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David Ben Gurion, Former Prime Minister, a Founder of the Jewish State, Dies at the Age of 87

December 3, 1973
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David Ben Gurion died here today at the age of 87. The former Prime Minister and one of the founders of the State of Israel was hospitalized Nov. 18 after suffering a stroke. The country, already in shock over the Yom Kippur War was thrown into additional shock and grief by the passing of the man who was referred to by many as either "BG" or the "old man."

The death of Ben Gurion signifies to many the end of an epoch in Jewish and Zionist history–an epoch that began with the emigration of young pioneers to Palestine imbued with the singular goal of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people and to find a way of living in peace with its Arab neighbors. Ben Gurion lived to see the fulfillment of the first part of that goal but died as the second part began its first faltering steps after the Yom Kippur War.

In one of his last public appearances, the 20th Bible contest in Jerusalem on Independence Day this year, Ben Gurion summed up his credo thus: "Four Biblical passages constitute Judaism and are the secret of its existence: Isaiah 45.7: I the Lord do all these things. Leviticus 19.18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Isaiah 42.6: I the Lord your God have called you with righteous purpose…I have formed you and appointed you to be a covenant to all peoples and light for the nations. Isaiah 2.4 and Michah 2.3: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation…."

Ben Gurion continued by declaring that the future of the Jewish people hinged on three things: aliya, populating and developing Israel’s wastelands and peace with the Arabs. In this message to the Bible contest he summed up his beliefs succinctly as though he knew that this was to be his final message.


The old man was a legend in his own lifetime. He was viewed as a visionary before the State of Israel was born and was once described by Time magazine as a prophet with a gun, The late S.Y. Agnon once said: "We all wanted a Jewish State. Of course we did. But we were afraid of saying so out loud. And when the test came, we thought perhaps we should not risk it, perhaps we should postpone it for a generation, but Ben Gurion had the courage to proclaim the end of Jewish statelessness in our time."

Born in Plonsk in Polish Russia in Oct. 1886, Ben Gurion, whose original name was David Green, spoke Hebrew as a child and founded the Ezra Zionist Society in Plonsk, the first of many organizations before he was 20. Then he turned to a passion which engulfed him during his whole life: defense. He founded the Jewish organization for self-defense in Plonsk, was put on the Czar’s secret police black list and escaped to Palestine. in 1906 where he want to work in the orange groves in Petah Tikva.

Shortly after arriving he became active in the Poale Zionist movement. At a "convention" of the tiny membership in Ramie in Oct. 1906. Ben Gurion startled some of the more doctrinaire young friends by insisting that the aims of political Zionism must take precedence over any Socialist idealism. This presaged his insistence in later years upon what he called "hamlachiut"–that national interests must precede all partisan or even ideological ones.

Nevertheless, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 he wrote to Nachman Syrkin, the father of Socialist Zionism, that Zionists should seek to join the Third International, and expressed belief that the Russian revolution was the harbinger of Jewish liberation in the Soviet Union for those Jews who wanted to remain there.

Poverty and malaria at Petah Tikva caused Ben Gurion to leave in 1907 and move to Sejara in the Galilee where the first attempt was made to establish a Jewish agricultural collective, "Hahoresh," and where he founded the "hashomer," the Jewish self-defense organization which was to be the forerunner of the Hagana and Zahal.

After two young settlers were killed by Arab marauders, Ben Gurion later wrote: "I understood that sooner or later there would be a military confrontation with the Arabs. I realized that this conflict was inevitable…we would have to be prepared." Three years later, he want to Jerusalem to help, with Ben-Zvi, Rachel Yanait and Yaacov Zerubavel, edit Poalei Zion’s new newspaper, "Ahdut," and in this he adopted the name Ben Gurion, the name of a Jewish hero in the Roman wars nearly 2000 years before. The paper supported the young Turk movement which had revolted in 1908 against Turkish oppression.


After an interval in which he studied law in Istanbul, he returned to Palestine and in 1915 the Turkish administration banished him and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, later Israel’s second President, and deprived him of his Turkish citizenship for "trying to tear Palestine out of the Turkish homeland."

By 1921 he was definitely a national figure: Secretary General of Histadrut until 1935 and in that year was elected chairman of the Jerusalem Executive of the Jewish Agency. In 1927, the Achdut Haavoda Party, of which he had been a cofounder, Joined with Hapoel Hatzair to form Mapai, the party which he led until he finally resigned Israel’s premiership in 1963.

During the entire period he was also one of the chief builders of Haganah, the Jewish underground defense force. He escaped arrest with the other Jewish leaders by the British in July, 1946 only because he was out of the country. He never relinquished his post as Minister of Defense while he was Prime Minister, and for a time in 1955, when he came back from his first period of retirement at Sde Boker, he was only Minister of Defense under Moshe Sharett as Prime Minister.

Although a comparative latecomer to the idea that a full-fledged Jewish State must be established and not some kind of commonwealth or trusteeship, he put the whole weight of his personality behind it once the historic meeting in 1942 at the Biltmore Hotel in New York had so decided.

It was he who proclaimed the state in May, 1948 and he then proceeded systematically to clear it of all internal rival establishments-first the Irgun Zval Leumi and Stern Group military organizations and then the Palmach itself, spearhead of the Haganah whose leaders wanted it to become an army within the army. Only recently did he make peace with Yigal Allon, then commander of the Palmach and at present Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister.


