David Yosef Gruen was born in Plonsk, Poland on October 16, 1886, and educated in a Hebrew school established by his father, an ardent Zionist. By his mid-teens, Ben-Gurion led a Zionist youth group, “Ezra,” whose members spoke only Hebrew among themselves.
Arriving in the Land of Israel in 1906, he became involved in the creation of the first agricultural workers’ commune (which evolved into the Kvutzah and finally the Kibbutz), and helped establish the Jewish self-defense group, “Hashomer” (The Watchman). In 1910, he Hebraicized his name to Ben-Gurion after a Jewish leader of the revolt against the Romans in the 1st century.
Following the outbreak of World War I, he was deported by the Ottoman authorities with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (later, Israel’s second President). Ben-Gurion traveled on behalf of the Socialist-Zionist cause to New York, where he met and married Paula Monbesz, a fellow Poalei Zion activist. His speeches around the country enhanced his political standing in the Diaspora and allowed him to meet influential American Jewish leaders. He returned to Israel in the uniform of the Jewish Legion, created as a unit in the British Army by Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.
Ben-Gurion was a founder of the trade unions, and, in particular, the national federation, the Histadrut, which he dominated from the early 1920’s. He also served as the Histadrut’s representative in the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency, and was elected chairman of both organizations in 1935.
As the UN began to consider how to resolve the conflicting claims of the Arabs and Jews, Ben-Gurion faced the challenge of figuring out how to create a government that would reflect the Jewish character of the planned state while ensuring it was a democracy that guaranteed freedom of religion and not a theocracy. He needed the support of Orthodox Jews, however, to create a unified Jewish position to present to the UN. In September 1947, Ben-Gurion reached a formal status quo agreement with the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, which remains largely intact today. Ben-Gurion promised:
- The future government will do all it can to make sure that the religious demands be answered concerning personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce, and conversions.
- All government-operated kitchens (army, police, hospitals, etc.) will have kosher food.
- Shabbat will be the official day of rest for Jews.
- There will be autonomy in education and the state will not intervene in religious education but will demand and regulate a minimum curriculum in secular subjects such as science, grammar and history.
Having led the struggle to establish the State of Israel in May 1948, Ben-Gurion became Prime Minister and Defense Minister. As premier, he oversaw the establishment of the state’s institutions. He presided over various national projects aimed at the rapid development of the country and its population: “Operation Magic Carpet,” the airlift of Jews from Arab countries, the construction of the national water carrier, rural development projects and the establishment of new towns and cities. In particular, he called for pioneering settlement in outlying areas, especially in the Negev.
In late 1953, Ben-Gurion left the government and retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. He returned to political life, after the Knesset elections in 1955, assuming the post of Defense Minister and later the premiership.
Continuing as Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion supported the establishment of relations with West Germany, despite bitter opposition. He also led the country during the 1956 Sinai campaign, in which Israeli forces temporarily secured the Sinai peninsula.
In June 1963, Ben-Gurion resigned as Prime Minister, citing “personal reasons.” Levi Eshkol took over the posts of Prime Minister and Defense Minister. But Ben-Gurion remained active politically, with a rivalry developing between him and Eshkol. In June 1965, the Mapai Party split, with Ben-Gurion establishing Rafi (List of Israeli Workers), which won ten Knesset seats in the following election. In 1968, Rafi rejoined Mapai and Ahdut Ha’avoda, to form the Israel Labor Party, while Ben-Gurion formed a new party, Hareshima Hamamlachtit (The State List), which won four Knesset seats in the 1969 elections.
Ben-Gurion was a political giant but stood just five feet tall.
In June 1970, Ben-Gurion retired from political life and returned to Sde Boker where he passed away on December 1, 1973. His grave is beside his wife’s in Sde Boker.