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David Ben-Gurion, along with Theodor Herzl (1860– 1904) and Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952), is considered one of the three architects of Zionism and the most effective figure in founding the state of Israel. An early convert to Zionism, Ben-Gurion migrated to then Ottoman Palestine in 1906 at a point when the territory housed about 55,000 Jewish inhabitants—only about 1 percent of whom were Zionist pioneers—as opposed to nearly 700,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs. He devoted himself fully to organizing the Yishuv, or Jewish community, in Palestine prior to 1948 and to encouraging Jewish immigration to create a sufficient demographic basis for a Jewish state. In 1921 he became the secretary general of the Histadrut, the General Federation of (Jewish) Labor in Palestine, a position he retained until becoming the chairman of the Jewish Agency in 1935 before finally becoming the first prime minister and minister of defense of Israel in 1948, positions he held, except for a brief period (1953–1955), until his retirement in 1963. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Ben-Gurion adopted a more confrontational policy with Arab states than many of his compatriots in the leadership of labor, and his return to the cabinet in 1955 corresponded with preparations for the Sinai Campaign in 1956 in which Israel sought to invade Egypt in collaboration with Britain and France during the Suez crisis.
Ben-Gurion also played a key role in formulating a synthesis of labor ideology and Zionist nationalism, as evident in his early affiliation with Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), which he represented during a three-year stay in the United States from 1915 to 1918, then the Mapai party and the Labor Party and as the first leader of the Histadrut. The Histadrut functioned as both a trade union and large employer in its own right, representing Jewish workers and creating Jewish economic enterprises. Its membership was exclusively Jewish, and it actively discouraged Jewish businesses from hiring non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. During the British Mandate period following World War I until 1948 when Palestine was administered by Britain, Ben-Gurion developed a working relation with the British administration, which allowed him to emerge as the face of the more “moderate” section of the Zionist movement at the same time that it facilitated his building of the paramilitary Haganah, which by 1948 had become the strongest and best organized military group in the land.
While far more pragmatic than other Zionist leaders, notably Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880–1940) and, later, Menachem Begin (1913–1992), Ben-Gurion’s vision of Zionism made, in fact, little accommodation to the Palestinians. Throughout his life Ben-Gurion regarded the Arab Palestinians as economically, socially, and culturally inferior to the Jewish immigrants. Early in his career he believed that Arab Palestinians had no collective sense of nationalism and that a Jewish state could be built without infringing on them. He never accepted that they had political rights. Significantly, while he was versed in nine languages, he never made an effort to learn Arabic. Thus, in addition to being one of the greatest figures in the history of Zionism, he was also one of the main architects of an enduring conflict.
- Ben-Gurion, David. 1971. Israel: A Personal History [Medinat Yisra’el ha-mehudeshet]. Trans. Nechemia Meyers and Uzy Nystar. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1971.
- Cohen, Mitchell. 1987. Zion and State: Nation, Class, and the Shaping of Modern Israel. New York: B. Blackwell.
- Sternhell, Zeev. 1998. The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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