The volcanic transformations of Israel’s party politics which began in the early 1960’s made Ben Gurion into a one-man faction in the Knesset. The Internal struggle in Mapai, which began in 1961, made him resign the Premiership finally in 1963 and leave Mapai in 1965 to form the Fafi Party.

Among its other leaders were Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. However, their rivals, including the late Levi Eshkol and Mrs. Golda Meir, won the day and Eshkol remained as Premier. When Rafi rejoined the Labor Party in 1968, Ben Gurion stayed outside it and in the 1969 elections ran as head of a new State List. In May, 1970, he resigned from the Knesset to devote all his time to writing.


Ben Gurion was a prolific writer. He was the author of "Self-Government of Villages" (1914);"The Labor Movement and Revisionism" (1933);"From Class to Nation" (1933); "The Struggle" (5 volumes from 1947-50); "Rebirth and Destiny of Israel" (1954); "The Sinai Campaign" (1959); and "Years of Challenge" (1963). He was also a passionate reader and among the thousands of books he read in his lifetime were works by Cervantes, Una Muno and Garcia Lorca in Spanish, and the writings of Plato in ancient Greek.

In his later years, Ben Gurion continued to affirm that aliya was what Zionism was all about But he became less harsh with those Jews who were unable or unwilling to settle in Israel. Nevertheless he refused to consider them complete Zionists. They were Jews, perhaps even good Jews, but not complete Zionists, he would say, noting there is no substitute for aliya.

With all his dedication to Jews and the Jewish people, Ben Gurion was not a chauvinist. He harbored a genuine love for all mankind and an abiding interest in all human beings. But the Jews are – or were when he started – so much more exposed than the others. Ben Gurion said frequently: "Let us be not too proud. Let us not be drunk with victory. We have not accomplished all this alone. Three generations of settlers preceded us in Eretz Israel. They suffered as we never did and had a faith no less strong than the faith that has inspired our soldiers in the War of Independence and in the later wars."


For many years Ben Gurion resided in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, his adopted home. At times he went to his Tel Aviv apartment where he had his library containing thousands of volumes – each in its place, and Ben Gurion knew the exact shelf and color of its cover. He was writing the modern history of the Jewish State before he died, but was only up to 1948. The events he records were those with which he had been intimately involved and part of which he had personally shaped.

Before his stroke, Ben Gurion took two-mile walks twice a day, each one lasting exactly one hour. His intellectual curiosity was still as strong as ever – he knew details of far off places and almost hidden tribes in addition to continuously reading history, Bible philosophy and the natural sciences, especially theories about the human brain and its workings.

Ben Gurion was cognizant that individuals play a decisive role in history but he was also cognizant that history is more than great personalities., In 1952, when Yigael Yadin resigned as Israel’s Army Chief of Staff over his differences with Ben Gurion, the "old man" accepted it and wept. He said later: "Yigael is a very important fellow, but it is more important that the army should know and that the nation should know that not everything depends on one man. Tomorrow I can go too and it will not be the end of the world. As one goes another comes and takes his place."


"Our entire history in the galut has represented a resistance to fate….In the galut the Jewish people knew the courage of non-surrender…Resisting fate is not enough. We must master our fate, we must take our destiny into our own hands! This is the doctrine of the Jewish revolution — not non-surrender to the galut but making an end of it." ("The Imperatives of the Jewish Revolution" — Speech in Haifa in 1944 to youth leaders.)

"…my faith in the American public persuades me that an awareness of the current world situation and of China’s fairly recent history will prompt them to support a change in America’s policy to ward China in the interests of all countries, America’s included….I have heard it said that recognition of China would be interpreted as American weakness…but recognition can offer one opportunity which is not available today — the opportunity to talk to each other And that, in a push-button nuclear world, is no small thing." (Ben Gurion Looks Back in talks with Moshe Perlman, 1965)

"…when you were in Palestine we spoke several times of the strong necessity to have contact with Russia. I think the time for this has come….Russia will become a mighty practical factor — apart from her great spiritual influences on our movement and our work in Palestine. The importance of Russia will be two-fold. On the one hand, the political and social-ethical power of the government, and on the other hand, the Jews of Russia. We must make certain that both factors will help rather than obstruct us.

"Even before we answer the problem of our official attitude to the Third International (and in my view there is no International save the Third and the place of every socialist is in it) we must establish contact with its leaders. We must, through personal contact, explain to them the nature of Zionism, and particularly the nature of Socialist Zionism and the role of the labor movement in Palestine. No less important is the work among Russian Jewish youth…the work in Russia…seems to me the most important of all our activities in the diaspora." (Letter to Nachman Syrkin, Dec. 2, 1920)

"We must approach the Arab people not with any deception, not by concealing our Zionist aspirations, but with the words of truth and peace. Let us openly say: No matter what happens, we will not budge from here. No attacks and no interferences will weaken the efforts of the Jewish people to settle again in their land. Whether you agree or not, we will continue and strengthen our work as we have thus far, despite obstacles and interferences. But we recognize your needs as well, and know your national desires.

"We want to find a way to secure our common needs as sons of this one homeland. Not only will we not infringe upon you as you must not infringe upon us, but we will help one another, and work together. Is there no hope that such words, if accompanied by a practical program of action, will eventually be listened to if not immediately?" ("Planning Zionist Policy" — address to the organizing convention of the Palestine Labor Party -Mapai – 1931 on the aftermath of the riots of 1929.)

"Since I called, at the beginning of my remarks, for absolute allegiance to the Jewish revolution, I shall now make a few concluding remarks about the goal of our revolution: It is the complete in-

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