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David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Israel’s first prime minister, was one of the most important Zionist leaders of the 20th century. His uncompromising vision of Jewish unity and statehood, together with a genius for pragmatic political and military tactics, enabled him to establish the State of Israel and guide it through the social, economic, and military challenges of its early years. But Ben-Gurion’s career was marked by a series of intense conflicts, and he remains one of the most debated figures in Israeli politics.
An Early Zionist
David Ben-Gurion (born Gruen) was born in Plonsk, in Russian Poland, and grew up in a family committed to the Zionist cause. He immigrated to Palestine in 1906 and worked as a laborer and watchman in the Jewish settlements of Rishon Letzion and Petah Tikvah. Almost immediately he took up positions of leadership in the socialist Zionist Poalei Tzion party.
He published articles under the name Ben-Gurion, in which he argued for the settlement of the land and the centrality of Hebrew as the only true expressions of Zionism. With the outbreak of World War I he advocated loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Palestine, but later joined the Jewish Legion of the British army, with the hope of fighting for Jewish independence.
After the war, Ben-Gurion returned to Palestine, where he quickly rose to prominence in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community). He was instrumental in founding a mass political party–Ahdut ha-Avodah, the forerunner of the modern Labor party–and, in 1920, the Histadrut Labor Federation, perhaps the most important instrument for the realization of Zionist goals. Ben-Gurion believed that socialism and Zionism were two sides of the same ideological coin. Jewish nationalism sought not only to achieve Jewish economic self-sufficiency, but also to create a new kind of Jew: proud, independent, and living off the fruits of manual labor.
Ben-Gurion saw the Jewish working class as the carriers of this revolutionary spirit, and, in line with his slogan, “From class to nation,” saw the interests of workers and the Jewish people as a whole as the same. The role of the Histadrut, as he saw it, was to build a Jewish economy under the leadership of the Jewish working class.
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