Ben-Gurion (Green), David

(1886–1973)
   First prime minister of Israel. In October 1906 a short, stocky young man, with a jutting jaw, set sail on a small boat through the Black Sea. David Green was twenty years old and fired with zeal to redeem the soil of the Jewish homeland. Two weeks later he landed at the port of Jaffa. Green later changed his name to Ben-Gurion, which in Hebrew means ‘son of a lion cub’.
   He came from the small Polish town of Plonsk, in the Russian Pale of Settle ment. His father, Avigdor, was a kind of lay lawyer, who read modern books in Hebrew as well as the Bible, and belonged to the Chovevei Zion (‘lovers of Zion’) movement. David finished high school, and studied for a while in Warsaw. He had already thought of pioneering work in Palestine, and the Kishinev pogroms of 1903 had strengthened this ambition. Pioneering Years Jaffa, as Ben-Gurion found it, was a seedy Arab town, with a Jewish community of storekeepers, orange exporters and tourist agents. He left his suitcase behind, and at once set out on foot for the Jewish farm village of Petach Tikvah, two hours away through fields, citrus orchards and hedges of sabras (cactus fruit). In the village he found work as a farm hand. Writing to his father, he described his first night in Petach Tikvah: ‘I did not sleep. I was among the rich smell of corn. I heard the braying of donkeys and the rustling of leaves in the orchard. Above were massed clusters of stars against the deep blue firmament. My heart overflowed with happiness, as if I had entered the realm of legend. My dream had become reality.’
   For anyone else, this reality would have seemed anything but romantic. The immigrant Jewish workers had to compete with cheap Arab labour. The work was hard, the food and pay poor. BenGurion’s main task was to push wheel-barrows of stable manure to the orchards, and spread it round the trees. He was racked by bouts of malaria from the swamp mosquitoes. The doctor advised him to return to Poland and resume his studies. He clenched his teeth and stuck it out. After a year, Ben-Gurion and a friend set off on foot for the Galilee highlands. Two days later they reached Sedjera in the hills beyond Nazareth. Here they joined a group of forty-six other young Jewish workers, engaged in clearing hill- sides of boulders and scrub and preparing the ground for cultivation. They lived in five wooden huts, and shared everything equally. The bracing hill climate and the companionship more than made up for the tough, physical toil and the primitive conditions. Ben-Gurion looked back later on the Sedjera experience as one of the happiest times of his life.
   In 1912, after the Young Turk revolution, a few of the Palestine Jews decided to go to the university in Constantinople, in order to study Turkish laws, language and government. Among them were Ben-Gurion, BENZVI and Moshe SHARETT. The outbreak of World War I brought them back to Palestine. In 1915 the Turkish military governor, JAMAL PASHA, banished Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi from the country as trouble-makers, after keeping them in jail for some weeks. They made their way to New York, found a furnished room in Brooklyn, and spent their time lecturing and writing in Yiddish on the pioneering work in Palestine. In 1917, Ben-Gurion was quietly married at New York City Hall to a Brooklyn nurse, Paula Munweiss, 1892–1968, with Ben-Zvi as the only witness.
   Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi then joined an American battalion of the Jewish Legion being formed in the British army. They were trained in Canada and sent to Egypt, and Ben-Gurion was promoted to the rank of corporal. After the British occupation of Palestine, he sent for Paula and their baby girl, whom he had not yet seen. Her name was Geula, meaning ‘redemption’. Two more children, Amos and Ra’ana, were born to the Ben-Gurions. Under the Mandate
   With his usual singleness of purpose, Ben-Gurion concentrated in the postwar years on the two principles of the early pioneering struggle: self-labour and self- defence.
   In 1920, the General Federation of Palestine Jewish Workers (the Histadrut) was founded and Ben-Gurion appointed its general secretary. It started with a few thousand members and grew into a huge and ramified organization, with its own industrial and construction enterprises, health service, transport and marketing co-operatives, daily newspaper and theatre. Most of the farm villages were affiliated to it.
   The Haganah was also formed in 1920 (the word haganah simply means ‘defence’). It was a loosely-knit militia of local volunteer units, based mainly on the kibbutzim. For the first decade, it was attached to the Histadrut, but after the Arab riots of 1929, it was placed under a separate political command, responsible to the Jewish Agency.
