David Ben-Gurion is rightly remembered as the founder of the modern state of Israel, created in 1948 by a UN resolution.
His image appears on Israeli money; streets even in Paris have been named after him; and a university in the Negev as well as Israel’s largest airport have honored him by taking his name.
Ben-Gurion was born David Grün in Plonsk, Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire in 1886. He was educated in a Hebrew school established by his father, an ardent Zionist. At 14, Ben-Gurion and two friends founded Ezra, a Zionist youth group whose members spoke only in Hebrew and promoted emigration to Palestine.
Ben-Gurion didn’t cite anti-Semitism as sparking his Zionism (as has been the case for other prominent leaders within the Zionist movement, such as Theodor Herzl). Instead, he is said to have felt a strong loyalty to the Zionist movement:
“For many of us, anti-Semitic feeling had little to do with our dedication [to Zionism]. I personally never suffered anti-Semitic persecution. Plonsk was remarkably free of it … Nevertheless, and I think this very significant, it was Plonsk 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,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his memoirs, published in 1970.
Ben-Gurion moved to Ottoman Mandate Palestine in 1906, where he became a laborer in agricultural settlements. A few years later, he helped form HaShomer, a Jewish self-defense group. In 1912, he moved to Istanbul, then the Ottoman capital, to study law. There, he adopted the Hebrew name Ben-Gurion, after the medieval historian, Joseph ben Gorion.
But with the outbreak of World War I, the Ottomans deported Ben-Gurion along with other leading Zionist leaders. Ben-Gurion found refuge in the United States, where he met Paula Monbesz, a fellow Zionist. After the British took control of Palestine, he returned to the area to serve in 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,” according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “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… 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 Hapoe’el Hatza’ir into Mapai, which became the ruling party during the first decades of statehood.”
Ben-Gurion held a deeply pragmatic view of socialism, and sought to invoke it for both nationalist and social gains. His work helped propel Mapai to the forefront, making it the most important faction of the Zionist movement by the mid-1930’s. Ben-Gurion was then appointed as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, the “almost-government of the Jews in Palestine,” as the Israeli MFA describes it. He held that position until 1948, when the State of Israel was established.
Ben-Gurion is remembered for doing away with a more cautious, gradualist approach to Zionism. Instead, Ben-Gurion promoted an activist line: After World War II, he provoked the British forces that were ruling over Palestine by organizing mass “illegal” immigration. The British, trying to appease the Arab populations within Palestine and hoping to avert conflict over increasing Jewish immigration, had established a controversial “White Paper” which barred significant numbers of Jewish immigrants from entering Palestine.
Ben-Gurion summarized his position in one oft-remembered quote: Zionists “would fight the war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war.”
Ben-Gurion further provoked the British by establishing Jewish settlements in all parts of Palestine, in so doing setting de facto boundaries for an eventual Jewish state. True to his activist stance, he also pushed for arming his budding government with a heavy defense budget, at a time when others sought only light armaments.
As head of the provisional government, Ben-Gurion proclaimed in 1948 the establishment of the modern state of Israel and the beginning of the “ingathering of the exiles” who were “willing” events of historic magnitude.
“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 Israeli MFA relates. “The former being individuals who ‘drive’ history in the direction they chart, the latter merely ‘the right men at the right time.’”
But Ben-Gurion’s role during this period has become highly controversial in recent decades following research by Israel’s so-called New Historians. Ben-Gurion, for his role in establishing the state, has traditionally been lauded by Israelis for helping to found their country. But, as the New Historians revealed, Ben-Gurion played a key role in expelling the Palestinians, who at the end of the 1947 Arab-Israeli War, made up hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Le Monde Diplomatique reviewed in 1997 two of the major Israeli historians who had looked into this issue: Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé.
“The fact that the founder of the State of Israel took advantage of the impressive extent of his powers and worked towards the maximum enlargement of the territory allocated to the Jewish state by the United Nations, and towards reducing its Arab population to a minimum, is a matter of historical fact. Morris devoted an important article to Ben-Gurion’s long-term support for the transfer project. As he writes in his preface to ‘1948 and After…,’ ‘Already from 1937 we find Ben Gurion [and most of the other Zionist leaders] supporting a ‘transfer’ solution to the ‘Arab problem’… Come 1948, and the confusions and displacement of war, and we see Ben-Gurion quickly grasp the opportunity for ‘Judaising’ the emergent Jewish State.’’”
