David Gruen was born in Plonsk, Russian Poland, on 16 October 1886. He learned Hebrew in a school run by his father, and while still in his mid-teens led a Zionist group called Ezra. Aged 18, he worked as a teacher in Warsaw, where he joined a Socialist-Zionist movement, Poalei Zion. By 1906, though, Gruen had emigrated to Palestine, where, for several years, he worked as a farmer in various Jewish agricultural settlements. He soon adopted the ancient Hebrew name Ben-Gurion. He helped found the first agricultural workers’ commune in Sejera and to establish the Hashomer (Watchman) defence organisation.
With the start of WWI, Ben-Gurion, considered an alien Russian national, was deported by the Ottoman authorities, to Egypt. He travelled to New York, and thence to many other US cities, on behalf of the Socialist-Zionist cause, trying to raise a pioneer army to fight on Turkey’s side. While in the US, he met and married Paula Munweis, a fellow Poalei Zion activist, and they would have three children. He returned to Israel in the uniform of the Jewish Legion, created as a unit in the British army by Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.
After the war, Ben-Gurion was made the leader of Ahdut HaAvoda, formed after a split in the Poale Zion party. The following year, 1920, the group set up a military organisation, the Haganah, and it helped establish the Histadrut, a general organisation of Hebrew workers. Ben-Gurion, himself, did not return to British-ruled Palestine until 1921, but when he did he was soon elected general secretary of Histadrut. He retained that role until 1935, turning Histadrut into a national instrument for the realisation of Zionism, and in particular for stimulating immigration. In 1930, Ben-Gurion became leader of a new party, Mapai, and, then in 1935, he was made head of the World Zionist Organisation and of the Jewish Agency. During WW2, he led Israel to fight with Britain against the Nazis.
Having led the struggle to establish the state of Israel - agreed by the UN in 1947 - Ben-Gurion became its first prime minister and defence minister in 1948. He took the decision to bring all the country’s armed factions together into a single Israeli army. He then led Mapai to winning the largest number of seats in the Knesset during the first national elections in 1949. Elected prime minister, he remained in that post until 1963, barring two years in the 1950s. He oversaw the establishment of the state’s institutions, presided over various national projects aimed at rapid development (for example, airlifting Jews from Arab countries, the construction of the national water company, rural developments and the establishment of new towns and cities).
In late 1956, Ben-Gurion, frustrated by Egyptian guerrilla attacks on Israel, made a secret agreement with Britain and France to attempt the overthrow of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai, while Britain and France shortly after tried to re-take the Suez Canal which had been seized by Nasser and nationalised. However, the US, the Soviet Union and the UN together forced the three invading countries to withdraw - Ben-Gurion, however, secured the right of free Israeli navigation through the Red Sea. In 1963, he stepped down from office, naming Levi Eshkol as his successor. But, a year later, the two fell out over the handling of the Lavon Affair, a failed covert operation by the Israelis in Egypt. Ben-Gurion left Mapai, and formed a new party Rafi, but it lost the 1965 election against Alignment (formed by a merger of Mapai and Ahdut HaAvoda, and led by Eshkol).
Ben-Gurion, by now
Ben-Gurion kept a professional diary all his adult life, though, as far as I can tell, there have been no published editions in English. However,
‘It should be noted,’ he adds, ‘that despite his expectation that his diaries would be read by posterity, or perhaps because he was conscious that he was creating a historical document, Ben-Gurion never erased or changed an entry. In all the diaries, the record of any particular day remains a reflection of what engaged Ben-Gurion at the moment.’
The diaries are held by the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism which says: ‘Ben-Gurion’s diaries are undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the archives. Ben-Gurion was a prolific writer who kept meticulous records, even copying statistics into his diaries. Their 20,000 pages, written over the course of nearly 70 years, contain invaluable research material that sheds light on the events surrounding the founding of the State and the social trends and minutiae of its development.’
Here are several extracts from Ben-Gurion’s diaries. The first three come from Ilan Troen’s chapter on the diaries in The Suez-Sinai Crisis 1956: Retrospective and Reappraisal. The last (8 June 1967) comes from a paper by Ilan Troen and Zaki Shalom entitled Ben-Gurion’s Diary for the 1967 Six-Day War: An Introduction (found in Israel Studies, Volume 4, Number 2). Square brackets in these extracts are inserts by the editor(s) - except for the single occurrence of [. . .] which indicates where I have omitted several paragraphs.
27 September 1956
‘This morning we held a consultation - Golda [Meir], [Peretz| Naftali, Pinhas Sapir, Moshe D[ayan] . . . Shimon Peres and myself - regarding the French proposed. . . I made three negative assumptions: (1) We shall not be the ones to open [hostilities]. (2) We shall not participate unless there is British agreement and their agreement must also include our defence against a Jordanian and Iraqi attack. (We on our part will promise not to attack either Jordan or Syria.) (3) That no action will be taken contrary to U.S. opinion and without it being informed. Our final decision will be made here following their return [from France] . . .
