Around 1960, the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, came to pay a visit to Yeshiva University. He was not known as a friend of Orthodox Judaism. But he was one of the builders of the modern State of Israel. My rebbe at the time would not himself go to the assembly that the university had arranged to greet and honor Ben Gurion. But he did allow his students to go. Ben Gurion at the time urged the student body to make “Aliyah;” that is, to make it a part of our life-plans to join the Jewish People in the Jewish State.
Ben Gurion was born in Plonsk, Poland in 1886 and attended a Hebrew school established by his father, an ardent Zionist. By his mid-teens, he led a Zionist youth group, “Ezra,” recalling the great Biblical figure who had led the Return to Zion Program of the Jewish People some 2,500 years earlier. He left Eastern Europe, where he had witnessed anti-Semitic pogroms, for Turkish Palestine, “to build it and be rebuilt by it.”
Arriving in Palestine in 1906, he became involved in an agricultural workers’ commune, that evolved into the “Kibbutz.” He also helped establish the Jewish self-defense organization, “HaShomer,” the “Watchman.” He had become a secular Jewish nationalist who combined Jewish Messianic visions with socialist ideals.
Amidst Arab outrage against the mass immigration into the Middle East in the 1920’s and 1930’s, he was one of the first to realize the tragic nature of the clash between two legitimate claims to the same land. For the Jews, it was a matter of life-or-death. For the Arabs, it meant, in many cases, usurpation from ancestral lands of many hundreds of years, although the Jewish claim was in fact far more ancient.
On May 14, 1948, Ben Gurion proclaimed the Independence of Israel, and led the Jewish People to victory through its first war in 2,000 years as an independent state.
As Prime Minister, he presided over many projects crucial to the development of the State, including the national water delivery system and the establishment of new towns and cities. He called for settlement of outlying areas, especially the Negev. He presided over “Operation Magic Carpet,” the airlift of Jews from Arab countries, many of whom had never seen a plane and who regarded their rescue as truly being on the “wings of eagles.”
In 1953, Ben Gurion retired from political life, with his wife Paula, to Kibbutz Sde Boker. He came out of retirement to lead the country during the Suez crisis, but retired from the premiership in 1963, though remaining active in political life. In June, 1970, the first Prime Minister of Israel retired from politics, this time permanently, and returned to Sde Boker, where he passed away in 1973.