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David Ben-Gurion
Part Washington, part Moses, he was the architect of a new nation state that altered the destiny of the Jewish people — and the Middle East
By Amos Oz for Time Magazine


Ever since he was a frail child with a disproportionately big head, David Ben-Gurion was always clear about his next move, about the Jewish people's destination, about the link between his steps and the deliverance of the Jews in their biblical homeland.

Ben-Gurion ached to be an intellectual; during the most dramatic years of his leadership, he gulped philosophy books, commented on the Bible, flirted with Buddhism, even taught himself ancient Greek in order to read Plato in the original; he had a relentless curiosity about the natural sciences (but no taste for fiction or the fine arts). He would quote Spinoza as if throwing rocks at a rival. Verbal battle, not dialogue, was his habitual mode of communication. Rather than a philosopher, he was a walking exclamation mark, a tight, craggy man with a halo of silvery hair and a jawbone that projected awesome willpower and a volcanic temper.

He came from the depressed depths of small-town Polish-Jewish life, which he left behind in 1906. Inspired by a Hebrew-Zionist upbringing, shocked by anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, he went to Turkish Palestine "to build it and be rebuilt by it," as was the motto of those days. He became a pioneer, a farmhand, active with early Zionist-socialist groups. At age 19 he was what he would remain all his life: a secular Jewish nationalist who combined Jewish Messianic visions with socialist ideals, a man with fierce ambition for leadership, extraordinary tactical-political skills and a sarcastic edge rather than a sense of humour.

In 1915 Ben-Gurion, expelled from Palestine for his nationalist and socialist activities, chose to go to New York City, where he hastily taught himself English and plunged head on into perpetrating the local Zionist-socialist movement. Yet his authoritative, almost despotic character and his enchantment with Lenin's revolution and leadership style were tempered during his three years in the U.S. by the impact American democracy left on him. Many years later, Ben-Gurion, who was urged by some countrymen to "suspend" democracy more than once, refused to do so.

After World War I he returned to Palestine, now governed by Britain and — after 1920 — designated by the League of Nations as a "National Home" for the Jewish people. He rose to prominence in the growing Zionist-socialist movement. The increasing anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1920s and '30s sent waves of Jewish immigrants into the country. Furious Arab leaders launched a rebellion against the British and a holy war on the Jews. Much earlier than others, Ben-Gurion recognized the depth and rationale of Arab objection to Zionism: he was aware of the tragic nature of a clash between two genuine claims to the same land. His position on this can be described neither as hawkish nor dovish: he saw the creation of an independent homeland for the homeless Jewish people as, first and foremost, a crucial provision for the survival of persecuted Jews. At the cost of being labelled a traitor (by extremists on the right) and an opportunist (by the dogmatic left), he was ready to go a long way to accommodate the Arabs. Yet he was one of the first to foresee that in order for the Jews to avoid a showdown with the Arabs or to survive such a showdown, they must set up a shadow state and a shadow military force.

Ben-Gurion was the great architect and builder of both. Throughout the tragic years from 1936 to 1947, while millions of Jews were rounded up and murdered by the Germans, denied asylum by almost all nations and barred by the British from finding a home in Palestine, he subtly orchestrated a complex strategy: he inspired tens of thousands of young Jews from Palestine to join the British army in fighting the Nazis, but at the same time authorized an underground agency to ship Jewish refugees into the country. As the British were intercepting, deporting and locking away these survivors of the Nazi inferno in barbed-wired detention camps, world opinion grew more and more sympathetic to the Zionist prescription for the plight of the Jews. This strategy helped bring about the favorable atmosphere that led to the 1947 U.N. resolution, partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

But even before the British left, attacks on Jews were unleashed all over the country. On May 14, 1948, in accordance with the U.N. resolution, Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel's independence, ignoring last-minute admonitions from Washington and overruling doomsday predictions by some of his closest associates. Within hours, military forces of five Arab nations invaded Israel, joining Palestinian militias in an openly declared attempt to destroy the Jews. It was the worst of several Israeli-Arab wars: 1% of the Jewish population died, as well as thousands of Arabs. More than half a million Palestinians lost their homes; some fled, some were driven out by Israeli forces.

