This Week in History: Ben-Gurion retires to the Negev

Israel's first prime minister moved to Kibbutz Sde Boker 57 years ago, but returned to politics less than two years later.

December 10, 2010 12:10
4 minute read.
Anonymous photographer. 'I Have a Dream' (David Be

David Ben Gurion BW photo 311. (photo credit: .)

Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion did not fully explain why he was quitting the government and powerful political party he founded when he announced he was retiring to a small Negev Kibbutz 57 years ago this week. On December 7, 1953, the small-statured statesman with a huge personality gave a farewell radio address to the state whose independence he had famously announced six-and-a-half years earlier. His retirement would not last very long, but the move to the desert was permanent and carried a lasting symbolism for the people and state of Israel as well as the values he longed to impart upon them.

Ben-Gurion, born David Grun, came to Israel from Poland at the age of twenty during the second aliya in 1906. An agricultural worker, he quickly rose to the leadership of Poali Zion (Workers of Zion), later Ahdut Ha’avoda (Labor Unity), the Mapai party (Labor’s predecessor), chairman of the Histadrut, and in 1935, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. It was through his roles as Jewish Agency and Histadrut chairman that he truly became the leader of Palestine’s Jews, eventually leading him to become the not-yet-established country’s first leader.

Ben-Gurion led Israel through the War of Independence, built the army, ensured a massive immigration, and was fundamental in building the state’s institutions as well as setting many of the national priorities that still guide it to this day. Just over six years after the establishment of the state, however, it seemed the personification of Israel was growing tired. Historians have noted that his diary entries from 1952 and 1953 paint a picture of an exhausted man. He made several attempts at resting himself in the year prior to his retirement, but according to his writings, they were not enough. Immediately following one of these short vacations, he announced his retirement.

There were also two other reasons that must be considered when trying to understand why Israel’s founding statesman left the helm less than seven years after the birth of the state. The first can be derived from a letter written shortly before his retirement. Ben-Gurion wrote, “No state depends on a single individual, certainly not me.”

At the time of his move to Sde Boker, Ben-Gurion was the only prime minister and defense minister Israel had ever known. The more junior leadership of the country, especially those who were in his party, were devastated by the loss of the only real father figure Zionism had known. Ben-Gurion, however, had plans to coronate a young guard, who can still be seen today in the holders of Israel’s top leadership positions today and through its history. Among others, he appointed Moshe Dayan as the IDF’s chief of general staff and a young Shimon Peres as director-general of the Defense Ministry.

The second reason was that he wanted to lead by example in a cause that had won his heart over, the settlement of the Negev, and more generally, the pioneering spirit. Through the various stages of departure in 1953, Ben-Gurion said, in so many words, that he wanted to build the state from on the ground instead of the from the helm of government. One historian described the feeling’s origins in the first encounter Ben-Gurion had with the members of Sde Boker when he was traveling through the Negev some years earlier. He passed through the kibbutz and asked its young members what they were doing out in the middle of the desert. Their answer was simple and inspiring for the prime minister: We fought for this place in the War of Independence, so we decided to live here.

Later writing about living in the desert, Ben-Gurion penned, “The desert provides us with the best opportunity to begin again. This is a vital element of our renaissance in Israel. For it is in mastering nature that man learns to control himself.” He added that looking at trees he planted himself gave him a greater sense of beauty and satisfaction than could be had looking at any other tree in the world. Not only because he planted them, “but also because they are a gift of man to nature and a gift of the Jews to the compost of their culture.” Settling the Negev had become an extremely personal and meaningful project for Israel’s most powerful leader.

His first attempt at retirement, however, would not even last two years. In 1955, Ben-Gurion rejoined the government as defense minister in the midst of the Suez Crisis, which led up to the 1956 Sinai Campaign. In late 1955, he retook the helm as prime minister, holding that position for an additional eight years. Despite the fact that it took Israel’s first statesman ten years to retire, it was his initial decision to move to a small, young kibbutz in the Negev that helped create part of the legacy he wanted to leave. He wanted to live and lead by example, show the importance of settling the desert, and working the land. In other words, being a pioneer.

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