His uncompromising vision of Jewish unity and statehood, together with a genius for pragmatic political and military tactics, enabled him to establish the State of Israel and guide it through the social, economic, and military challenges of its early years. He was a fiercely combative, stubborn figure, and the feuds he conducted continue to simmer decades after his death. Still, more than any other individual, he is regarded as the father of the modern Jewish nation.
An Early Zionist
He was born David Gruen (pronounced Green) in Plonsk, in Russian Poland, and grew up in a family committed to the Zionist cause. In 1905, as a student at the University of Warsaw, he joined the Social-Democratic Jewish Workers’ Party – Poalei Zion. Active in revolutionary politics and in Jewish self-defense units, he was arrested twice during the Russian Revolution of 1905. He emigrated to Ottoman Palestine in 1906 and worked as a laborer and watchman in the Jewish settlements of Rishon Letzion and Petah Tikvah. Almost immediately he took up positions of leadership in the Palestine section of Poalei Zion.
In 1909 he volunteered with Hashomer (The Watchman), the early Zionist self-defense force. On 7 November 1911, Ben-Gurion arrived in Thessaloniki (Salonika), planning to learn Turkish in preparation for studying law. The city, which had a large Jewish community, impressed Ben-Gurion. He called it “a Jewish city that has no equal in the world”. He also realized there that “the Jews were capable of all types of work,” from rich businessmen and professors, to merchants, craftsmen and porters.
In 1912, he moved to Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, to study law at Istanbul University together with his close friend Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (Shimshelevich), with whom he had left Poland in 1906. He adopted the Hebrew name Ben-Gurion, after the medieval historian Joseph ben-Gorion. He also worked as a journalist. Ben-Gurion saw the future of Zionism as dependent on the behavior of the Ottoman regime. Living in Jerusalem at the start of the First World War, he and Ben-Zvi recruited 40 Jews into a Jewish militia to assist the Ottoman Army. Despite this he was deported to Egypt in March 1915.
From there he and Ben-Zvi made their way to the United States. On arrival the pair went on a tour of 35 cities in an attempt to raise a pioneer army of 10,000 men to fight on Turkey’s side. In 1915 Ben-Gurion settled in Brooklyn, where he met and married a Russian-born nurse, Paula Munweis. Ben-Zvi settled in Washington, and the two cooperated on a history of the decade-old Zionist pioneer movement in Palestine, titled Hechalutz (The Pioneer). Although the book was published in Yiddish in 1918, disputes over the writing caused a rift between the two that never fully healed. Ben-Zvi left politics for academia until he was invited to return as Israel’s second ceremonial president in 1952, after the death of Chaim Weizmann.
In 1918 Ben-Gurion joined the British Army as a member of the 38th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, known as the Jewish Legion, part of Chaytor’s Force, formed following the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. He and his family returned to Palestine after World War I following its capture by the British from the Ottoman Empire.
In 1919, following the death of socialist-Zionist theorist Ber Borochov in Russia, the left and right wings of Poalei Zion split. Ben-Gurion and his friend Berl Katznelson led the right faction. The Right Poalei Zion joined with some smaller, independent groups to form Ahdut HaAvoda (Labor Unity) with Ben-Gurion as leader. In 1920 he led in the formation and subsequently became general secretary of the Histadrut, the Zionist Labor Federation in Palestine.
Ben-Gurion believed that socialism and Zionism were two sides of the same ideological coin. Jewish nationalism sought not only to achieve Jewish economic self-sufficiency, but also to create a new kind of Jew: proud, independent, and living off the fruits of manual labor.
He saw the Jewish working class as the carriers of this revolutionary spirit, and, in line with his slogan, “From class to nation,” saw the interests of workers and the Jewish people as a whole as the same. The role of the Histadrut, as he saw it, was to build a Jewish economy under the leadership of the Jewish working class.
In 1930, Ahdut HaAvoda joined with Hapoel Hatzair, the utopian-agrarian party founded in 1905 by A. D. Gordon, to create the moderately social-democratic Mapai. Under Ben-Gurion’s leadership Mapai became the dominant political force in Jewish Palestine and in the world Zionist movement. In 1935 Ben-Gurion became chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency, the Palestine operating office of the World Zionist Organization and the semi-official government of the Yishuv. He kept the role until Israeli independence in 1948, when the Jewish Agency executive committee effectively became the Israeli cabinet and Ben-Gurion became prime minister.
Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky
Beginning in the 1920s, Ben-Gurion faced a fierce challenge from the right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. In the early 1920s Jabotinsky began opposing the people’s army-style structure of the Haganah, the main Jewish self-defense force, arguing that 2,000 uniformed Jewish soldiers marching down the main street of Jaffa under a banner would be more effective than 10,000 workers with rifles under their beds. Later on Jabotinsky began arguing against the hegemony of the labor movement in the Yishuv, claiming that the Jewish nation should have a single political structure and not be divided by ideologies. He was particularly opposed to the Histadrut’s domination of employment in Jewish workplaces, an argument he carried to an extreme in a 1932 article about the Histadrut that he titled “Yes, Break It!”
Relations were pushed to the breaking point by the antics of Abba Ahimeir, the leader of the Revisionists in Palestine, who formed an organization in 1930 called Brit HaBiryonim (Union of Zealots or Thugs) and openly called himself a fascist. Jabotinsky ordered him to stop using the term fascist, but Ben-Gurion never forgave either of them and took to referring to Jabotinsky as “Vladimir Hitler.”
At the same time, relations were deteriorating badly over approaches to the use of force in responding to Arab violence. Jabotinsky’s followers believed the Haganah, the quasi-official armed force of the Jewish Agency, was not responding forcefully enough to attacks during the 1929 Arab uprising. Ben-Gurion had imposed a policy on the Haganah known as Restrain or Havlagah, under which the force would not retaliate for Arab attacks but restrict itself to self-defense. Jabotinsky’s followers wanted to go on the attack.
In 1931 the Revisionists formed a force within the Haganah, initially known as Haganah Bet, to take a more aggressive approach. During the course of the 1930s the unit gradually became more independent, ultimately establishing itself as a separate militia, the National Military Organization or Irgun Tzva’i Le’umi. Relations between the Haganah and Irgun ranged from tense to violently hostile.
Jabotinsky suffered a dual defeat at the 1935 the World Zionist Congress when Ben-Gurion was elected chairman of the executive committee and the congress turned down Jabotinsky’s demand that it call for the immediate creation of a Jewish state in all of Palestine. Jabotinsky then led his followers out of the WZO and formed the New Zionist Organization.
In 1937, a year into the three-year Arab revolt in Palestine, the British government created the Palestine Royal Commission under Lord Peel to reexamine future options for the territory. The Peel Commission recommended partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. The Jews were to receive the northern coastal plain and the Galilee and Britain would retain control of the Jerusalem enclave and a corridor to the coast. The Arabs would get the rest.
For all the plan’s shortcomings, Ben-Gurion and the majority of his Mapai party believed the opportunity to create a Jewish state should not be passed up, particularly in view of the desperate situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany. This position was opposed by the Revisionists, who feared partition would set a dangerous precedent for compromising Jewish national rights, and by parts of the Zionist Left, some of whom believed the plan endangered the future of Jewish settlement activity, while others saw it threatening their ultimate vision of Jewish-Arab coexistence. Ben-Gurion pushed through support for the plan, only to see it dropped by the British in response to implacable Arab opposition.
Hostility & Restraint
During World War II, Ben-Gurion declared that the Zionists would fight with Britain against the Nazis as if there was no White Paper, and would fight the White Paper as if there were no war. In 1942, he was instrumental in drafting the Biltmore Program, which called for open Jewish immigration and formally called for the first time for a sovereign Jewish commonwealth in Palestine.
Following the United Nations’ 1947 decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and with the departure of the British in May 1948, he made the momentous decision to declare the establishment of the State of Israel, over the furious opposition of the right, which objected to the partition of Palestine and ceding parts of it to Arab sovereignty. He became the first prime minister of the State of Israel and guided the country during the War of Independence.
