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The Ben Gurion Years
Ben Gurion Centenary 1886-1986

Source Documents


Ben Gurion was a founder with a capital "F". Yet his was not the idea to found a Jewish state - the credit for this must go to Herzl who proposed the idea in 1896, when Ben Gurion was only ten years old.

Nor was Ben Gurion the prime mover of the socialist Zionist concept - credit here goes to Moshe Hess, Nahman Syrkin, Ber Borochov. The idea of fulfillment by pioneering did not emerge with Ben Gurion either - it can be found in the writings of Aharon David Gordon who followed the Biluim in this respect alone.

And it was Berl Katzelnelson not Ben Gurion who laid the foundations for revolutionary-constructive Zionism whereas Chaim Arlozorov preceded him on the political scene, along with Chaim Weizmann.

It was, however, Ben Gurion who astonished the world with his indomitable spirit and willpower. He also had an extraordinary feeling for when the time was ripe for action. This combination brought him to the premiership of the "embryo" state at the time of its trial and he was at the helm, making the decision, in 1948. This was the moment Jabotinsky had dreamed of, his "iron wall" dividing the transition from Yishuv to independent state and it was Ben Gurion's voice that declared its existence.


1886 Born in Plonsk (Russian border of Poland), as David Gryn, son of Avigdor Gryn. Became member of the "Hovevei Tzion".

1903 Joins the "Poalei Tzion".

1904 Beginning of the Second Aliya.

1906 Ben Gurion's aliya as an agricultural labourer (Petah Tikva).

1907 Goes up to the Galil to work at Sejera (Ilaniya).

1908 Kinneret, Milkhamiya (Menachemiya), Zikhron Yaakov; the "Young Turks" revolution.

1909 "Hashomer" guards are formed. B.G. does guard duty with them and assists their general security organization in the Galil.

1910 Kinneret - work of public and journalistic nature (founds "Ha'achdut" paper with Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi and Rachel Yanait Ben - Tzvi) and studies Law (at universities of Salonika & Istanbul). Hopes to get help from the "Young Turks".

1914 Returns from abroad for vacation. Outbreak of First World War. B.G. supports "Ottomanization", having himself accepted Ottoman citizenship.

1915 Expulsion of BG, Ben-Tzvi and Rachel Yanait. Meets Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor in Alexandria and talk about the "G'dud Ivri" (Jewish Battalion). BG. favors Zionist neutrality. Travels to USA; first Zionist activity in American towns.

1917 Marries Paula. "Hechalutz" movement founded in USA. "G'dud Ivri" founded. BG volunteers.

1918 BG, Ben-Tzvi, with the G'dud in Egypt, then to Eretz Yisrael. Negotiations to unify the Labour movement. Difficulties ("Hapoel Hatzair"). Third Aliya.

1920 "Akhdut Ha'avoda" set up with Berl Katzenelson.

Ben-Tzvi etc found the Histadrut.
Defense of Tel Hai and Trumpeldor falls.

1921 BG Secretary General of the Histadrut, thus one of Yishuv's foremost leaders of Zionist movement.

Arab riots.

1924 "Haganah" founded. Fourth Aliya begins ("Polish").

1930 Unification of labour movement except for Hashomer Hatzair and other factions. Known as Mapai from coalition between Akhdut Ha'avoda and Hapoel Hatzair.

1933 Hitler comes to power in Germany.

Arlozorov murdered. BG on Zionist Executive - in conflict with the Revisionists and Jabotinsky's leadership.

1934 Agreement with Jabotinsky.

1935 Succeeds Weizmann as Chairman of Zionist Executive and President of the Zionist Organization (Histadrut Tzionit).

German Aliya (Fifth) increases.

1936 Arab riots and atrocities.

1938-39 Partition plan first proposed.

Peel Commission Report.
Munich agreement on Czechoslovakia.

1939 White Paper.

Second World War breaks out. Beginning of building the Yishuv in a war economy.

1941-42 BG travels to and through the USA to canvass support for a Jewish state.

1943 Biltmore Declaration.

From the creation of the Palmach to the founding of the Jewish Brigade - first news arrives about the extent of the Sho'a, destruction of Jews in Europe.

1945 BG and "Activism" without conflict with Chaim Wezimann, but opposes break-off organizations (Etzel, Lehi).

The Bricha and the Ha'apala (illegal immigration). The Yishuv struggles for existence.

1946 The Yishuv's struggle. Black Shabbat.

1947 UN Commission of Inquiry results in Partition Plan for two states. War of Independence. BG heads the decision-making process.

