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David Ben-Gurion
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David Ben-Gurion

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A Zionist statesman and political leader, David Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister and defense minister of Israel.

Who Was David Ben-Gurion?

David Ben-Gurion was Israel's first prime minister (1948-53, 1955-63) and defense minister (1948-53; 1955-63). It was Ben-Gurion who, on May 14, 1948, delivered Israel's declaration of independence. His charismatic personality won him the adoration of the masses, and, after his retirement from the government and the Knesset, he was revered as the "Father of the Nation." Ben-Gurion died in Israel in 1973.

Early Years

Originally David Gruen, David Ben-Gurion was born in Plonsk, Russian Empire (now in Poland), on October 16, 1886. He was educated in a Hebrew school founded by his father, an enthusiastic Zionist. Ben-Gurion himself was leading a Zionist youth group by his early teens. When he was 18 years old, Ben-Gurion began teaching in a Jewish school in Warsaw, soon pairing socialism with his Zionism and joined Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a socialist/Zionist group.

Ben-Gurion's abiding drive to ensure a Jewish homeland took him to the Middle East—specifically Palestine, the "land of Israel"—in 1906, where he helped create a commune for agricultural workers and Hashomer (Watchmen), the Jewish self-defense group. It was at this time that he adopted the ancient Hebrew name Ben-Gurion. Once World War I began, Ben-Gurion was deported by the Ottomans and left the Middle East for New York City, where he met and married Paula Monbesz, a fellow Zionist.

Toward a Jewish State

On November 2, 1917, the British government set forth the Balfour Declaration, promising the Jews a "national home" in Palestine. Upon its release, Ben-Gurion went back to the Middle East and joined the war against the Ottomans for the liberation of Palestine. Once the Ottomans were overthrown, Ben-Gurion called for Jews to immigrate in greater droves to Palestine, thereby creating a foundation upon which to establish a Jewish state. By 1935, Ben-Gurion was chairman of the Zionist Executive—the highest level of oversight in the world Zionism.

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As the decade wore on and the Jewish movement in the region grew, Arabs became uneasy, and violent clashes resulted. Soon after, the British began siding with the Arabs over the Jews, and restricting Jewish migration to Palestine. Ben-Gurion's reaction was swift, and he urged Jews to stand up against England.

World War II would become paramount soon, but during a May 1942 assembly, Ben-Gurion and the gathered body decided that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine after the war was of utmost importance. After the war, Ben-Gurion continued his rally against the British mandate, and in May 1948, the United Nations General Assembly, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to the creation of the state of Israel.

The Israeli State

In May 1948, Ben-Gurion became Israel's first prime minister and defense minister, and began overseeing the establishment of the state's institutions and infrastructure projects. He also presided over projects working toward the development and population of the new nation.

Ben-Gurion established a strong Israeli defense, which would prove resilient to advances by neighboring Arab states that would give him and Israel little rest over his tenure. He briefly retired in 1953, but returned to positions of power in 1955 and led the Israeli government until 1963, when he suddenly retired, citing personal reasons.

Final Years and Death

During his final years of office, Ben-Gurion initiated talks with regional Arab leaders toward establishing peace in the Middle East—though, as history would prove, to no avail. He died in Tel Aviv–Yafo, Israel, on December 1, 1973, at the age of 87.

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