Since the 1990s, post-Zionist “new historians” such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris have alleged that during the war Ben-Gurion was aware of—or even initiated—a policy of transfer, the forced expulsion of Arabs. These claims have been hotly contested by historians such as biographer Shabtai Teveth, who assert that Israel’s first prime minister was resigned to the continuing presence of a large Arab minority enjoying equal rights in the future Jewish state. Most historians now concede that the Palestinian refugees of 1948 were partly driven out by Zionist forces and partly fled to escape the bloodshed. Between the U.N. decision in November 1947 and the departure of British forces in May 1948, Ben-Gurion’s efforts were focused on encouraging Palestinians to say in order to demonstrate that the Jewish state could live at peace with its neighbors. After the declaration of the state and the invasion by five Arab armies on May 15, 1948, efforts were focused on securing territory and removing any potentially hostile forces, which often included civilian populations.
After the war ended with the armistice agreements of November 1949, however, Ben-Gurion argued against the conciliatory, diplomatic orientation of foreign minister Moshe Sharett. He took a hard line against any return of Arab refugees and pursued an activist foreign policy of military deterrence and retaliatory raids against neighboring Arab states. In 1954 he resigned as prime minister and retired to his desert retreat at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. He returned in 1955, first as defense minister and then as prime minister, and he led Israel in alliance with Britain and France in the Sinai War against Egypt.
As Prime Minister
Ben-Gurion’s tenure as prime minister (1948-53 and again from 1955-63) was governed by the principle of mamlachtiut, or statism — the belief that the state overrode sectarian ideologies and interests in matters such as education and armed force. In a country where many of the basic institutions—from school systems to health care to sports leagues to armed forces—had been created at the outset by political factions, imposing the supremacy of the state seemed to crucial to establishing sovereign legitimacy.
Ben-Gurion set aliyah and immigrant absorption as Israel’s top priorities, established the Israel Defense Force, dissolving the independent, political pre-state militias, the left-wing Palmach and right-wing Irgun, and sought to abolish ideological distinctions in education, replacing party-run schools with one all-encompassing state education system. (In the end he had to settle for three school systems, state-secular, state-religious and ultra-Orthodox “independent” along with a separate Arabic-language school system.)
The left went along, at times reluctantly, but the right resisted. On June 20, 1948, midway through a 30-day cease-fire in the war of independence declared by the U.N. and accepted by Ben-Gurion, the Irgun and its commander, Menachem Begin, attempted to land an arms ship, the Altalena, at Tel Aviv port, with the aim of rearming Irgun units that were being folded into the newly unified Israeli army. After days of negotiations, Ben-Gurion and his allies remained convinced that the Irgun planned to use the weaponry to constitute themselves as an army within an army. After the Altalena refused to surrender it was sunk, and 16 Irgun fighters were killed.
More controversially, Ben-Gurion presided over the reparations agreement with West Germany, in which the German government agreed to pay $715 million to the State of Israel in compensation for taking in refugees from the Holocaust. The deal provoked savage public debate: Protesters, led by Begin, accused the government of taking blood money from the Germans. Yet without the financial settlement, Israel’s economic development and very survival would have been in question.
Ben-Gurion resigned from the premiership in 1963 and handed the reins to his finance minister, Levi Eshkol. He initially retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker. However, he returned to the Knesset in 1965 at the head of a tiny splinter, Rafi, which opposed Eshkol over his handling of a decade-old investigation known as the Lavon Affair. The affair involved an Israeli intelligence fiasco in Egypt in 1954, during Ben-Gurion’s first retirement, in which Egyptian Jews were recruited to sabotage American facilities in Egypt in order to stir tension between Washington and the new Egyptian revolutionary regime. The affair enraged Ben-Gurion and drove many of his later political decisions, from his political return in 1955 to his formation of Rafi in 1965. He spent years attempting to force a full investigation and punishing of those responsible, beginning with Pinchas Lavon, the defense minister at the time, whom Ben-Gurion blamed for the fiasco.
Finally, in 1970 he left politics altogether. In the last years of his life Ben-Gurion was a solitary figure, but he continued to advocate aliyah, the ingathering of the exiles, and the settlement of the land, particularly the Negev desert. His last campaign, perhaps continuing his lifelong career as an angry prophet, was speaking out bitterly against Israeli attempts to secure a foothold in the territories it had occupied in 1967.