   Ben-Gurion’s authority in the labour movement and the yishuv had grown steadily. In 1935, he was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, a cabinet responsible for the conduct of the yishuv’s affairs and its relations with the Palestine administration. As chairman, Ben-Gurion also kept defence matters in his hands - a heavy responsibility during the Arab rebellion that started in 1936.
   In that year Ben-Gurion appeared before the Peel Commission. Like WEIZMANN, he supported the proposal for a Jewish state in part of the country. But the Peel Plan was scuttled by the British government. In the spring of 1939 came the British White Paper, bitterly rejected by the Jews. World War II broke out in September of that year. Ben-Gurion declared, ‘We shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war; we shall fight the war as if there were no White Paper.’
   In Palestine, the Jewish authorities opened recruiting offices, and 130,000 Jewish young men and women volunteered to join the armed forces in the war against Germany. Early in 1940, Ben-Gurion went to London and supported Weizmann’s demand for a Jewish formation to be allowed to fight under its own flag. This was during the German blitz on London, and he witnessed with great admiration what Churchill described as ‘Britain’s finest hour’. The Jewish Brigade was eventually formed in 1944.
   After the War
   When the war was over, Ben-Gurion toured the American and British occupation zones of Germany. He visited some of the death camps and saw for himself the evidence of Nazi genocide. In every camp the emaciated Jewish survivors crowded around him and begged him to take them to Palestine. He was received by General Dwight D.Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Eisenhower was sympathetic to Ben-Gurion’s various requests for improving conditions in the DP Camps. He agreed to let the young refugees get Hebrew lessons and farm training, but regretted he could not help get them to Palestine, since that was a political matter. From 1946, Jewish resistance in Palestine stiffened against the anti-Zionist policy directed by the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. Aliyah Bet (illegal immigration) was increased. In June 1946, British troops arrested members of the Jewish Agency Executive, occupied the agency’s premises in Jerusalem, and rounded up several thousand Haganah men. Ben-Gurion himself was out of the country at the time. He set up his headquarters in a Paris hotel, and from there continued to direct operations. A few months later the arrested Agency leaders were released. At the Zionist Congress in Basle in December 1946, Weizmann resigned as president. The office was left vacant. Ben-Gurion was now at the head of a struggle for independence.
   He was sixty-one years old when he appeared before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in Jerusalem, in the summer of 1947. One member of the Committee described him as ‘a heavy-set man, with a massive head and an energetic Roman profile crowned with sparse white hair.’ The most important point in his testimony came near its end, when he declared: ‘We feel we are entitled to Palestine as a whole, but we will be ready to consider the question of a Jewish state in an adequate area of Palestine.’ Asked how the Jews would be defended against Arab forces, he replied, ‘We shall take care of ourselves.’ After UNS COP departed, Ben-Gurion left it to Moshe Sharett and the American Zionist leaders to take part in the political battles at the UN in New York. He himself remained in Jerusalem organizing for the coming military test. He was in constant session with the Haganah command, working on its planning, training and weapons procurement. Haganah agents were sent on secret missions to scour Europe for secondhand arms, and these were smuggled in. Home-made weapons were improvised in backyard workshops. In Palestine, fighting had been going on against Arab irregulars from 29 November 1947, the date of the UN partition decision. In April 1948, the tide turned in favour of the Haganah, and the Arab population started streaming out of the territory controlled by the Jews.
   On 11 May 1948, four days before independence, Ben-Gurion sent a code cable to the Haganah in Europe: ‘General Arab attack imminent. Hasten dispatch everything available, light and heavy equipment.’ An air-lift was organized, forced to use obsolete planes, volunteer crews and makeshift landing grounds. But it kept supplies flying in during the most crucial period of the war. Independence
   At midnight, 14 May 1948, the British mandate would end. That afternoon, in a small Tel Aviv art museum, BenGurion stood before thirty-seven of his colleagues, and in firm tones read out the Proclamation of Independence. Each person present then signed the document. The meeting appointed a provisional government for the new state, with Ben-Gurion as prime minister and minister of defence. He changed his dark suit and tie for a khaki shirt and slacks, and was rushed by jeep to Haganah headquarters.
