David Ben Gurion

Middle East Study Group
Grand Lake Neighborhood Center
November 19, 2005

Chronological notes —Ben Gurion

1886 David Gruen (hereafter "B-G" for the pen-name "Ben-Gurion" that he adopted in 1910) born October 16 in Plonsk, (Russian) Poland.

1900 At 14, B-G organizes a Hebrew study group, called "Ezra," with other youths interested in promoting Zionism.

1905 Czarist-sponsored pogroms in Russia follow the failed 1905 Revolution. B-G joins the Paolei Zion branch in nearby Warsaw to aid his self-defense group in Plonsk. Paolei Zion (Workers of Zion) was an international Marxist-oriented labor movement founded in 1900 by Ber Borochov, from Poltava in the Ukraine. Borochov favored a Palestinian solution to the Jewish question, but Poalei Zion constituted only a small minority of the Jewish Left in Eastern Europe. Most of the Russian Jewish Left belonged to the non-Zionist Bund, which believed a revolution in Russia would liberate Russian Jews and end anti-semitism there. At the 6th World Zionist Congress in 1903, when Herzl made his Uganda proposal, Zionists split into territorialists (supporting Uganda or any immediate plan for settlement in the context of poverty and pogroms) and supporters of settlement in Eretz Israel. The Borochovists of Poalei Zion constituted the left wing of this (mostly Eastern European) faction, committed to settlement in Palestine. A Paolei Zion group from White Russia (Lithuania) immigrated to Palestine in Dec. 1903 and helped found Hashomer (Guardian), the first Jewish self-defense force in Palestine. A larger Paolei Zion group immigrated in 1905 from Rostov in Russia. The Rostovians formed the left-wing doctrinaire Marxist nucleus of the Poalei Zion party in Palestine.

1906 B-G arrives at Jaffa on Sept. 7. He finds work in the Petah Tikvah citrus groves and joins the Poalei Zion in Jaffa. He immediately encounters the tension between Poalei Zion members and supporters of a rival Zionist labor group, Hapoel Hatzair (the Young Worker), founded in 1905 to oppose Marxist influences. In October, B-G speaks at the first Poale Zion Congress in Palestine on behalf of the nationalist faction, against the Rostovians’ affort to include Arab workers in the Poale Zion movement. B-G’s impressive debut leads to his participation in the 3-man committee drafting the Ramle Platform—the program for Poale Zion in Palestine, based on Borochov’s "Our Platform" (Feb. 1906). Contrary to Marxist internationalism, the Ramle Platform restricts membership to Jewish workers.

1907 Yitzhak Ben-Zvi immigrates to Palestine and heads the Poale Zion group, since he has been Borochov’s right-hand man in Russia.

1908 B-G works on the Sejera settlement in Galilee (northern frontier hill region), where he is pleased to find several dozen farmers with a "Jewish workers only" policy. B-G recalls regular run-ins with unfriendly Arabs. B-G is called back to Plonsk when he is conscripted into Russian army. He returns to protect his father from penalties, joins the army, then deserts after 3 months, returning to Palestine in Dec. 1908.

1909 Works briefly in the new settlement of Kinneret, then returns to Sejera. There he joins the Jewish settlers who have replaced the hired Circassian guards, proving that they can handle violent encounters with Arabs.

1910 To Zichron Yaakov, where B-G studies French and Arabic after daily farmwork. Ben-Zvi recruits B-G to work on Ahdut, the Poale Zion’s new party newspaper, and he joins its Jerusalem office. This is when he changes his name from Gruen to Ben-Gurion. He keeps this pen-name (from a Jewish patriot who fought the Romans) for the rest of his life. In Jan. 1910, Berl Katznelson, having newly immigrated from Bobruisk, White Russia, settles at Ein Ganim and befriends the writer Yosef Brenner as well as A. D. Gordon, the theorist of the "religion of work" who becomes the major intellectual influence upon 2nd aliya workers. In 1918, B-G will join with Katznelson to found a more inclusive workers’ organization than Poale Zion, called Ahdut Haavoda (Worker Unity).

1911 B-G goes to Vienna with Ben-Zvi for the third Congress of the World Union of Poalei Zion, where they declare their refusal to obey any policies except those agreed upon by Jewish workers in Palestine. B-G and Ben-Zvi both decide to go to law school in Istanbul, to help the Jewish community "Ottomanize," if possible, by representing it in the Turkish parliament. In Nov., B-G leaves for Salonika, where he will study Turkish to prepare for law school.

1912 After intensive work learning Turkish, B-G passes the entrance exams at Istanbul University law school, and begins taking classes while living in impoverished conditions with Ben-Zvi. Despite hunger & sickness, he does astonishingly well, getting top marks.

1914 In July B-G completes his three-year course in two years. War breaks out and he returns to Jaffa with Ben-Zvi. In September Turkey allies with Germany. B-G and Ben-Zvi try to keep Jews in Palestine by "Ottomanizing" them. They petition Jamal Pasha to allow them to organize a Jewish militia to fight for Turkey. Jamal Pasha refuses, then threatens to deport Jews who are not Ottoman citizens, causing a rush for citizenship. B-G and Ben-Zvi are arrested and deported as Zionist activists. Eventually, they board a ship from Alexandria to the United States, where they stay with Poalei Zion members in NYC. After a period developing some fluency in English, B-G and Ben Zvi tour the country, recruiting young Zionists for emigration to Palestine. They have little success, although they do meet Golda Mahovitch in Milwaukee (later, Golda Meir), who soon decides to immigrate to Palestine.

