On this day: David Ben-Gurion dies

December 1 1973: a visionary and statesmen


Israel’s first prime minister was born in Russian Poland in 1886, and given the name David Green by his father Avigdor. A leader of the Hibbath Zion movement, Avigdor instilled in his son a love of Zion from an early age and the house was always buzzing with talk of Zionism and Hebrew ideas.

By his late teens he had joined the Socialist-Zionist Poale Zion and become a dedicated opponent to both Tsarist antisemitism and the exploitation of workers. His activism got him into trouble, and he was arrested and jailed for agitating.

In 1905 he went with a Poale Zion group to Palestine, then under Ottoman control. With a lifelong passion for working Israel’s land, and the firm belief that for a Jewish homeland to exist the Zionists had to become self-reliant, he became an agricultural worker in Petach Tikva.

He was one of the founding members of the first Jewish self-defence unit, the Shomer, which protected agricultural communities. He briefly moved to Turkey to study law, but the outbreak of world war meant he was deported and so travelled to the United States instead.

Once in America, he began working with Zionist groups training Jews in Hebrew and in the agricultural skills they would need if they moved to Israel. He also married a fellow Zionist Paula Monbesz while in New York; the couple remained together until her death in 1968.

Back in Palestine, he enlisted in the British Legion and after the war rose in the ranks of the Histadrut trade union to become its general secretary in 1921. Throughout this time his political ambitions grew and in 1930 he formed Mapai, the Labour political party and the one for which he would eventually serve as prime minister.

With Labour Zionism the most powerful arm of the wiser Zionist network, he was named chairman of the Jewish Agency and became the prominent figure as the movement battled with obstacles like the 1939 White Paper restricting Jewish immigration. When war broke out, he famously proclaimed that Zionists "would fight the war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war."

He continued to push for the realisation of the Zionist dream, and in 1948 was the one to proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state. Ben Gurion was the obvious choice to be the fledgling countries premier.

As prime minister, his years in office were spent tackling both the threat of Arab destruction but also of building up the new state into a flourishing one. He once said: "We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew."

He served two terms in office, taking charge once again in 1955, after just 14 months ‘retirement’ at his beloved Sde Boker home. It is there, in a quiet spot in the Negev, that one of the greatest figures in Israel’s history is buried.

What the JC said: David Ben-Gurion will be recorded in history as founder and father-figure of the State if Israel upon which he vividly impressed his ideas. His was a visionary mind. He saw current issues in the context of Jewish history as a whole and world history too. When the State of Israel was achieved in 1948 he appeared to see it as a direct continuation of the Jewish State of the Maccabeans and Bar Kochba - the nineteen centuries of the diaspora were relegated to a Jewish half-limbo…It can safely be said that the name of Ben-Gurion will forever be included among the giants of Jewish creativity

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Last updated: 9:21am, December 1 2010