   At 5 AM the next morning he was awakened with the news that President Truman had recognized the infant state. Throwing a coat over his pyjamas he went to the radio station to broadcast a message to America. A loud crash was heard on the radio, and then BenGurion’s calm voice: ‘A bomb has just fallen on this city from Egyptian aircraft flying over us. The invading armies are rolling across the borders in the north, the south and the east.’ Israel had come to birth; the question now was whether it would survive. Four weeks later, the fighting was halted by a one-month truce, arranged by the UN mediator, Count BERNADOTTE. By then the Arab armies had been halted everywhere. Jewish Jerusalem remained under siege, hoarding its last reserves of food and water.
   In the north, the Syrian forces were stopped after they had crossed the Jordan River and penetrated with tanks into the kibbutzim at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee.
   In the south, the Egyptian forces had dug in along a line from the coast to the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Jewish settlements in the Negev were cut off but held out against Egyptian attack, and were supplied by air at night. During the truce the Haganah worked feverishly. Ben-Gurion was at his headquarters day and night, taking off little time for meals or sleep. The Arabs refused to prolong the truce and fighting broke out again. The Israel soldiers sprang into action with the speed and surprise tactics for which they were to become famous. After ten days, the Arabs agreed to an indefinite truce. In October, the Egyptian line in the south was broken and Beersheba occupied. The Galilee was then cleared of Arab irregulars. In February 1949, on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, Egypt and Israel negotiated an armistice agreement under the auspices of Dr Ralph BUNCHE of the UN. Other armistice agreements followed with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In May 1949, just a year after its birth, the State of Israel was admitted into the UN. Its independence had been won on the battlefield, and accepted by the world.
   Moulding the State
   For the first fifteen years of statehood Ben-Gurion remained its national leader. His friends called him BG, and by those initials he was known to the press and public. For his staff, party comrades, and the army, he was simply ha- Zaken (‘the old man’). As the nickname implies, his status was that of a family head, the source of authority in the country.
   Under Israel’s electoral system, no single party has been able to win a majority of the seats. Ben-Gurion’s party, Mapai (Israel Workers Party) was the dominant group, and governments were formed by coalitions with several smaller parties, including religious ones. Negotiating these coalitions after elections, and holding them together, absorbed a good deal of his time, patience and political skill. Ben-Gurion’s style of leadership and decision-making could be hard on those who worked with him. He had few intimates, and lacked Weizmann’s gift for personal relations. His views were shaped in the lonely recesses of his mind, rather than by the process of discussion and consensus-seeking invoked by Israel’s other premiers, Sharett, ESHKOL and Golda MEIR. When he reached a conclusion, he stuck to it, however controversial or unpopular it might be. His colleagues felt at times that he was being overbearing or stubborn. Yet they recognized his exceptional intuition, boldness, tenacity and historical vision. The early years of the state were dominated by mass aliyah - the influx of Jewish immigrants. This movement became known by the biblical phrase Kibbutz Galuyot, which means ‘Ingathering of the Exiles’. When the state was proclaimed it contained 650,000 Jews and 100,000 Arabs. Its population was doubled by immigrants in the first four years. In its first decade more than a million Jewish immigrants, mostly poor and uneducated, were brought into a country half desert, surrounded by enemies, and no larger than New Jersey or Wales.
   The task of providing homes, jobs, food, schooling and medical aid for the newcomers was a staggering one. For some years great numbers of them were kept in temporary work camps, sheltered in tents and wooden huts. Food was as severely rationed as it had been in wartime Britain. Life was hard in Israel during this period of tzena (‘austerity’). But the government refused to restrict the inflow, and the country supported it. Ben-Gurion declared : ‘It was for this that Israel was established. This is not the state only of the Jews who live in it, but a state destined for all Jews who want to come.’ The government directed a great number of immigrants into the empty spaces and along the borders. The Israel economy grew rapidly, impelled by population pressures. Development capital was urgently needed. In 1951, with the state three years old, Ben-Gurion flew to the United States. He had come to invite the American people, especially American Jewry, to invest in Israel’s future. He launched the sale of the State of Israel Independence Bonds, with a target of half a billion dollars.
