In 2008 the nation of Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary as a modern state. Central to the nation’s birth in 1948, and still relevant in Israeli and Mideast politics today, is the man who became its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Gurion was born David Green (or Gruen/Gryn) in 1886 in Plonsk, Russian Poland, the fourth child of Avigdor and Sheindel Green. His father was a lawyer, a prominent member of the Jewish community, and the founder of a school for modern Hebrew. The young Ben-Gurion was introduced to Hebrew by his grandfather beginning in his third year.
Avigdor Green was an early member of a society called Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion). His regular meetings with the local members meant that “the Land of Israel” was a constant topic of conversation in the Green household. Ben-Gurion later recorded in his memoirs, “It is no exaggeration to say that at three I had daydreams of coming to Palestine. And certainly from my tenth year on, I never thought of spending my life anywhere else.”
At one point in his early years he came in contact with political Zionist Theodor Herzl, who made a visit to Plonsk. Welcomed by many Jews at the time as a messiah-like figure, Herzl made a strong impression on Ben-Gurion: “One glimpse of him and I was ready to follow him then and there to the land of my ancestors.”
When he was 11 years old, Ben-Gurion’s mother died. Understandably the boy suffered the loss greatly, saying later that life seemed meaningless at that time and that he was obsessed by feelings of human frailty. But after some years there was improvement: “When I was fourteen, I suddenly emerged from this tunnel to throw myself heart and soul into the Zionist movement.” Accordingly he and two friends founded a Zionist youth group to teach modern Hebrew. They named it the Ezra Society, for “the great teacher who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the Temple.” Ben-Gurion explained, “There seemed to us marked affinity between Ezra’s mission and time and our own newly born hopes for Palestine.”
Biographer Shabtai Teveth makes an observation about the centrality of Ben-Gurion’s early years to his later psychology: “For Ben-Gurion, the first things were also the final ones, and what filled his early years occupied his world forever. The foundation for his life’s work was his formidable personality . . . : currents of tenderness and love, confidence in his singularity, and the glimmerings of a dream of the rebirth of Israel all combined in a mixture miraculously suited to his mission.”
Identifying With the Land
In 1906 the young Zionist emigrated to Palestine, taking up work as a farm laborer for the next four years, and in February 1909, writes Teveth, “he paid his first visit to Jerusalem, where the sight of the Western Wall brought on such extreme emotional agitation that he remained in the city for a week.” Ben-Gurion was usually adept at covering up his emotions, believing that their open expression was a weakness; in light of this proclivity, the emotional impact of the Western Wall is significant. By his own admission Ben-Gurion was irreligious, even atheistic as a youth. Even in his later years he demonstrated no great sympathy for the elements of traditional Judaism, though he quoted the Bible extensively in his speeches and writings—more than any other Jewish politician then or since. Yet a first visit to the Western Wall produced such an emotional effect that he was compelled to rest for a week. When asked to explain this, Teveth responded, “Think of it [his first visit to the Wall] as a son meeting a father after a very long separation.”
The following year Ben-Gurion moved to Jerusalem to work for a friend who published a Zionist journal. “I somewhat reluctantly agreed to become a journalist,” he later recalled. “Perhaps one of the minor points influencing my decision was that the nub of Zionist activity in the country had moved from Jaffa to Jerusalem, in symbolic emphasis of our affinity with the city which had always been and was to become once more our capital.”
It was at this time that he adopted his new surname. He became Ben-Gurion (“son of a lion cub”), after Joseph Ben-Gurion, a first-century democratic leader of the Jews, whom zealots killed for his moderation in the uprising against the Romans in 66 C.E. David Ben-Gurion’s middle name was Joseph. Thus his new name was appropriate in more ways than one: as Joseph Ben-Gurion had been a military leader in first-century Jerusalem, so David Joseph Ben-Gurion aspired to be a military leader in the 20th-century city.
Apart from visits home and an interlude in Istanbul to study law, Ben-Gurion stayed in Jerusalem until deported to Egypt in 1915 by the Ottoman authorities, who were allied with Germany in the First World War. While he awaited deportation, he met a Jerusalemite Arab, Yahia, with whom he had studied in Istanbul. In his mind they were close friends. For years to come he told the story of one of their conversations, and it provides an important insight into his thinking about the Arabs. In simple terms it defined Ben-Gurion’s lifelong view. Teveth records that, “asked what he was doing in prison, Ben-Gurion told Yahia about the deportation order. ‘As your friend I’m sorry,’ Yahia replied. ‘As an Arab I am glad.’” According to Teveth, “this experience laid the foundation of all his political thinking, the principle that as long as the Jews were in the minority in Palestine, they must be allied with the ruling power in the region, to enable them to stand up to the Arabs; this was more important to him than dialogue and understanding with the Arabs.”
Ben-Gurion’s position with regard to the Palestinian Arabs was solidified by the Arab Revolt of 1936. He came to believe more firmly that war was the only way to achieve the aims of the Yishuv, or Jewish settlers. Peace agreements with the Arab population were only a means to an end. Because both peoples wanted Palestine, he believed that there could only be conflict until one side won decisively.
At the time, Palestine was a British mandate set up by the League of Nations, but a 1937 British Royal Commission report recommended partitioning the land into an Arab and a Jewish state. Although Ben-Gurion had lost faith in the British over the years, his pragmatism led him to believe that a Jewish state of any size could become a power base for Zionist goals. In a letter to his son Amos, his mindset was clear: “Erect a Jewish State at once, even if it is not in the whole land. The rest will come in the course of time. It must come.”
