David Ben-Gurion

The first prime minister of the Jewish state.

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Hostility & Restraint

At the same time, conflict erupted on a different front. Beginning with the Arab revolt of 1936-39, and continuing with the struggle for the Jewish state in the 1940s, the Jewish community of Palestine was bitterly divided over the use of armed force. The position of Ben-Gurion and the Hagana--the official Jewish self-defense force--was that Arab hostility should be met with restraint--havlaga. This was needed both in order to prevent the escalation of violence and to preserve good relations with the British, whose support was crucial for the fulfillment of Zionist aims. This position changed with the publication of the 1939 White Paper, in which the British government declared its support for the creation of an Arab Palestinian state and effectively froze Jewish immigration.

During World War II, Ben-Gurion declared that the Zionists would fight with Britain against the Nazis as if there was no White Paper, and would fight the White Paper as if there were no war. In 1942, he was instrumental in drafting the Biltmore Program, which called for open Jewish immigration and the creation of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. Following the United Nations' 1947 decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and with the departure of the British in May 1948, he made the momentous decision to declare the establishment of the State of Israel. He became the first prime minister of the State of Israel and guided the country during the War of Independence.

Forced Expulsion?

Since the 1990s, post-Zionist "new historians" such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris have alleged that during the war Ben-Gurion was aware of--or even initiated--a policy of transfer, the forced expulsion of Arabs. These claims have been hotly contested by historians such as biographer Shabtai Teveth, who assert that Israel’s first prime minister was resigned to the continuing presence of a large Arab minority enjoying equal rights in the future Jewish state. Yet Ben- Gurion argued against the conciliatory, diplomatic orientation of foreign minister Moshe Sharett. He took a hard line against the return of Arab refugees and pursued an activist foreign policy of military deterrence and retaliatory raids against neighboring Arab states, coming out of retirement in 1955 to lead Israel in the Sinai War against Egypt. 

The Prime Minister

Ben-Gurion's tenure as prime minister (1948-53 and again from 1955-63) was governed by the principle of mamlachtiut, or statism--the belief that sectarian ideologies and interests must be replaced by loyalty to the state as a whole. Ben-Gurion set aliyah and immigrant absorption as Israel’s top priorities, established the Israel Defense Force, dispersing militias such as the Palmach and the Etzel, and sought to abolish ideological distinctions in education, replacing party-run schools with one all-encompassing state education system.  

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.