1917 B-G (at 30) meets Russian-born Paula Munweis at Trotsky lecture, who works with B-G on political articles. In Dec. they marry in City Hall.

1918 B-G helps found and lead the American Jewish Legion Committee. In April he joins the Jewish Battalion of the British Royal Fusiliers, along with 200 other Palestinian exiles. He goes to Canada for training along with Ben-Zvi. In July B-G and Ben Zvi sail to England, then Egypt, hoping to fight for the British in Palestine. But Gen. Allenby, heading British forces in Egypt, is opposed to the Balfour Declaration and refuses to allow the Jewish Legion to move from Egypt into Palestine. In Nov., B-G meets Beryl Katznelson, also stationed in Egypt, and the leader of a non-partisan Jewish workers’ party, and is impressed by Katznelson’s article on workers as the vanguard of Zionist settlement in Palestine. He and Katznelson join forces to develop a unified workers’ party, which requires bringing the Marxist-oriented Poalei Zion and the anti-Marxist Hapoel Hatzar parties together.

1919 Returning to Palestine, B-G presents his unification plan at a Poalei Zion conference. But the Hapoel Hatzair group rejects his proposal. B-G and Katznelson then convene a new workers’ conference to reorganize the labor movement under the changed post-war circumstances. Their new party is called Ahdut ha-Avodah (Labor Unity). Their initial resolution calls for international guarantees for a Jewish state. But members of Hapoel Hatzair again refuse to join.

1920 Given the impasse with Hapoel Hatzair, B-G and Katznelson organize a new general organization for all Jewish workers in Palestine, regardless of political differences. Known as the Histadrut ("federation," for the General Federation of Hebrew Workers in Israel), it gradually emerges as a major political force in the World Zionist Organization, which B-G eventually (1933) controls from a Palestinian base.

In Feb., Arabs attack four settlements in northern Galilee, including Tel Hai, where Joseph Trumpeldor is killed with seven other settlers. B-G blames the British military for having dissolved the Jewish Battalion and settler defense groups, ascribing this to the pro-Arab bias of the occupation forces. The military administration is replaced in May by a civil administration headed by Herbert Samuel (Jewish, liberal, pro-Zionist) as High Commissioner.

In July, B-G attends the first World Zionist Organization Congress in seven years, held in London, after meeting Chaim Weizmann in June. At the Congress, Weizmann makes a speech blaming the extremism of the Yishuv in Palestine for the troubles there, since it had destabilized the situation for the British military and led to anti-Zionist attitudes by the Briotish government. B-G makes an impassioned but unpopular speech in response, attacking Weizmann (the unchallenged WZO leader) for ignoring the concerns of the Jews in Palestine and running affairs there through the WZO from a remote, uninformed distance. From this time, B-G is committed to developing his workers movement to take political control of the WZO from a Palestinian base.

In August, B-G and Ben-Zvi attend the Paolei Zion World Federation conference in Vienna, where another defense of the on-the-ground Palestinian struggle must be made, albeit in a very different international context. The Vienna conference splits into two factions. The Left supports the Third International (stressing the primacy of the class war) and attacks the WZO as a "bourgeois" organization. Its delegates demand that class solidarity among Jewish and Arab workers in Palestine take precedence over Jewish national development. B-G argues that his Ahdut Haavodah party’s primary task is to "create a national economy" through a Jewish workers’ movement. The inevitable split enables B-G’s Ahdut Avodah party to take control of the right wing of the world Poale Zion movement. In his biography of B-G, Shabtai Teveth (p. 166) observes that this brings B-G "closer to securing Palestine’s centrality in the world Zionist movement," and that his main rival from this moment forward is Chaim Weizmann.

An outbreak of Arab riots in Jaffa forces B-G to return to Palestine, fearing that the Arabs might force the British to pull back from the promises of the Balfour Declaration. Churchill, the colonial secretary, who generally supports the Zionist program, puts limits on immigration in an effort to mollify the Arabs. B-G moves to Jerusalem, where he begins 12 years at the head of Histadrut.

1923 B-G visits Moscow but fails to change the Kremlin’s hostility to Zionism. He also recoils from the totalitarian direction of the Soviet government. (Zionism will be banned in 1928.)

1929 B-G and Katznelson finally reach agreement on unification with the Hapoel Hatzair party, opening the way to a new workers’ party with a much stronger political force.

1930 B-G heads the new unified workers’ party, called the Mapai Party, and tries to absorb smaller parties into it to maximize its strength in the WZO.

1933 B-G is elected to the Jewish Agency Executive by the WZO.

1936 Arab strike and armed revolt break out during the peak year of Jewish immigration (60,000).

1937 Peel Commission recommends partition of Palestine and the end of the British mandate. The plan, which B-G welcomes as a "first stage" of statehood, is rejected by Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Arabs.

1939 St James Palace conference on Palestine fails to bring accord among British, Arabs and Jews. The British government issues the White Paper, closing down on immigration during the war.

1940 B-G in Britain and the U.S., pressing the case for partition and a Jewish state.

1942 American Zionist (Biltmore) Conference in NYC endorses Weizmann’s and B-G’s demand for a Jewish state in Palestine after the war.

1944 Opposing British efforts to stop immigration, B-G approves armed struggle against British forces.

1946 First postwar WZO Congress. No president, but B-G as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive emerges as the leader of the WZO.

1947 UN Assembly votes to partition Palestine.

1948 In May, B-G declares Israeli statehood and assumes dual post of first PM and Minister of Defense in the Arab-Israeli war.