Last month as the House deliberated on the Committee of Privileges’ recommendations, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a speech centred on democracy and the integrity of the Parliament. His speech bore a passage that may have been easily overlooked, but is historically noteworthy.
“The leaders, who fought for and won independence, are often exceptional individuals of great courage, immense culture, and outstanding ability. They came through the crucible of fire and emerged as leaders of men and nations. They are the David Ben-Gurions, the Jawaharlal Nehrus, and we have our own too. Imbued with enormous personal prestige, they strive to meet the high expectations of their peoples to build a brave new world, and shape a new future for their peoples, and for their countries.“
PM Lee was referring to a generation of founding leaders of modern nations, many of whom shared the common struggle against colonialism and imperialism and rose to create a country and a home for their people. These included Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Pakistan), Kemal Ataturk (Republic of Turkey), and Tunku Abdul Rahman (Malaysia).
This first in the series of articles will attempt to shed more light on these personalities who “came through the crucible of fire and emerged as leaders of men and nations” – beginning with David Ben-Gurion.
His origin story
David Ben Gurion (1886 – 1973) was born David Grun in the Polish town of Plonsk, then under the Russian Empire. He was the first Prime Minister of Israel and is considered to be the founding father of the State of Israel.
He took the adoptive name of Ben Gurion in 1909 and rose to become the leader of the Jewish community in a geopolitical entity known as Mandatory Palestine (under British rule) which lasted from 1920 to 1948. On May 14, 1948, he proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel and became its founding prime minister until 1954, and again from 1955 to 1963.
Even as a boy, Ben Gurion dreamt of independence for the Jewish people in the historical land of Israel and believed that the Hebrew language was an important way to unite the Jewish people. When he was 14, he and his friends founded the Ezra movement to strengthen the knowledge of Hebrew in their town and he also began teaching Hebrew.
Leader of the working class
He left Poland in 1906 for Palestine, arriving in Jaffa where he found work as a day labourer, toiling under physically harsh conditions. He believed that the struggles of the labourers and the working class would be key to promoting the idea of Jewish independence and that, ultimately, the working class would lead the nation. Shortly thereafter, he attended the founding conference of the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party in the Land of Israel in Jaffa and was elected into the Central Committee.
In 1915, he made his way to the United States where he would meet his future wife Paula and live for the next three years. In 1918, he joined the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers of the British Army, a volunteer corps made up of Jews living in the US and Canada. In that same year, his battalion was sent to Eretz Israel and fought battles in Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
In 1919, he officially returned to Israel and was joined by his wife and daughter. He became active in workers’ unions and was elected as secretary to the General Federation of Workers in Israel in 1920. In 1930, he became leader of the Workers Party of the Land of Israel (the Mapai).
His rise as the first Prime Minister of Israel
In 1937, the British conceived a plan to partition the land of Israel, which he opposed. But in it, he saw an opportunity to establish the Jewish state and even then, he knew that the establishment of the state depended on the ability to defend it. In Nov 1947, the United Nations formally approved Israel’s Partition Plan, calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel. In May 1948, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the independent State of Israel and served as its first Prime Minister.
He helped build the state institutions and supervised many national development projects. He also presided over the immigration of Jews from across the world to Israel via the Law of Return. Ben-Gurion made sure that non-Jewish citizens were granted full and equal rights, and protected the holy sites of all religions, in spite of Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Arab world.
He retired from active politics in 1970 and lived in a on a kibbutz in the Negev desert, until his death due to complications arising from a cerebral haemorrhage.
David Ben-Gurion was widely considered to be one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century.
Postscript – Our own founding fathers.
Seven years ago today, our founding prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew was laid to rest after a week of public remembrance. It rained heavily in many parts of Singapore, just as it did this afternoon.
Mr Lee and his generation of colleagues spent their childhood as subjects of the British Empire and lived their young adulthood under the terror of war and imperial occupation. These powerful memories of colonialism and imperialism forged their resolve to seek our sovereign independence and destiny. Their leadership helped create an independent and successful Singapore. More importantly, they helped Singaporeans find our place in the world and our national identity.
Cover photo credit: Wikipedia and Jewish Life Facebook page