The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Israel >> History
David Ben-Gurion

the first Prime Minister of Israel

David Ben-Gurion

Early Life

David Gruen was born in Plonsk, Russia (now in Poland), on October 16, 1886. Educated in a Hebrew school established by his father, an ardent Zionist, he was by age 14 a leader of Ezra, a Zionist youth group whose members spoke only Hebrew among themselves. At 18 he joined Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion).

To Palestine, Exile, and Return

In 1906 Gruen moved to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, where he became an agricultural worker. In that capacity he became involved in the creation of the first agricultural workers' commune (which evolved into the Kvutzah and finally the Kibbutz). He also became involved with the Jewish self-defense group Hashomer (The Watchman). It was during this time that he adopted the Hebrew name Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion was living in Jerusalem when World War I broke out. Despite helping to recruit Jews to serve in the Ottoman Army, Ben-Gurion was deported to Egypt by the Ottoman authorities. From Egypt he made his way to New York City, New York, where he met and married (in 1917) Paula Monbesz, a fellow Poalei Zion activist. The couple subsequently had three children -- Amos, Geula Ben-Eliezer, and Renana Leshem.

David and Paula Ben-Gurion in June 1918.
David and Paula Ben-Gurion

Ben-Gurion family portrait, 1929. From left, David, Renana, Paula, Geula, Avigdor Gruen (David's father), Amos.
Ben-Gurion family

Following the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, which promised the Jews a "homeland" in Palestine, Ben-Gurion enlisted in the British Army's Jewish Legion and sailed back to the Middle East to join the war for the liberation of Palestine from Ottoman rule. The British had already defeated the Turks in Palestine by the time the Jewish Legion reached the battlefield, however.

Ben-Gurion as a member of the Jewish Legion.
Ben-Gurion as a member of the Jewish Legion

Creation of Israel

Ben-Gurion helped found Histadrut (General Federation of Jewish Labor) in 1920. He subsequently served as its first secretary-general (until 1935) and as its representative in both the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Palestine. In 1930 he helped found the United Labor Party (now the Mapai Party), and was elected its leader. In 1935 he became chairman of the Jewish Agency, in which capacity he directed all Jewish affairs in Palestine, including land development and the settlement of immigrants.

In 1939 Britain changed its Middle East policy, abandoning its sympathetic stand toward the Jews and shifting it toward the Arabs, leading to severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. Ben-Gurion reacted by calling upon the Jewish community to rise against the British, while also encouraging them to volunteer for service in the British Army. While World War II raged in Europe, Ben-Gurion publicly proclaimed support for the British war effort, while secretly helping Jewish refugees get to Palestine.

On May 12, 1942, Ben-Gurion assembled an emergency conference of American Zionists in New York City, and that convention decided upon the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine after the war. At the end of World War II, Ben-Gurion again led the Jewish community in its struggle against the British mandate. In May 1948, in accordance with a decision of the United Nations General Assembly, and with the support of the United States and the Soviet Union, the State of Israel was established. It was Ben-Gurion who, on May 14, 1948, at Tel Aviv, delivered Israel's declaration of independence.

Ben-Gurion proclaiming the independence of Israel.
Ben-Gurion declaring Israel's independence

Prime Minister

After leading Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Ben-Gurion was elected the first Prime Minister of Israel. In this capacity, he oversaw various national projects aimed at the rapid development of the country and its population. One of his "pet projects" was the establishment of new towns and cities, with emphasis on settlement in the Negev and other outlying areas.

In 1953, Ben-Gurion suddenly announced that he was stepping down as Prime Minister and retiring to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev; he was succeeded by Moshe Sharett. His retirement was short-lived, however, as he was again elected Prime Minister in 1955. On October 29, 1956, following a secret visit to France and a meeting with French and British leaders, he ordered the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, while the French and British focused on gaining control of the Suez Canal. All three nations withdrew their forces after the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force.

Ben-Gurion again resigned as Prime Minister of July 5, 1959, following a cabinet dispute over the sale of arms to West Germany, which had been approved by the Knesset and supported by Ben-Gurion. On July 7 he appointed Finance Minister Levi Eshkol Acting Premier of a caretaker cabinet. Unable to form a new cabinet, Ben-Gurion resumed the Prime Ministership of July 21 until general elections, slated for the fall.

In February 1960, Ben-Gurion announced that he had accepted an invitation to receive in person an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He also said that he would then go to Washington, London, and Paris for talks with the respective heads of goverrnment. He met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington on March 10, with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York City on March 14, and with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Foreign Minister Selwyn Lloyd in London on March 17. He had to postpone his visit to Paris until June, when he then met with President Charles De Gaulle; that meeting led to a more emphatically neutral Israeli policy in Africa.

Ben-Gurion (left) and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York City on March 14, 1960.
Ben-Gurion and Adenauer

On May 23, 1960, Ben-Gurion announced to the Knesset the capture of Nazi extermination program leader Adolf Eichmann by Israeli agents in Argentina.

Ben-Gurion again stepped down as Prime Minister in 1963, and was succeeded by Levi Eshkol. He did not retire from political life, however. When the Mapai Party split in June 1965 he 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 Labor Party, while Ben-Gurion formed a new party, Hareshima Hamamlachtit (The State List), which won four Knesset seats in 1969. He retired from politics for good in June 1970.

David Ben-Gurion died in Sde Boker on December 1, 1973.


Jewish Virtual Library

See Also

World War I
World War II
Moshe Sharett
Suez Canal
Levi Eshkol
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Konrad Adenauer
Harold Macmillan
Charles De Gaulle
Levi Eshkol

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Israel >> History

This page was last updated on September 12, 2018.