1948 Declaration of Independence. BG's Provisional Government as Head of State and Minister for Defense.

1949 War ends. Mass aliya.

1951 Compensation agreement with Federal Germany.

1953 BG retires to Sde Boker.

1954 BG returns to government (under Levi Eshkol).

Reprisals continue.
BG returns to premiership.

1955 Retires.

1956 By arrangement with Great Britain and France - Sinai Campaign.

1957 After hopes for annexation of Sinai, Israel withdraws.

1959 Wadi Salib disturbances.

57-60 Disagreement over "Who is a Jew" issue. Relations with Germany. Problems in the military high command just as the economic situation started to improve.

1960 Lavon scandal returns to the headlines as "the shameful affair" and Lavon is dismissed.

1963 BG retires to Sde Boker.

1964 BG returns to the offensive on the "shameful affair".

1965 BG leaves Mapai and founds Rafi with the "young guard".

1967 Rafi enters the coalition government on the eve of the Six Day War, i.e., with Mapai, to create a National Unity government.

1968 Labour Party formed from unification of Rafi, Mapai and Akhdut Ha'avoda. BG doesn't join them and Yachad is founded.

1969 BG objects to joining the government and forms the "National List".

1970 From here on BG makes peace with his opponents.

1971 BG is 85. National celebrations.

1973 Yom Kippur War. BG suffers cerebral hemorrhage and dies. Buried beside Paula near the college at Sde Boker.


David Ben Gurion (Gryn) was born in the small town of Plonsk in eastern Poland in 1886. Other famous Zionists born there were Shlomo Tzemach (writer, pioneer, member of the Second Aliya); Shlomo Lavi (founder of Kibbutz Ein Harod, writer and public figure).

Ben Gurion's family belonged to the Hovevei Tzion and although he chose socialist Zionism ("Poalei Tzion"), he also worked for the revival of the Hebrew language and supported the "Eretz Yisrael" faction ("Tzioni-Tzion") against the territorialists.

He was always a pragmatist and came to Eretz Yisrael with the Second Aliya in 1906.

Some other points to remember:

  1. Poland was divided into Galicia (Austro-Hungarian Empire) and the Russian sector (Tsarist Empire) with 1,331,000 and 400,000 Jews respectively in 1897, a considerable increase since the 750,000 estimate for the year 1815.
  2. Russian Poland was part of the "Pale of Settlement" (also included Lithuania, Byelorussia, the Ukraine), the only area where Jews could live under the Russian regime. The overall Jewish population for 1897 was 5,215,000.
  3. Jews also lived in the north-eastern sector of the Hungarian Empire, the eastern edge of Prussia (in reality Poland as well) and Rumania.
The First Aliya

1881 and 1882 saw the first wave of pogroms in Russia and the founding of the Hibat Tzion movement which led to the First Aliya in 1882, bringing 40,000 Jews from Rumania and Russia to Eretz Yisrael. This number included some ultra-orthodox groups, also Hovevei members who joined the old Yishuv together with olim from Yemen and Bukhara. Many left because of the difficult conditions.

Eretz Yisrael was then a colony in a shrinking Ottoman Empire, with Islam the dominant faith. It repressed all other faiths, mainly the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches more than Judaism as well as nationalism and the Zionist movement. At the turn of the century, there was a population of some 300,000 both sides of the Jordan river, of which 70,000 were Jewish (Western side only). This was a considerable increase on the figure of 30,000 Jews in 1890, and included pre-Zionist Hassidic aliya, Mitnagdim (opponents of Hassidism), "Western" Jews and Mugrabi Jews from North Africa. The latter and the Balkan Jews brought new craftsmanship and commerce to coastal towns like Yafo and Haifa.

The Second Aliya - Causes
  1. 1904 was the year Herzl passed away and the year of another massive wave of pogroms in Russia, particularly in the Ukraine and Rumania. This was the year of the infamous Kishinev pogrom. 1904 was the beginning of the Second Aliya.

  2. 1905 was the year of the First Russian Revolution; largely a failure, it resulted in increased persecution of the Jews by the Tsarist regime. Jews felt increasingly frustrated, but most adopted a "wait and see" attitude - there was little else to do in any circle, Jewish or Zionist.e

  3. Ben Gurion viewed the Second Aliya in retrospect as an expression of dissatisfaction with official Zionism (speeches and meetings); with official socialism (demonstrations not helping the toiling masses); and with the old Yishuv (stuck in a rut, not setting an example to the Jewish world or helping it).