Ben-Gurion's iron-will leadership during the fateful 1 1/2 years of that touch-and-go war turned him from "first among equals" in the Zionist leadership into a modern-day King David. The crux of his leadership was a lifelong, partly successful struggle to transplant a tradition of binding majority rule in a painfully divided Jewish society that for thousands of years had not experienced any form of self-rule, not even a central spiritual authority. In the early years of the state, many Israelis saw him as a combination of Moses, George Washington, Garibaldi and God Almighty. In admirers as well as vehement opponents, Ben-Gurion's wrathful-father personality evoked strong emotions: awe, anger, admiration, resentment. When I first met him in 1959, I was mesmerized by his physical intensity: he was a mercurial man, almost violently vivacious. There was a fistlike tightness to his argument: bold, peasant-simple, piercing, seductively warm and, for one or two gracious moments, revealing his cheerful, childlike curiosity.

Between 1949 and 1956, Arab states drew Israel into a cycle of guerrilla attacks and retaliatory raids. In 1956 Ben-Gurion, aware of an Egyptian military buildup, escalated the conflict by storming the Sinai peninsula. The operation was coordinated with a French-British assault on Egypt. To Arabs, this was further proof of Israel as a tool of imperialism. To Israelis, this was Ben-Gurion's way of securing 11 relatively peaceful years.

The swift military victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 evoked unruly territorial appetites and an obsession with holy sites. The Old Man, well into his 80s, raised his voice for the last time. Keep Jerusalem undivided, he said, but otherwise we must suppress our yearnings for the newly gained regions; we must relinquish them in return for peace. The October War of 1973 came as a nemesis, a harsh slap of reality, undoing the post-1967 Israeli arrogance and moral callousness. Ben-Gurion died a few weeks after that war, while a wounded, deflated Israel was mourning its heavy losses and entering a long period of soul searching.

Can this identity crisis be traced back to Ben-Gurion and the founding mothers and fathers of Israel? Were they no more than a bunch of lunatics, attempting to perform on a 20th century stage a bizarre blend of biblical yearnings, 19th century nationalism, socialism and Jewish Messianism? Did Ben-Gurion, at the end of the day, devote his life to a fleeting, surreal vision of resurrecting the Jewish people as a modern, democratic nation in their ancient land?

The dream is a reality now — albeit a flawed, disappointing reality. Perhaps it is in the nature of dreams and visions to remain magnificently flawless only for as long as they are unfulfilled. Ben-Gurion always wanted Israel to become a "Light unto the Nations," an exemplary polity abiding by the highest moral standards. He himself, and his Israel, could hardly live up to such expectations. But he was, to borrow a literary term, a fantastic realist who gave his people an elemental, Old Testament leadership during the most fateful half-century in their history.


The Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) served as Israel's first prime minister and minister of defense.

The son of a lawyer, David Gruen was born on October 16, 1886, in Plonsk (Czarist Russia; now Poland). He received a traditional Jewish education, later adding some secular studies in Warsaw. In 1900 he was among the founders of the Zionist youth club Ezra; in 1903 he joined the Zionist socialist movement, Poalei Zion.

Early Political Career

Gruen arrived in Palestine in September 1906. Working as a laborer, he became politically active in the Poalei Zion party and was soon elected chairman. In 1910 he joined the party organ Ha'ahdut, beginning his long writing career. He changed his name at that time to the Hebraic David Ben-Gurion, after a defender of Jerusalem who died in 70 A.D. Zionism and socialism were both seen by the young Ben-Gurion as necessities for the future of the Jewish people. To him Zionism meant the obligation to come to Palestine, settle the land, and use Hebrew as everyday speech.

At the outbreak of World War I, Ben-Gurion was deported, and in 1915 with Yitzhak Ben Zvi (Israel's second president and a lifelong friend) he embarked for the United States. There he married Paula Munweiss, a trainee at the Brooklyn Jewish Nursing School. After the Balfour Declaration (1917) proclaiming the Jewish right to a national homeland in Palestine, Ben-Gurion called for volunteers to liberate Palestine from the Turks. In August 1918 he arrived in Egypt with the Jewish Legion, but the war ended shortly afterward. In 1920 Britain acquired Palestine as a mandate of the League of Nations. The terms of mandate echoed the Balfour Declaration in declaring the area to be a future Jewish national homeland. Progress toward achievement of this goal was slow, however, and the proposed Jewish state was not established until 30 years later.

