Jewish Studies David Ben-Gurion
Meron Medzini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0212


David Ben-Gurion (b. 1886–d. 1973) was probably the most important figure in the history of modern Israel, if only for the fact that he proclaimed the independence of Israel on 14 May 1948 and led it for the next fifteen years. He was also the most prolific writer among Israel’s leaders, leaving behind a vast literature covering the history of Zionism and the events leading to and following Israel’s independence. He was born in Plonsk, Poland, in 1886 to a middle-class Jewish family. From an early age he studied Hebrew and was drawn to socialism and Zionism, a commitment that became more intense following the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1903. He immigrated to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1906, and worked as an agricultural laborer for several months before moving to Jerusalem to become an activist and workers’ organizer. In 1906 he was among the founders of the Poale Zion party and edited its newspaper. In 1912 he went to Istanbul to study law, but illness and the outbreak of World War I ended his academic career and he returned to Palestine only to be expelled by the Ottoman regime. From 1915 to 1918 he lived in America, lecturing, writing, and recruiting for his party. In 1918 he married Paula Munvez and joined the Jewish Legion, which brought him back to Palestine. After the war, he continued his political activities in the labor movement and in 1920 became the first secretary general of the Federation of Labor (Histadrut), of which he was one of the founders, a position he held for ten years. In 1930 he was one of the founders and became the leader of the Mapai party, which was the ruling party in the country from 1930 until 1977. In 1933 he was elected to the Zionist Executive and in 1935 became the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, the central institute of the Jewish community of Palestine until 1948. In that capacity he led the Jewish community of Palestine (known as the Yishuv) during the Second World War, and was one of the framers of the 1942 Biltmore Program that called for the creation of a Jewish Commonwealth. From 1945 to 1948 he led the struggle for independence that culminated in the adoption in November 1947 of the United Nations Partition Plan that divided Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. He headed the Provisional State Government and in that capacity proclaimed the independence of Israel on 14 May 1948 and led the country in its War of Independence. He became Israel’s first prime minister as well as defense minister and served in that capacity from 1948 to 1953 and from 1955 to 1963. During those years he was responsible for building the Israel Defense Forces, insisting on unlimited immigration, and adopting basic laws such as the Law of Return, Civil Service Commission Law, State Comptroller Law, Security Service Law, and Free and Compulsory Education Law. He led Israel in the 1956 Sinai War and established close ties with France and the Federal Republic of Germany. He resigned in 1963 over differences with his colleagues on how to govern Israel. In 1965 he split from the Mapai party and created the short lived Rafi party, which gained ten seats in the Knesset that year. In 1969 he retired from politics and devoted his time to writing. He died in 1973 and is buried next to his wife in his Kibbutz Sede Boker in the Negev desert.

Primary Sources

Among Israel’s leaders, Ben-Gurion was the most prolific, writing a diary from early childhood until a year before he died. In his lifetime he made sure that a copy of every piece of paper would remain for posterity. In addition to his diaries, most of them published, he wrote thousands of letters, authored many books, edited his own speeches, and appeared in a number of film documentaries.

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