  4. Other matches that lit the flame of the Second Aliya were the letter from teacher Yossef Vitkin and one by Aharon David Gordon on his arrival in the country in 1904.
The Second Aliya - Contributions

Between 1904 and 1906 between 35,000 and 40,000 Jews came to Eretz Yisrael, including about 6,000 halutzim from Eastern Europe, most of whom later left through hardship. Practically none of those who worked in production left the country, so this element retains an ideological and organizational importance out of proportion to its numbers. The Yemenite aliya from both Aliyot came to 5,000 souls and there was a significant number of olim from other "Eastern" (Sephardi) communities.

The main contributions of this Aliya can be summarized as follows:

  1. Hagshama (fulfillment) - which applied to relatively few and remained unpublicized in the Jewish world at large;

  2. From 1904 to 1917 there was a gradual trend toward independent work, Jewish mixed agriculture, but this went unremarked;

  3. It was the mother of the Kibbutz, the workers' association, the "Hashomer" guard and therefore the kernel of social organization for a state.
David Ben Gurion Takes the Lead

David Ben Gurion, his close friend, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, Berl Katzenelson (the moral preceptor of the labour Zionist movement) and Yossef Chaim Sofer (the writer) were active in this Aliya until the outbreak of the First World War. Ben Gurion himself worked as an agricultural labourer on a Galilee farm, joined "Hashomer" and organized security. When he moved to Jerusalem he, Ben-Tzvi and Rachel Yanait Ben-Tzvi joined the staff of the newspaper "Ha'achdut", becoming politically active. Ben Gurion and Ben-Tzvi went to the Universities of Salonika and Istanbul to study law and to see what benefit they could bring the Yishuv from the 1908 "Young Turks" revolution. The First World War broke out on their vacation at home in 1914, and his allegiances were with the Turks until he and his friends were expelled to Egypt in 1919.

ZIONISM and the YISHUV during the First World War

Eretz Yisrael was one of the fronts in this war and was taken by the British from the Turks (who had German support) in 1917-18.

The tiny Yishuv (numbering 70,000 Jews) knew hardship in those year, particularly with the expulsion of all foreign citizens from Tel Aviv-Yafo to Egypt. Some of the Yishuv were for "Ottomanization"; others supported the British; still others remained neutral.

The World Zionist Organization, weakened after Herzl's death, decided on neutrality and the Executive's office was transferred to the Hague in neutral Holland.

German and Austrian Zionists tried to convince their governments to issue pro-Zionist statements.

Chaim Weizmann, one of the important Russian Zionist leaders, made a scientific contribution to the British war effort with an invention which subsequently became a political weapon for Zionism. His concerted, persistent representations and Britain's own interests led to the famous Balfour Declaration.

The Balfour Declaration was widely acclaimed throughout the Jewish world and in the Yishuv. Ben Gurion, who had formerly supported "Ottomanization" and then neutrality, now lost no time in joining the Jewish battalions of the British Army, enlisting together with Ben-Tzvi. Both returned to the country from which they had been expelled as part of the G'dud Ivri which had been formed in the USA.

The Third Aliya (1919-23) believed in pioneering, revolution and the settlement of Eretz Yisrael. It was an era of the foundation of the Kibbutz Movement, the Hagana, the Moshav Movement, as well as of different cooperatives, but above all, this period saw the founding of the General Labour Union (Histadrut Ha'ovdim Haclalit) which created a quasi-governmental system parallel to that of the British Mandate and the official Zionist Movement. Ben Gurion was its first Secretary and, as such, General Secretary of all its branches.

By the time the Fourth Aliya arrived from Eastern Europe (mainly non-halutzic), the basic infrastructure was already in place and Tel Aviv's rapid growth enlarged the market for agricultural produce, small as it was, although much of the competition came from the cheaper Arab sector of agriculture.

The 1926 crisis with the local Arabs and the 1929 world economic crisis found the Yishuv on firm foundations and developing. This situation reinforced the Histadrut and the Labour Movement which the pioneering force of the country.

Weizmann, the liberal-progressive elements of the Zionist movement and the President of the Zionist executive, saw the Labour Movement as natural allies. Opposition came from the Revisionists, a camp founded by Jabotinsky after Britain separated the eastern bank of the Jordan river (except Degania) from Eretz Yisrael and granted it to the Emir Abdullah ben Hussein (grandfather of present-day King Hussein). The term "Revisionists" was because they wanted a revision (amendment) of this agreement, in light of the British Government's commitment to a Jewish Homeland on both sides of the Jordan River.

The Hagana grew in strength partly as a result of the 1929 Arab riots and the number of Jews killed in Hebron and Tsfat, but also as a reaction to increased support for the Revisionists (activists). Ben Gurion and the Labour Movement, i.e., the overwhelming majority of the Hagana, opposed this activism. Ben Gurion's stand reflected his increasing concern about the Hagana and about the relations between the Jewish Yishuv and the Arab population.