By 1939, however, the British had retreated from the Royal Commission’s recommendations, and in need of Arab support in the Second World War, they now proposed that an Arab state alone be set up in Palestine, with Jews as a minority population. After the war, international opinion swung in favor of a Jewish homeland, especially when the full horror of the Holocaust became known. But by then Ben-Gurion had become convinced that whatever form the Jewish entity would take, the Jews were alone as a people.
In April 1947 Britain requested the transfer of its Mandate responsibilities to the United Nations. Very soon after the passage of the UN resolution in November 1947, Palestinian Arabs attacked the Jewish community. The Jewish forces retaliated, and within a few months the Jewish paramilitary force Haganah, on orders from Ben-Gurion, began expelling Palestinians from entire villages and bringing in Jews to take their place.
Based on interviews with Haganah leaders and Ben-Gurion himself, foreign correspondent Dan Kurzman later wrote: “The full impact of his lifelong obsession with the Bible struck with blistering force when it appeared that Jerusalem would fall to the Arabs and perhaps be lost forever to the Jewish state. Whatever happened to any other Jewish areas, the Holy City must be saved. It was the soul of the Jewish people, the fount of the light to be cast unto the nations. He had agreed that it be internationalized as a temporary concession. But an Arab flag over Jerusalem? Not for one minute!”
On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel, and the next day fighting broke out between Arabs and Jews. By the time the various parties signed armistice agreements in early 1949, Jerusalem was a divided city: West Jerusalem was in Israeli hands and East Jerusalem and the Old City were under Jordanian control.
“We declare that Israel will never abandon Jerusalem of its own volition, in the same way as we have not for thousands of years given up our faith, our national character and our hope of return to Jerusalem and Zion.”
Prime Minister Ben-Gurion was determined, however, that such a division must be temporary. In a December 1949 speech before the Knesset he referred to the city as Israel’s “holy capital city,” adding: “Jewish Jerusalem will never accept foreign rule, after thousands of its sons and daughters have for the third time liberated their historic homeland and redeemed Jerusalem from destruction and ruin.”
The Later Years
Ben-Gurion retired from politics for two short periods, from December 1953 to February 1955, and again in June 1963. He was reelected to the Knesset in 1965 as the head of a new party (Rafi) formed with his protégé Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan. But his days as leader were over. The party soon disbanded and rejoined Mapai, leaving Ben-Gurion as the only Rafi member in the Knesset.
The day after Israel’s capture of the Old City in June 1967, Ben-Gurion visited the Western Wall accompanied by Peres. He noticed a tile sign in front of the Wall, which read “Al-Burak Road” in English and Arabic but not in Hebrew. It was a reminder of the prophet Muhammad’s legendary horse, al-Burak, left tethered by the Wall as the prophet purportedly took his journey to heaven from the famous rock above. Ben-Gurion looked at the sign with disapproval and asked if anyone had a hammer. A soldier tried to pry off the tile with a bayonet, but Ben-Gurion was concerned about damage to the surrounding stone. An axe was produced and the name on the tile carefully removed. The symbolism of expunging Arabic from the redeemed Jewish holy site was not lost on the surrounding crowd, nor on Ben-Gurion. They cheered, and Ben-Gurion exclaimed, “This is the greatest moment of my life since I came to Israel.”
The next day he went further, records former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, proposing “the demolition of the walls of Jerusalem because they are not Jewish.” Ben-Gurion believed that this would indicate continuity of Jewish control of the areas inside and outside the walls. He went on to suggest the building of “thousands of huts” all over the captured city to create “facts” on the ground.
In the Knesset at the end of July, Ben-Gurion spoke of the captured city in terms of a cherished treasure and the redemption longed for through the centuries: “There is no doubt that the most important and dearest of all the territories which the valor of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] has restored to our control is the Old City of Jerusalem and its surrounding area, to which the eyes of the entire world and especially world Jewry are turned.” But, he added, “there is only one way to ensure for all eternity the Jewishness and Israeliness of Jerusalem and the surrounding area . . . —and not by the removal of non-Jews from this area, not a single one. On the contrary, all that is and will be required of us is to improve the economic and social conditions of the present inhabitants. But as soon as possible we must also settle, rebuild, and populate the Jewish Quarter in the Old City that was destroyed by the Arabs twenty years ago and all the empty and unpopulated areas to the east, north, and south of the city, with thousands and tens of thousands of Jewish families from the New City and from other parts of Israel and with Jewish volunteers from the Diaspora.
“Only such an irrevocable fact of renewal and completion,” he went on, “will provide final and unquestionable permanence to the redeeming work of our glorious Army in the Six-Day War and put a stop to the debate going on in the UN since November 29, 1947, on the character, image, and regime of Jerusalem, capital of the Eternal People from the time of King David and to the end of time, if there will be such an end.”
“Peace is indeed a vital matter for us. It is impossible to build a country in a permanent state of war, but peace for us is a means. The end is the complete and full realization of Zionism.”
That Zionist ideology formed the core of Ben-Gurion’s identity there can be little doubt. From his youth, the importance of settlement in the land was central to his views, as illustrated by the fact that in 1918, shortly after his marriage, he left his pregnant wife behind in New York to return to Palestine. The Zionist cause overwhelmed everything else in his life.
David Ben-Gurion retired for the final time in 1970 and died in 1973.