Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories changed our country and the world.
Name: David Ben-Gurion
Date of Birth: 16th October 1886, Plonsk, Congress Poland
Date of Death: 1st December 1973, Ramat Gan, Israel
Claim to Fame: First Prime Minister of Israel
In 1948… David Ben-Gurion was elected to the office of Prime Minister
David Ben-Gurion was born in Poland. He was a Zionist from a young age: in his teens, he led Ezra, a Hebrew-speaking Zionist youth group. When he was 18, he joined the Poalei Zion socialist group and started teaching at a Jewish school in Warsaw.
In 1906, aged 20, Ben-Gurion emigrated to Ottoman Palestine. He started working on farms and helped create the first farming commune (the blueprint for the kibbutz system). He also helped set up Hashomer, a Jewish self-defence group that guarded Jewish agricultural communities.
In 1912, he moved to Constantinople to study law at Istanbul University. He moved back to Jerusalem before World War One broke out, and recruited Jews into a Jewish militia to fight with the Ottoman Army. The Turks deported him to Egypt in 1915, and he he made his way from there to the USA. During his three years in America, Ben-Gurion met Paula Munweis. They married in 1917, and later had three children.
Following the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion joined the British Army’s Jewish Legion and fought against the Turks. After the war, he returned to British-ruled Mandatory Palestine with his family. Between 1919 and declaring the State of Israel’s independence, Ben-Gurion was heavily involved in the region’s politics.
He led the new moderate Zionist Labour movement, Achdut HaAvodah, and in 1920, formed the Histadrut – the Federation of Labourers, and Israel’s trade union. In 1930, Hapoel Hatzair and Achdut HaAvodah joined forces to create Mapai with Ben-Gurion at the helm. He represented the Histadrut to the World Zionist Organisation and the Jewish Agency, which he chaired from 1935. In World War Two, he encouraged Jews to volunteer for the British Army, and opposed Begin’s plan to the infamous King David Hotel bombing.
On 14th May 1948 – the last day of the British Mandate – Ben Gurion issued the Declaration of Independence from what is now Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. He stood beneath a portrait of the “Father of Zionism” Theodor Herzl, and proclaimed that the new state would uphold equality for all its citizens.
War broke out the next day. Ben-Gurion oversaw all military action in the Independence War. He then ordered all militias (including the powerful Irgun and Palmach groups) to combine into one united national army – and thus the IDF was born.
The new Israeli parliament held its first elections in February 1949, and elected Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister. He held this position – and that of Defense Minster – until 1963, except for during a brief period of retirement in 1954-5.
During his tenure, Ben Gurion made huge changes to Israel’s infrastructure. As well as creating the IDF, he established the National Water Carrier and many new cities and towns. He called on people to develop the Negev desert, which he believed could home thousands of Jews. He also oversaw Operation Magic Carpet. This clandestine project brought 49,000 Jews to Israel from Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia.
In 1970, Ben-Gurion finally retired to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev desert, where he began writing an 11-volume history of Israel’s story so far. He suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in November 1973, leading to hospitalisation in the Sheba Medical Centre in Ramat Gan. David Ben-Gurion died on 1st December at 87 years of age. He is buried next to his wife in Sde Boker.
Today, we remember Ben Gurion as the founding father of the State of Israel. Israel’s largest airport is named for him, as are the University of the Negev and streets and schools across the country. A passionate Zionist, Ben-Gurion’s extraordinary vision and pioneering spirit are credited with the State’s creation and flourishing success.
Next up: 1949: Theodor Herzl