David Ben Gurion

August 23, 2011 Back

David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) was the first Prime Minister of Israel and former Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization.  He also served as the head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine and later would be the first to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Early Life

Ben Gurion was born as David Gruen to Avigdor and Scheindel in Plonsk, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire.  He studied at the University of Warsaw and joined the Poale Zion movement in 1904.  Following two arrests during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Kishinev pogrom in 1906, he left Europe for Ottoman Palestine and joined Yitzhak Ben-Zvi as the leaders of the Poale Zion movement.

Ben Gurion first worked as an agricultural worker upon arrival in Israel.  However, in 1911, he returned to Europe, going first to Thessaloniki and then Istanbul to complete his law studies.  While in Istanbul, he changed his name to Ben Gurion.  In 1915, both Ben-Zvi and Ben Gurion were expelled from Istanbul University for their Zionist activities, where upon Ben Gurion spent a few years in New York where he married and had three children.  In 1918 he joined  the British Army and returned with his family to Palestine after the British conquered the territory from the Ottoman Empire.

Pre-State Political Life

In 1919, Poale Zion split and Ben Gurion led the rightist faction with Berl Katzenelson.  In 1920 he became the first head of the Histadrut.  In the 1930, he joined with HaPoel HaTzair to form the Mapai party, a left-wing party that would be prominent during the first years of the state.  In 1938, he became the chairman of the Jewish Agency, a position he held until the state of Israel’s foundation in 1948.

During World War II, Ben Gurion supported the British, although he was not happy with the restrictions on Jewish Immigration to Palestine.  Once World War II ended, however, Ben Gurion snuck in thousands of Jews and managed to come to terms with the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, settling on the Jewish Shabbat as the day of rest and allowing the Rabbinate to have jurisdiction over Jewish family life.  However, when war broke out in 1948, Ben Gurion took control, breaking all previous alliances with other Jewish underground cells and went so far as to attack those groups, a move which ruined his relationship with other Israeli statesmen such as Menachem Begin.

Post-State Political Life

Once the state was founded and the Independence Day War of 1948 was won, Ben Gurion was elected Prime Minister with the Mapai party.  He held that post until 1963.  During his time as Prime Minister, he oversaw the immigration and absorption of almost 750,000 Jews from the Arab world as well as the construction of the infrastructure the State of Israel uses today.

Ben Gurion was a controversial figure as he was partially responsible for the 1956 war with Egypt.  He also changed his mind regarding the type of political system that should be used in Israel, changing from the English system to the American system.  This distanced him from other politicians and his former parties of Rafi and Mapai.  He retired in 1970.

Personal Life and Life After Politics

Ben Gurion was married to Paula Munweis, a Russian Immigrant to the US who was known for having a sharp tongue and was not afraid to tell to do chores like washing dishes.  They had three children – Geula, Amos and Ranana.  Ben Gurion and his wife owned a small house in Sde Boker in the Negev, an area Ben Gurion thought had the most opportunity for Jews.  He died in 1973 and his wife is buried next to him in Sde Boker.

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