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David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion (October 16, 1886December 1, 1973; Hebrew: דָּוִד בֶּן גּוּרִיּוֹן) was the first Prime Minister of Israel.

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Early life

Paula Munweis and David (Green) Ben-Gurion, 1915

He was born as David Gruen (pronounced "Green") in Płońsk, Poland which was then part of the Russian Empire. Shocked by the pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism that plagued Jewish life in Eastern Europe, he became an ardent Zionist and socialist and moved to Palestine in 1906.

He first worked as a journalist and adopted his Hebrew name Ben-Gurion as he began his political career. He was expelled from Palestine, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, in 1915 due to his political activities.

Settling in New York City in 1915 he met the Russian-born Paula Munweis. They were married in 1917, and subsequently had three children. The family returned to Palestine after World War I after it had been conquered by the British.

Zionist leadership

Ben-Gurion was at the political forefront of the Labor Zionist movement during the fifteen years leading to the creation of the State of Israel when Labor Zionism had become the dominant tendency in the World Zionist Organization.

An austere, ascetic idealist, he was marked by a commitment to the establishment of a Jewish state. In the Israeli declaration of independence, he stressed that the new nation would "uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex". Critics point to his treatment of the native Arab population prior to and during the formation of the Israeli state and his policy of allegedly brutal Jewish nationalism.

Ben-Gurion encouraged Jews to join the British military at the same time as he helped orchestrate the illegal immigration of thousands of European Jewish refugees to Palestine at a time when the British sought to bar new Jewish settlement. He is also considered the architect of both the Federation of Jewish Labor, the Histadrut which created a Jewish state within the British state and the Haganah, the paramilitary force of the Labor Zionist movement that facilitated underground immigration, defended kibbutzim and other Jewish settlements against attack and provided the backbone of the future Israeli Defense Forces. Both of these developments put pressure on the British to either grant the Jews a state in Palestine or quit the League of Nations Mandate – they did the latter in 1948 on the heels of a United Nations resolution partitioning the territory between Jews and Arabs.

During the pre-statehood period in Palestine, Ben-Gurion represented the mainstream Jewish establishment and was known as a moderate, with whose Haganah organization the British dealt with frequently, sometimes in order to arrest more radical groups involved in resistance against them. He was strongly opposed to the Revisionist Zionist movement led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and his successor Menachem Begin.

U.S. President Harry S. Truman, left, with David Ben-Gurion, behind them is Abba Eban.
He was also involved in occasional violent resistance during the short period of time his organization cooperated with Menachem Begin's Irgun, though he refused to be involved in terrorism of any kind, and insisted that violence only be used against military targets. Ben-Gurion initially agreed to Begin's plan to carry out the King David Hotel bombing, with the intent of humiliating (rather than killing) the British military stationed there. However, when the risks of mass killing became apparent, Ben-Gurion told Begin to call the operation off; Begin refused.1 During the first weeks of Israel's independence, it was decided to disband all resistance groups and replace them with a single formal army. To that end, Ben-Gurion gave the order to open fire upon and sink a ship named Altalena, which carried ammunition for the Irgun (also called Etzel) resistance group. That command remains controversial to this day.

Prime Ministership

Ben Gurion led Israel during its War of Independence and, except for nearly two years of interruption between 1953 – 1955, became Prime Minister on January 25, 1948 and served until 1963. As Premier, he oversaw the establishment of the state's institutions. He presided over various national projects aimed at the rapid development of the country and its population: Operation Magic Carpet, the airlift of Jews from Arab countries, the construction of the national water carrier, rural development projects and the establishment of new towns and cities. In particular, he called for pioneering settlement in outlying areas, especially in the Negev.

In 1953 Ben-Gurion announced his intention to withdraw from government and settle in the Kibbutz Sde-Boker, in the Israeli Negev. He returned to office in 1955 assuming the post of Defence Minister and later prime-minister.

Returning to government, Ben Gurion collaborated with the British and French to plan the 1956 Sinai War in which Israel stormed the Sinai peninsula in retaliation for raids by Egypt thus giving British and French forces a pretext to intervene in order to secure the Suez Canal after Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser had announced its nationalization. Intervention by the United States and the United Nations forced the British, French and Israelis to back down.