   Another important source of financial aid for the state produced a deep emotional conflict in Israel. West Germany, led by Dr Konrad ADENAUER, was willing to pay reparations for part of the suffering and losses inflicted on the Jews by the Nazi regime. It was obvious that no Jew could forget Hitler’s monstrous crimes against his people. Israel had many Nazi survivors, a large number with the indelible concentration camp numbers still tattooed on their arms. Yet Ben-Gurion felt that the German offer should be accepted. For him, the only answer to Hitler was a Jewish state, and anything that made it stronger was morally justified.
   With stormy demonstrations in the street outside, the Reparations Agreement was ratified by the Knesset. In the next fourteen years, it provided the state with oil, raw materials, machinery and ships to the value of $845 million. In 1960 Ben-Gurion and Adenauer met for the first time, in a New York hotel. From the beginning Ben-Gurion firmly laid down, as minister of defence, that there should be a single national army, standing apart from politics, and that it would take its orders only from the government, through the civilian minister of defence. He would brook no private armies connected with political factions. Where such groups remained from the pre-state struggle, they would have to disband and their members merge into the regular army. This stern dictum was not so easy to apply in practice. It was painful for the Palmach, the elite corps of the Haganah, to give up its identity. The problem of the two dissident groups, Irgun Tzvai Leumi (Etzel) and Lehi, was a more acute one. Before the state, they had not obeyed the authority of the Jewish Agency Executive. After independence, Ben-Gurion thought it vital to break them up quickly as separate armed groups, lest the state should be disrupted from within. With the Etzel, the showdown came in June 1948, during the first UN truce. The organization had brought in a small boat, the Altalena, loaded with arms, which they were unwilling to hand over completely to the government. When the Altalena was beached on the Tel Aviv front, Ben-Gurion ordered his troops to prevent the arms being offloaded. In the shooting that ensued, the boat was set on fire and some of the men on it killed. Ben-Gurion was bitterly attacked by his opponents for this strong action; but it ended the career of Etzel, and its members were drafted into the army.
   Lehi was an extremist splinter group from Etzel. In September 1948, persons connected with it shot the UN mediator, Count Bernadotte, for political reasons. This outrage gave Ben-Gurion a chance to disband this group as well. The success with which the army was built up, under Ben-Gurion’s guidance, was to be brilliantly demonstrated in the Sinai Campaign in 1956, and again in the Six-Day War in 1967.
   By 1953, Ben-Gurion, now 67, was feeling weary in body and mind. The country was startled and dismayed when he announced that he wished to resign. Resisting pressure, he wrote to his old friend Ben-Zvi, who had succeeded Weizmann as president, that ‘no one man is indispensable to the state and certainly I am not.’ Moshe Sharett became prime minister, while remaining foreign minister, and Pinchas LAVON was appointed minister of defence. It was to a wooden pre-fab in the isolated Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker that Ben-Gurion retired with his wife Paula. Half the day was spent looking after the sheep, as a working member of the kibbutz. The rest of the time he spent in reading and writing, and putting into order the daily diary he had kept in exercise books, from his early years in the country.
   The Sinai Campaign
   In 1955, Israel was in growing danger from the NASSER regime in Egypt, aided by the Soviet Union and in military alliance with Syria and Jordan. The country turned once more to its strong man. Ben-Gurion came back into the government, first as minister of defence under Sharett, and then taking over as prime minister. He plunged with vigour into preparing for the battle which now seemed inevitable. Working with him was a chief of staff close to his thinking - General Moshe DAYAN.
   Late in 1956, a major crisis blew up when Nasser took over the Suez Canal, a vital international waterway. At the end of October Britain and France dispatched a joint military force to occupy the Canal Zone. At the same time Israel columns struck across the border, while paratroopers seized the key pass of Mitla, 150 miles west, near the canal. Within a hundred hours the Egyptian army had been routed, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip were in Israel hands, and the ten-year blockade of the Gulf of Akaba broken. Under joint American and Russian pressure, the Israel forces withdrew again behind the old border. All the same, much had been gained. It would take many years before Egypt could again become a military threat. Nasser found it prudent to halt terrorist raids and keep the border quiet. A UN peace force (UNEF) of several thousand men patrolled the Egyptian side of the frontier. The Gulf of Akaba remained open to Israel shipping, and the port of Eilat developed at its head. Israel’s victory had at least won a breathing-spell for a decade. That time would be used to try and digest its immigrant masses and consolidate its national strength.