Upon the conclusion of the Eden-Selwyn Lloyd talks in Paris with the French Government a communiqué was issued saying that both governments hold the same views as to the steps that must be taken in the present crisis. Have they really reached an agreement on an ‘operation’ and did they also discuss the plan of our participation?. . .
Next Sunday things will become clearer following the departure of our delegation.
19 October 1956
‘At eleven, Gilbert, who has just returned from France, came to see me . . . I outlined to him my plan for the Middle East and he agrees with it. In his opinion his government will endeavour to influence Britain to accept my plan, for without England the plan cannot be. In general the plan is: oust Nasser, partition Jordan - [with the] eastern [part] to Iraq - so that it will make peace with Israel thereby enabling the refugees to settle there with the aid of American money. The borders of Lebanon will be reduced and it will become a Christian state. I am not quite clear in regard to what will be done with Syria. Gilbert thinks that [Adib al] Shishakli is the man [to take into consideration] since America trusts him.’
7 November 1956
‘An act of the Devil - I fell sick and was bedridden following the Government approval of my plan, a day before actions in Sinai began. I had an attack of high fever and weakness and even yesterday, Prof. S[hlomo]. Zondak forbade me to go up to Jerusalem to the Knesset. But I could no longer take his advice, since the Knesset had been put off from Monday till today. At eleven o’clock this morning I gave my report of the military actions of the biggest campaign in the history of our people - the campaign to conquer the Sinai Peninsula (including the Gaza Strip). (I could not give an account of the political background of the military operation.)
In bed in Tel-Aviv, I was in constant touch with military head-quarters on the one hand, and with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, on the other. I wasn’t sure whether Eden would keep his part of the arrangement. And though he was twelve hours late - in turning [with the ultimatum] to Egypt as well as in the start of the bombings. I was anxious with fright that Tel-Aviv and the other airports might be bombed - the partners did keep most of their commitments. On two occasions Eisenhower poured out his anger at us - twice before the start of the operation (during mobilization) and twice following our commencing the operation. But by the time we managed to explain to him the reasons for our actions he was informed that the English and the French were also taking action, and in his broadcast to the nation that night - October 31 - he was more moderate towards us.
In the beginning the entire affair seemed like a dream, then a fable and in the end like a night of wonders.
The dispatch with which [Nikolai] Bulganin honored me - if his name hadn’t been signed on it I could have thought it had been written by Hitler. There’s not much difference between these hangmen. It worries me because Soviet arms arc flowing into Syria and we must presume that the arms arc accompanied by ‘Volunteers’.’
8 June 1967
‘M. Shapira came at nine [to my home in Tel-Aviv]. I told him that we’d lost a day, and in these times one day should not be taken lightly. I don’t know if the war is over already, it’s possible there will be complications. We must reinforce the army’s victory by settling the Old City as quickly as possible, both in the deserted areas of the Jewish Quarter and in abandoned Arab houses [in other Quarters]. If the Arabs return, we’ll provide them with homes in the New City [of Jerusalem]. Shapira agrees.
I wanted to discuss this with Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister too, but was told that he’s in Jerusalem. Because I wanted to go inside the Old City, I traveled to Jerusalem. Ezer Weizman and Mordechai Hod came with me. All the way to Jerusalem and in the New City soldiers cheered us. We entered the Old City and headed straight for the Wailing Wall. I noticed that since the Old City has been closed to us [from 1948], buildings were erected next to the Wall. I was surprised that an order hasn’t been given to knock these constructions down. I walked over to the Wall and saw a sign in Arabic and English “el Burak,” as if to announce here is where Muhammad met the angel Elkim. I said that first of all this sign should be removed without damaging the Wall’s stones. One of the soldiers immediately got a stick and began erasing the sign. I couldn’t find Moshe because he’d gone to Hebron, and would return to Tel-Aviv.
I returned to Tel-Aviv; Moshe is still not here. I wanted to see Begin and discuss settling the Old City, I was told he’s in Jerusalem, and might return this evening.
I went to a meeting of Rafi. A large crowd had gathered. Shimon suggested returning to the Labor Party, so that we can oust the Prime Minister. I expressed my doubts that our return to Labor would create a change of government. I don’t know if the war is over, but in the political arena we’re liable to lose what our army has gained for the nation. [. . .]
I invited [Moshe] Shapira and Begin to come and see me. I told them that it’s not certain if the war will be over tomorrow. At any rate, the international struggle will begin immediately over four issues: the Old City, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Sinai. On Jerusalem we must not budge. We have to quickly establish a large Jewish settlement there. The same with Hebron. The West Bank must not be returned to Hussein, but its annexation to Israel would mean the addition of one million Arabs, this would present a terrible danger. There’s also a refugee problem in the Gaza Strip. Begin proposed transferring the refugees from Gaza to El- Arish and leaving them there. It’s doubtful if they’d go willingly. He’s also in favor of incorporating all of the West Bank into Israel. I stressed the political struggle awaiting us.’