Special to the JTA His Name Was Ben Gurion
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Special to the JTA His Name Was Ben Gurion

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One hundred years ago this month, Sheindel Gruen, the wife of Avigdor, gave birth to a son, David, in the Polish town of Plonsk. The boy became a man and the man became the first Jew in 2,000 years to a head a Jewish State.

David Ben Gurion, the name by which he would be known, was one of the towering figures in Jewish history.

Twice Prime Minister of Israel, Ben Gurion lived a long, fruitful life, dying as the dust of the 1973 Yom Kippur War settled. The quintessential Zionist, he immigrated to Palestine in 1906, laboring in the orange groves of Petah Tikvah and in the wine cellars of Rishon Le Zion, before becoming politically involved in the supreme battle to secure a Jewish homeland in what is now Israel.

In this respect, it was not by chance that he changed his name. Ben Gurion, which means son of a lion cub, was one of the leaders of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 CE. His namesake fought the Arabs and the British in the bloody attempt to create a place in the sun for Jews.

A keen student of Greek and Eastern philosophies, a practitioner of yoga, as well as a master of seven languages, Ben Gurion carved out a career whose contours followed the course of Zionist politics.

Ben Gurion, a gruff man whose idealism was tempered by pragmatism, served as secretary general of the Histadrut labor federation at a time when Jews sought to create a Jewish workers society in Palestine.

He was a founder of Mapai, the political party that mixed Socialism with capitalism and ruled Israel from 1949 until its defeat at the hands of the Likud bloc in 1977.

He was chairman of the Jewish Agency executive for 13 years, preparing the groundwork for the establishment of Israel in 1948. When the War of Independence broke out, Ben Gurion, as Prime Minister of the provisional government, headed the defense effort and took charge of raising funds for the beleaguered Jewish State.

In the 1949 general election, Ben Gurion, having failed to obtain an overall majority, formed a coalition government and thus set the pattern for future governments. He retired in 1953, joining a kibbutz in the Negev Desert. But within two years, Ben Gurion emerged from the wilderness, first becoming Minister of Defense under Prime Minister Moshe Sharett and then winning back the Premiership.

For the next eight years, Ben Gurion, a short, bulky man whose snow white hair framed a pudgy face, wielded power as Israel made the gradual transition from childhood to adulthood. He retired in 1963, designating Levi Eshkol as his successor.

The infamous Lavon Affair, which rumbled across the Israeli political landscape like a men-acing earthquake, led to his resignation. The controversy, which revolved around a bungled espionage operation in Egypt in the mid-1950’s, effectively spelled finis to Ben Gurion’s spectacular career.

When he attempted a third comeback, Mapai thwarted his ambition. He formed an independent list for the 1965 election, Rafi, and acolytes like Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres joined him. But Rafi performed poorly at the polls and any hope Ben Gurion may have had about being a king-maker vanished.

In 1969, he tried once again to use his past to appeal to the Israeli electorate, but he failed. His State list floundered, and the “old man” resigned from the Knesset just a year later.

When he died, in a year when Israel’s arrogant self-confidence was badly shaken by a war which claimed more than 2,000 Israeli lives, Ben Gurion was effectively in political exile, a lonely, embittered figure who had been overtaken by the rush of events. Nevertheless, Ben Gurion’s contributions to Israel’s rebirth and consolidation were never forgotten, not even by his most formidable enemies. Tomorrow: Part Two

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