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Biography of David Ben Gurion

David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973)  was born David Gruen in Plonsk, Poland in 1886. He learned Hebrew in a school run by his father. As a youth, Ben-Gurion led a Zionist youth group, "Ezra."  At the age of 18 he moved to Warsaw, taught in a Jewish school there and joined the  Poalei Tziyon (Workers of Zion) Socialist-Zionist movement.

Ben-Gurion arrived in Palestine in 1906. He helped to found the first agricultural workers' commune in Sejera that was to become kvutzath Degania,  and he helped establish the "Hashomer” (The Watchman) defense organization.

Zionism - David Ben Gurion, First Prime Minister of Israel

When World War I broke out, Ben-Gurion, a Russian national, was considered an enemy alien and  was deported by the Ottoman authorities.  Ben-Gurion traveled  to New York on behalf of the Socialist-Zionist cause. In the US, he met and married Paula Monbesz, a fellow Poalei Zion activist. He returned to Palestine and joined the Jewish Legion, created as a unit of  the British Army on the initiative of Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky.

Ben-Gurion was a founder of the Histadrut trade union, which he dominated from the early 1920's. He also served as the Histadrut's representative in the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency, and was elected chairman of both organizations in 1935. He was also head of the Labor Party (Mapai) and identified with the "activist" wing of the party.

Ben Gurion's overall vision and concerns on the eve of the struggle against the British, in 1944, are revealed a speech, Imperatives of the Jewish Revolution, that he gave to youth groups in 1944. Ben Gurion fought against factionalism and in particular against alignment with Soviet Communism, and he emphasized the need for pioneering - Halutziut. His concern with pioneering was genuine and personal. After the foundation of the state, he tried to establish a "pioneering service" that would send young people to help new immigrants and develop the Negev. When this failed, in 1954 he retired from the Prime Minister's office for a time, and went to live on Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev to set a personal example.

As head of the Zionist executive, Ben Gurion led the struggle to establish the State of Israel in May 1948, When Israel became independent, he  became Prime Minister and Defense Minister. He led the Mapai party  to electoral victory as a matter of course in successive elections. As Prime Minister, he oversaw the establishment of the state's institutions and gave them the stamp of his personality. A crucial and controversial decision made by Ben Gurion in 1948 was the unification of all armed factions into the IDF(Tzahal) - the single Israeli army. There would be no private militias in the new state. This angered the heads of the  Haganah and Palmach , the underground of the Jewish agency and Kibbutz movement. However they had no choice but to go along. The dissident underground, the Irgun,  was not however under the control of the Zionist executive directly.  It was under the political leadership of Menachem Begin.of the Revisionist Herut movement.  Begin tried to bring a large shipment of arms into Israel. His plan was to distribute those arms to the Irgun and to maintain it as a separate military faction. Some historians insist that Begin or elements in the Irgun were planning a coup. On Ben Gurion's orders, the ship, the Altalena, was sunk off the coast of Tel Aviv, creating a cause of bitterness for partisans of the Revisionist moment, but guaranteeing the democratic and orderly future of the new state.

In late 1953, Ben-Gurion resigned as Prime Minister and retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. He was replaced by Moshe Sharett.  He returned to political life, after the Knesset elections in 1955, assuming the post of Defense Minister and later became Prime Minister again. As Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion supported the establishment of relations with West Germany, and  led the country during the 1956 Sinai campaign. Ben Gurion remained a resident of the Negev at heart. He believed that the future of Israel lay in the Negev and he promoted settlement there as well as hydrogeology studies and agricultural projects that he hoped would make the Negev arable.

In June 1963 Ben-Gurion resigned as Prime Minister because of the "Lavon Affair," and was replaced byby Levi Eshkol. Pinhas Lavon had been Defense Minister in 1954 when an Israeli spy ring was caught in Egypt, trying to blow up the USIA and other Western targets and putting the blame on the Egyptians. Lavon refused to take responsibility, insisting that Ben Gurion had given the order. Ben Gurion claimed he knew nothing about the affair.. Levi Eshkol became  Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. Ben-Gurion remained active politically, with a rivalry developing between him and Eshkol. In June 1965, the Mapai Party split.  Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres established Rafi (List of Israeli Workers), which won ten Knesset seats in the following election. In 1968, Rafi rejoined Mapai and Ahdut Ha'avoda, to form the Israel Labor Party. Ben-Gurion however, refused to join and formed a new party, Hareshima Hamamlachtit (The State List), that won four Knesset seats in the 1969 elections.

In June 1970, Ben-Gurion retired from political life. Ben Gurion was known for his prolific writings and distinctive philosophical outlook, his activism, optimism and stubbornness,  and also for  penchant for physical fitness, and particularly for standing on his head at an advanced age.  Upon his retirement, he returned to Kibbutz Sde Boker, where he died in 1973.

Ami Isseroff

September 18, 2005


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David Ben Gurion