After the war Ben-Gurion advocated a form of socialism based on the cooperative principle of the new kibbutz movement. During the 1920s and 1930s he emerged as the leader of Labor Zionism. He was among the founders of the important Jewish Federation of Labor (the Histadruth) in 1921 and acted as its secretary general for 14 years. In the early 1930s he became head of the Labor party (Mapai) and a member and later chairman (1935-1948) of the Zionist and Jewish Agency Executives, which was the official representative of the Jewish community. In 1937 Ben-Gurion agreed to the British Royal Commission's proposal to divide Palestine between the Arabs and Jews, since he believed that even a truncated Jewish state would serve the purposes of Zionism. But he was an outspoken opponent of the British White Paper of 1939, limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine and restricting land purchases by Jews.

Israeli Independence

In 1942 Ben-Gurion's Biltmore program, supported by all segments of the Zionist movement, openly declared the Zionist aim as nothing less than the creation of a Jewish state. However, British policy remained unchanged after World War II, despite the catastrophe that had befallen European Jewry in the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion then authorized an armed struggle against the British and adamantly opposed immigration and land-sale restrictions, which threatened to turn Palestine's Jewish community into a permanent minority and made no provision for the great number of displaced Jewish people who wished to immigrate to Palestine.

Ben-Gurion, who throughout the years had made many attempts at Arab-Jewish rapprochement, now set about preparing for armed struggle with the Palestinian Arabs, which he saw as inevitable. In 1947 he was a major spokesman for the Zionist cause before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which later that year proposed the partition of Palestine and the formation of a Jewish state. As the British mandate was about to expire, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the restoration of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. After ending the 2,000-year exile of the Jewish people, he then led them to victory in the war of independence against seven invading armies from the Arab League nations.

Head of State

Serving as prime minister and minister of defense from 1948 to 1963 (except for a brief retirement from 1953 to 1955), Ben-Gurion revealed himself to be not only an astute party leader but also a great statesman. He protected Israel from sudden invasion by establishing a well-equipped and well-trained people's army. He forged the image of Israel as a modern democratic country based on parliamentary rule, a unique sociological and political phenomenon in the Middle East. During his premiership more than a million Jews, from 80 countries and speaking many languages, came to the homeland. The absorption and integration of the immigrants and the Israeli achievements in housing, agricultural settlement, employment, industry, education, health services, and trade, under the Ben-Gurion government, were among the remarkable accomplishments of the 20th century.

Ben-Gurion's premiership was characterized by his fiery oratory. Noted for his integrity and imbued with a messianic vision, Ben-Gurion met every challenge with the inspiration and determination of an Old Testament prophet. He urged the Israelis to study the Bible in order to understand themselves and their homeland. The supremacy of the spirit and the concept of a model state were also ideas on which he often spoke.

Among his significant achievements were negotiation of the reparations agreement with West Germany; establishment of French support prior to the Sinai campaign; consultations with leaders of France, West Germany, and the US (1959-1961) which consolidated Israel's international position and obtained economic assistance; initiation of aid programs to developing African and Asian countries; settlement of the Negev Desert; and resumption of trade at the port of Eilat. In 1956 Ben-Gurion answered Egypt's seizure of the Suez Canal by taking the Sinai Peninsula in a swift thrust almost to the banks of the Suez which inflicted a crushing defeat on the Egyptians. (Israel returned control of the Sinai but occupied it again from 1967-1979).

Resignation and Later Years

His last years as prime minister (1960-1963) were marred by the controversial Lavon affair, which split the Mapai party. Rather than compromise his principles, Ben-Gurion resigned from office. He retired to his desert retreat at Sde Boker and began writing a history of Israel. However, he never abandoned politics and subsequently formed his own Labor party (Rafi), a number of whose members were elected to Parliament. Feeling lonely after the death of his wife and lifelong comrade Paula in 1968, Ben-Gurion was often compared to an old, but still ferocious, lion in a desert retreat. Although he had no formal power, his roar was still loud enough to shake the country. He died in Israel on December 1, 1973. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defense minister, later wrote of Ben-Gurion: "The man and his leadership were one and inseperable."











This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008