Morris in particular has written that at that point of Israel’s history, power resided with Ben-Gurion alone.
“All issues, whether military or civilian, were decided with him, often without the slightest consultation with the government, let alone with the parties that comprised it,” Le Monde Diplomatique explains. “In such a situation, the absence from the archives of any formal parliamentary or governmental decision to expel the Palestinians proves nothing. As Morris himself admits, ‘Ben Gurion always refrained from issuing clear or written expulsion orders; he preferred that his generals ’understand’ what he wanted done. He wished to avoid going down in history as the ’great expeller.’”
More recently, the accuracy of historian Ilan Pappé regarding this issue was called into question by CAMERA, an American pro-Israel media watchdog group. Pappé had written in a 2006 article for the Journal of Palestine Studies that cited a letter by Ben-Gurion supporting the expulsion, or “transfer,” of Arabs from Palestine. In 2011, CAMERA claimed that the quote did not appear in the sources that Pappé had cited. JPS responded this year by investigating the issues that CAMERA had brought up.
JPS recognized that it had, in fact, placed a quotation mark in the incorrect spot in the article, thereby making it seem as if Ben-Gurion had written what Pappé was in fact paraphrasing. However, JPS also dug up the original letter to which Pappé had been referring, and found that Pappé had been correct about Ben-Gurion’s intentions. JPS subsequently had the letter, available at Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute in the Negev, translated from its original Hebrew into English for the first time. In the letter to his son, Ben-Gurion writes: “What we really want is not that the land remain whole and unified. What we want is that the whole and unified land be Jewish [emphasis in original]. A unified Eretz Israel would be no source of satisfaction for me—if it were Arab.”
If anything becomes clear from these disputes, it is that the memory of Israel’s founding is contentious because of its relation to the issues at hand today. In this sense, Ben-Gurion, who died 40 years ago, is still very much present in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Regardless of Ben-Gurion’s role in relation to the Palestinian refugee problem, he is also remembered for what came after the 1947 war.
In 1949, Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first Prime Minister, when his Mapai party won a majority of seats in the Knesset in the first national election. In fact, he was Israel’s longest presiding PM—he remained in post until 1963, except for a period between 1954 and 1955.
The Israeli MFA writes that his “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.”
He also presided over projects such as “Operation Magic Carpet,” which airlifted Jews from Yemen to Israel, regional development projects, and became Defense Minister in 1955.
On the diplomatic front, Ben-Gurion drew ire for supporting reparations agreements with West Germany, still sharply remembered in collective memory for the Nazis’ Holocaust only a few decades prior. During the high stakes of the Cold War, he moved Israel from the non-aligned movement, allowing for alliances with Great Britain and France as Israel was now seen as pro-Western. This greatly helped Israel’s stance during the 1956 Sinai campaign, as Israel became more economically, diplomatically, and militarily stronger due to these stances.
Ben-Gurion retired from politics in 1970 and moved to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev. In 1973, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and subsequently died. He is buried in Midreshet Ben-Gurion alongside his wife.
Famous Quotes by David Ben-Gurion:
“In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
“If a land has a soul, then Jerusalem is the soul of the Land of Israel.”
“The State of Israel is prepared to make its contribution in a concerted effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
“Thought is a strenuous art – few practice it, and then only at rare times.”
“Unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won’t survive.”
“Israel has created a new image of the Jew in the world – the image of a working and an intellectual people, of a people that can fight with heroism.”
“Ours is a country built more on people than on territory. The Jews will come from everywhere: from France, from Russia, from America, from Yemen… Their faith is their passport.”
“No city in the world, not even Athens or Rome, ever played as great a role in the life of a nation for so long a time, as Jerusalem has done in the life of the Jewish people.”
“We regard it as our duty to declare that Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part of the State of Israel, as it is an inseparable part of the history of Israel, of the faith of Israel.”