. He tried to delay the withdrawal with the aim of annexing the Strait of Tiran and replacing Israeli troops not with Egyptian troops but with an international force. He chose the tactic of delay, hoping that as time passed, the danger of a Soviet attack would diminish, and the world would adopt a more balanced position towards Israel. In the meantime, Israel would be able to explain its position to the United States and American public opinion. Procrastination would turn withdrawal into a bargaining chip in negotiations to achieve political goals. Ben Gurion hoped that after the evacuation of part of Sinai, international pressure would subside and the world would come to terms with the continuing Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip and the Strait of Tiran. Only the pressure on Israel did not ease. On 15 January 1957 Ben Gurion received another threatening message from Bulganin. The UN General Assembly called on Israel to withdraw, threatening economic sanctions. The withdrawal from Sinai was carried out in several stages, but Ben Gurion approved Dayan”s request to establish agro-military settlements (NAHAL) at Sharm a-Sheikh – Nahal Tarshish and at Rafiah (Nahal-Rafiah) approved Dayan”s initiative in connection with Tiran and Sharm a-Sheikh, (but rejected plans he found questionable such as colonisation in North Sinai and the Gaza Strip) and extended Israeli law over the Gaza Strip. Ben Gurion refused to withdraw from these places unconditionally, and asked Levi Eshkol and Moshe Dayan to make preparations in case of sanctions. On February 3, 1957 he received a new letter from Eisenhower , with a threatening message, but rejected the request for withdrawal. Israel”s political struggle became a personal confrontation with the US President. Eventually Israel was forced to withdraw from the straits and the Gaza Strip. The military victory ended in political defeat, but it ensured freedom of movement for Israeli ships through the Red Sea and peace on the border with Egypt and the Gaza Strip for ten years. The Sinai campaign was followed by a blossoming of Israel”s foreign relations with countries around the world, and a surge of pride among Diaspora Jews. At home it strengthened the prestige of Ben Gurion and his party, MAPAI.

External issues and the Dimona nuclear reactor

In the years that followed, Ben Gurion became friendly with the new President of France, General Charles de Gaulle, leading to close cooperation between the two countries, culminating in the supply of large quantities of French armaments to Israel and especially to the Israeli Air Force, and the construction of the Dimona nuclear research centre with French help. Ben Gurion also initiated the gradual tightening of political relations with West Germany. The starting point of these relations was the Holocaust reparations agreement, signed with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer”s government in the early days of his government, despite vehement opposition from nationalist and Marxist parties in Israel.

On 29 October 1957, following a grenade attack in Parliament, Ben Gurion was slightly injured and hospitalized for several days. On 2 November his military secretary, Colonel Nehemia Argov, committed suicide after seriously injuring a cyclist in a traffic accident. Ben Gurion”s entourage decided to hide the news of Argov”s suicide from Ben Gurion for several days and handed him specially censored versions of newspapers in hospital.On 14 May 1960 Ben Gurion first met Chancellor Adenauer at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York for a meeting that lasted almost two hours. Adenauer spoke in German and Ben Gurion, who understood him, spoke in English, both with the help of translators. On 5 July 1961 Israel launched its home-made Shavit 2 rocket. Images showing Ben Gurion and his deputy at the defence ministry, Shimon Peres, watching the launch stirred up excitement in the international diplomatic sphere and accelerated the arms race in the region. In Israel, the public was filled with excitement and pride. The launch took place two weeks before parliamentary elections for the fifth Knesset. In the election the main ruling party led by Ben Gurion, Mapai, retained its central position in parliament, but still lost six seats. It is not known to what extent the rocket launch influenced the voters” vote.In 1962 Ben Gurion was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Haifa Polytechnic, Technion as “architect” of the State of Israel.

Ben Gurion took several decisions that proved decisive for the destiny of his people: the proclamation in May 1948 of the State of Israel, the opening of Israel”s gates to the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the creation of the Israeli army as the army of the whole people, the prevention of the return of Palestinian Arab refugees, and the move of Israel”s capital in 1949 to Jerusalem.

Wife Pola Ben Gurion (née Munweiss) was sometimes described as domineering and capricious. According to testimonies of those who knew her, she would experience episodes of kleptomania.

Music

Many Hebrew songs have been composed about Ben Gurion, including:

Theatre

According to his will, his house in Tel Aviv, his shack in Sde Boker and his archive went into the administration of Yad Ben Gurion, a memorial foundation dedicated to the preservation of his heritage. The Yad Ben Gurion Foundation awards the Ben Gurion Prize every year for the preservation and transmission of Ben Gurion”s spiritual legacy and vision – in the fields of defense, emigration to Israel, education, the expansion of settlement in the country, and the development of the Negev region.

By virtue of this law they were founded:

&Tom Seghev – Medina bkhol mekhir – supur hayav shel Ben Gurion (State at any cost – The life story of Ben Gurion) 2018

Sources

  1. David Ben Gurion
  2. David Ben-Gurion