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Ben-Gurion, David (1886–1973)

Title: David Ben-Gurion
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Zionist, defense minister, and prime minister of Israel (1948–1953, 1955–1963). Celebrated as Israel's "Father of the Nation," David Ben-Gurion was born David Gruen in Plonsk, Poland, on 16 October 1886. As a teenager he joined the Workers of Zion (Poalei Zion) while teaching in a Hebrew school in Warsaw. He believed that Zionism could be achieved by Jewish settlement in Palestine and by collective farming and industrialization of the land. Putting his beliefs into action, he moved to Jaffa, Palestine, in 1906 and established the first Jewish workers' commune there. He then began organizing other workers into unions. In 1910 he published his first article on Zionism under the name Ben-Gurion ("son of the lion" in Hebrew). He then moved to Jerusalem and joined the editorial staff of a Hebrew-language newspaper. In 1914 he earned a law degree from the University of Constantinople. He returned to Palestine to take up his union work but was expelled by the Ottomans, who still controlled Palestine, in 1915.

Buoyed by the 1917 British Balfour Declaration that proposed a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Ben-Gurion organized a volunteer military unit to help the British drive the Ottomans out of the region. In 1920 he returned to union organizing. Indeed, he helped found the Histadrut, a powerful federation of Jewish labor unions. During 1921–1935 he served as Histadrut's general secretary. He worked closely with the British (who now controlled Palestine) as head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine during 1935–1948.

When it became clear after World War II that Britain was not sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, Ben-Gurion pursued other avenues to Jewish statehood. He supported the 1947 United Nations (UN) partition plan that called for separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. In May 1948 the UN formally partitioned Palestine, and the State of Israel was born.

Ben-Gurion was concurrently prime minister and defense minister of the new nation. He immediately consolidated all defense organizations into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which enabled them to effectively fight both the Arab Palestinians and the surrounding Arab nations. As Israel's first prime minister, Ben-Gurion promoted and increased immigration, established government institutions, advocated compulsory primary education, and created new towns, cities, and settlements. Ben-Gurion retired from politics in 1953 only to return as prime minister and defense minister in 1955.

Ben-Gurion's second stint as head of state coincided with the disastrous 1956 Suez Crisis in which the IDF, working in consort with the French and British, moved into the Sinai Peninsula. Although the IDF performed admirably, the overall operation, by which the British and French planned to seize the Suez Canal, was a dismal failure in terms of international politics.

The last years of Ben-Gurion's premiership were marked by economic prosperity and stalled secret peace talks with the Arabs. He resigned his posts in June 1963 but retained his seat in the Knesset (parliament) until 1970. Ben-Gurion died in Tel Aviv-Yafo on 1 December 1973.

Richard Edwards


Further Reading
Zweig, Ronald W., ed. David Ben-Gurion: Politics and Leadership in Israel. Jerusalem: Y. I. Ben-Zvi, 1991.
 

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