Chaim Arlozorov,a brilliant leader of the Labour Movement, became Weizmann's political secretary in the Zionist Executive (from 1929 - the Jewish Agency for Eretz Yisrael). The three - Arlozorov in the Agency (Sochnut), Ben Gurion in the Histadrut and Weizmann were the main opponents of Jabotinsky. All the religious Zionists supported Jabotinsky.

In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power and German persecutions of Jews began in earnest. The Fifth Aliya (the "German" aliya) brought a number of olim from central Europe. Arlozorov negotiated with the German government and their property was brought to Eretz Yisrael in exchange for citrus fruit. The sums involved were large and helped the Yishuv develop rapidly. The Revisionists saw this arrangement as a betrayal and the struggle between the left and right wings was greatly exacerbated.

Chaim Arlozorov was assassinated that year on a Tel Aviv beach.

There were many reasons for the marginal groups that sprang up in the Revisionist camp, including the violent extremism of a section of the Revisionist press. The schism threatened to divide the Zionist movement. In 1935 a "ceasefire" was proposed a meeting between Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky. It came under severe criticism from the left, but it created a calm for Zionism in the year preceding the 1939-39 Arab disturbances and riots which rocked the Yishuv to its foundations.

1936 was the beginning of the Arab rebellion against mass Jewish aliya. The Jews already accounted for 33% of the population. An Arab General Strike paralyzed the country, but the Jewish sector, organized by the Histadrut, immediately prepared to fill in all the gaps left by the striking Arab sector. Haifa port immediately engaged Jewish stevedores and dockers, who were in fact olim from Salonika. Yafo port was replaced by the new port in north Tel Aviv.

The Arab struggle was also armed: they fired on settlements and roads, yet new Jewish settlement was not deterred and even diversified. (This was the period of stockade and tower settlements.) The Hagana at times was also used for attack.

At the Nineteenth Zionist Congress in 1939 Ben Gurion was elected Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive with only Weizmann - its President - above him. He had in fact been working under Weizmann's aegis since the Arlozorov assassination. The Executive was effectively in the hands of the Labour Party of Eretz Yisrael (Mapai), a situation that remained unchanged until 1977.

Although the Jews won the round of the 1939-39 Arab riots, they lost out to British who succumbed to Arab pressure and brought out the 1939 White Paper which effectively stopped Jewish immigration and closed large sections of the Yishuv to Jewish settlement. The Jewish Yishuv was being pulled both ways, particularly with the start of the Second World War in 1939, bringing with it the Sho'a.

During the war years, Ben Gurion and the Yishuv were active as follows:

  1. economic assistance to the British in the Middle East, including building military bases, airfields, etc.;

  2. armed forces - enlisting with the British Army and the formation of a Jewish Brigade'

  3. reinforcement of the Hagana and the formation of the Palmach.

As countries were liberated from the Nazi yoke (Libya, Tunisia, Southern Italy and further into Europe), they also organized the Bricha and the Ha'apala (illegal immigrations).

1945 was the year in which the Yishuv moved from supporting the British war machine to its struggle for free aliya and thus towards its preparations for independence as a Jewish state.

There were three main paths to this campaign:

* persuasion (Weizmann);
* active struggle against the British, including terror (Etzel, Lehi);
* something between the two.

Ben Gurion and most of the organized Yishuv chose the third path.

Ben Gurion was already occupied by his concern for a defense force against the inevitable attack by the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states.

The political struggle was successfully resolved with the UN Resolution on Partition on 29th November, 1949, i.e., separate Jewish and Palestinian states and an international zone (Jerusalem and surroundings).

The Arab countries rejected the UN Resolution and attacked the Yishuv immediately. Ben Gurion therefore directed his efforts towards:

  1. a skeleton state - by combining the Zionist leadership with the Council to form a People's Council which gave way to the Government of Israel. The former Council became the Knesset in embryo.

  2. The beginnings of the Administration (government buildings) in what is today known as the Kirya in Tel Aviv.

  3. The speedy distribution of arms that arrived with the departure of the British.

  4. The organization of a trained army to back up the Palmach and training of field troops, through general call-up and courses.

  5. Reinforcing overall defense and deploying forces to keep the roads open.

  6. Maximum efforts to ensure that the Jewish State retained the areas allocated by the UN Resolution on Partition, including Eilat.

  7. Keep open the road to Jewish Jerusalem.

  8. Defense of all Jewish settlements.

  9. Bringing the Arab states to accept peace.

With the exception of Gush Etzion, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and some settlements in the Jerusalem and Dead Sea areas, all the above was achieved.

He failed, of course, to reach a peace agreement with the Arab States.


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