   Retirement
   In June 1963, Ben-Gurion informed his Cabinet that he was again retiring. As usual, the decision seemed sudden, but it had shaped itself slowly in his mind. One of the factors that had influenced him was that he felt deeply about the so- called Lavon Affair. It concerned a security mishap in Cairo in 1954, when Lavon was minister of defence. It had never been conclusively determined who had authorized the operation that resulted in two Jews being executed and nine others imprisoned. In 1960 Lavon sought to exonerate himself after new evidence came to light. Ben-Gurion demanded a judicial enquiry, instead of one by a Cabinet committee, but was overruled by his government. He continued to insist that fundamental principles were involved. However, he found himself more and more isolated on this issue, since there was a general reluctance in the government, the party and the country to reopen the controversial affair.
   Ben-Gurion returned to his life in Sde Boker, though remaining a Knesset member. Levi Eshkol, the finance minister, succeeded him as prime minister. Ben-Gurion became critical of his successor’s policies and his handling of the Lavon Affair. In 1965 Ben-Gurion and some of his supporters broke away from the party, and set up an independent faction known as Rafi (Israel Workers List). Dayan joined it, out of loyalty to his old chief. It obtained ten seats in the Knesset after the 1965 elections. On the eve of the Six-Day War, Rafi was included in Eshkol’s Government of National Unity, and the following year was received back into an enlarged Labour Party. But Ben-Gurion refused to give his blessing to this reunion. In the 1969 elections he headed a small State List that won four seats. In 1970 he resigned from the Knesset and ceased to take an active part in the political life of the country. He died in 1973.
   Ben-Gurion has rightly been called the George Washington of Israel. Each led his country’s fight for independence and guided its destiny after that. But the resemblance ends in their later years. Washington lived as a Virginia country squire in the handsome colonial mansion at Mount Vernon. Ben-Gurion clung to the desert outpost of Sde Boker, scorched by the summer heat and removed from urban amenities. When his wife died she was buried in the kibbutz cemetery. His personal life and needs were always simple, even austere. He never cared for alcoholic drinks and had not smoked since he undertook to give up cigarettes if his son Amos did so. When still in public office, he used to shun cocktail parties and dinners, theatres, concerts and movies, regarding such pursuits as a waste of time. His one great indulgence was always books - history, philosophy, politics and science, but not fiction or poetry. Most of the available space in the wooden pre-fab dwelling at the kibbutz was taken up by thousands of his books. He had always been an avid reader. He did not need much sleep, and could relax from affairs of state by study at night. Starting in the bomb-shelters during the London blitz, he taught himself classical Greek, so that he could study the Greek philosophers in the original, especially Plato. In order to grasp a difficult Spanish treatise on Spinoza, he decided to learn Spanish, and worked his way through Cervantes’ Don Quixote with a dictionary. As instalments of the official Russian Encyclopaedia came out from the State Publishing House in Moscow, the Israel Embassy there had to send them home to him in the diplomatic pouch. When U Nu, the prime minister of Burma, paid an official visit to Israel, he was astonished to find that Ben- Gurion could discuss Buddhist philosophy with him for hours. While not religious in the orthodox sense, he enjoyed biblical disputations with rabbis and professors.
   His special project was the Institute of Negev Studies, a group of white buildings on high ground next to the canyon a few thousand yards from the kibbutz. It has research and courses on the problems of arid zones, a teachers’ training college, a residential high school for the region, and a field centre for youth groups from all over Israel and from abroad. Ben-Gurion was a prolific writer and publicist. His works in English include Rebirth and Destiny of Israel (1952), Israel: Years of Challenge (1963), The Jews in Their Land (as editor and contributor) (1966), and Israel - A Personal History (1972). The main theme in these works was one he had practised and preached since his pioneering days at Sedjera sixty years earlier - that Jewish redemption depended on the Jews themselves. He used to relate: ‘The ancient Chinese sage Confucius, who lived at the time of our own Jeremiah and remained the teacher of the Chinese people for 2,500 years, put the doctrine of pioneering in a single incisive sentence. One of his disciples asked him, “Master, who is the higher man?” Confucius answered, “He who first carries out himself what he demands of others, and then demands of others only what he does himself.”’

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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