Ben-Gurion was among the founders of Mapai which governed Israel during the first three decades of its existence. He stepped down as Prime Minister in 1963, in large part due to differences with his government over the Lavon Affair, and was succeeded by Levi Eshkol. A rivalry developed between the two, however, and Ben Gurion broke with the party in June 1965 over Eshkol's handling of the Lavon affair and formed a new party, Rafi which won ten seats in the Knesset. In 1968, when Rafi merged with Mapai to form the Labour Alignment, Ben Gurion refused to reconcile with his old party and formed another new party, The State List, which won four seats in the 1969 election. Ben Gurion retired from politics in 1970 and spent his last years on his kibbutz.

He was voted by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 people who shaped the 20th century [1].

According to Jewish educator and comics fan and writer Alan Oirich, artist Gil Kane based his design of the large-headed, balding Guardians of the Universe in DC’s Green Lantern on David Ben-Gurion.[2]


Note 1: . Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p. 523.


"Under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them. Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement, should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price." David Ben-Gurion, 1920. From Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War, (London: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 32.

"We should prepare to go over to the offensive. Our aim is to smash Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, and Syria. The weak point is Lebanon, for the Moslem regime is artificial and easy for us to undermine. We shall establish a Christian state there, and then we will smash the Arab Legion, eliminate Trans-Jordan; Syria will fall to us. We then bomb and move on and take Port Said, Alexandria and Sinai." to the General Staff. From Ben-Gurion, A Biography, by Michael Ben-Zohar, Delacorte, New York 1978. [3]

"We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinian refugees] never do return"[4] David Ben-Gurion, in his diary, 18 July 1948, quoted in Michael Bar Zohar's Ben-Gurion: the Armed Prophet, Prentice-Hall, 1967, p. 157.

"We extend the hand of peace and good-neighborliness to all the States around us and to their people, and we call upon them to cooperate in mutual helpfulness with the independent Jewish nation in its Land. The State of Israel is prepared to make its contribution in a concerted effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East." Israel's Proclamation of Independence, read on May 14, 1948

"The assets of the Jewish National Home must be created exclusively through our own work, for only the product of the Hebrew labor can serve as the national estate." From Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War, (London: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 66 .

"We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and the White Paper as if there were no war." September 12, 1939.

"Let me first tell you one thing: It doesn't matter what the world says about Israel; it doesn't matter what they say about us anywhere else. The only thing that matters is that we can exist here on the land of our forefathers. And unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won't survive." David Ben-Gurion's advice to Officer Ariel Sharon following the controversial and much-condemned raid on Qibya, as relayed by Ariel Sharon during an interview for the documentary "Israel and the Arabs: 50 Year War".

"We accepted the UN resolution, but the Arabs did not. They are preparing to make war on us. If we defeat them and capture western Galilee or territory on both sides of the road to Jerusalem, these areas will become part of the state. Why should we obligate ourselves to accept boundaries that in any case the Arabs don't accept?" David Ben-Gurion to his cabinet, May 12, 1948 [5]

"Even amidst the violent attacks launched against us for months past, we call upon the sons of the Arab people dwelling in Israel to keep the peace and to play their part in building the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its institutions, provisional and permanent." Israel's Proclamation of Independence, read on May 14, 1948

"We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question, What is to be done with the Palestinian population?' Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said 'Drive them out!'" Yitzhak Rabin, leaked censored version of Rabin memoirs, published in the New York Times, 23 October 1979.[6]

"Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population." David Ben Gurion, quoted in The Jewish Paradox, by Nahum Goldmann, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978, p. 99.

"If I knew that it was possible to save all the children of Germany by transporting them to England, and only half by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, for before us lies not only the numbers of these children but the historical reckoning of the people of Israel." David Ben-Gurion (Quoted on pp 855–56 in Shabtai Teveth's Ben-Gurion in a slightly different translation).

"Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we came here and stole their country. Why should they accept that?" (David Ben-Gurion quoted in "The Jewish Paradox" by Nahum Goldmann, former president of the World Jewish Congress.)

"Well done, now give it back to them." David Ben-Gurion to Louis Nir, after his unit captured Hebron in the Six Day War.[7]

Preceded in first term by:
Prime Minister of Israel Succeeded in first term by:
Moshe Sharett
Preceded in second term by:
Moshe Sharett
Succeeded in second term by:
Levi Eshkol

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