The 1920s finds the Yishuv — the Jewish community in Palestine — building up the institutions that would carry it through statehood. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s most famous leader, steps onto the scene. Left wing, socialist, Labor Zionist, Ben Gurion begins to lead the Yishuv as farms, cities, cultural life, academia, and Jewish self-defense are all growing during a time of economic prosperity and more Jewish immigration.
Into our storyline steps David Ben Gurion, who ranks amongst the giants of Jewish history. His life mirrors that of the Zionist movement’s pre-state focus, and he will go on to declare the establishment of the State of Israel and serve as its first Prime Minister.
Born in Poland, he credited his commitment to Zionism to his love for the Jewish homeland, rather than the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. His idealism landed him in Palestine in 1906 where he became a committed Labor Zionist, working on kibbutzim around the Sea of Galilee at a time when Zionism was focused on developing the land. He was also active in the nascent Jewish self-defense movement and was deported to Egypt by the Ottomans during World War One. He went to America in 1915 to campaign on behalf of the Ottomans, hoping that if they won they would reward their Jewish support by carving out a homeland in Palestine. But when the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 Ben Gurion fought against the Ottomans.
Following the war, as the Zionist Movement emphasized institution building, Ben Gurion took on progressively higher Labor Zionist leadership roles. He became the leader of the Histadrut, the largest trade union in Palestine, in the 1920s. He turned it into the central institution of the Yishuv, the region’s largest employer, and a powerful political force.
Ben Gurion’s focus was on Jewish immigration, which he considered an economic and moral imperative to create a prosperous Jewish homeland. The historian Paul Johnson cites Ben Gurion’s three principles: that Jews should make it their priority to return to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. That this community of Jews in Palestine should be built on a socialist framework. And that the cultural binding of Zionist society must be the Hebrew language. He was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s nemesis, for while Jabotinsky, on the right, believed in the urgent need for massive immigration, Ben Gurion, on the left, was more focused on establishing the necessary socialist conditions for later mass migration.
The problem was that immigration wasn’t going so well in the 1920s. Global economic prosperity and Arab violence made emigrating to Palestine a less attractive opportunity. Still, tens of thousands came in, comprising what became known as the Third and Fourth Aliyah. The Third Aliyah were Ben Gurion’s kind of people: left, socialist, and idealistic, strengthening his power base. The large influx also angered the Arabs. The Fourth Aliyah were blue collar workers who moved to the larger urban areas, joining the Histadrut in large numbers.
In 1922 Winston Churchill credited the Zionists with a range of accomplishments in Palestine. A quarter of Jews were farmers and farm laborers. There was an elected assembly for domestic concerns, and an elected Chief Rabbinate for religious ones. Hebrew was the vernacular, with a vibrant press. The Yishuv had a distinctive intellectual life and considerable activity. The next few years saw more building: new neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. An airport was built. The agricultural market had matured. Cultural life and the arts were flourishing. And the Haganah defense organization was getting better organized. The Yishuv was burgeoning into a pre-state homeland.
The very first scientific lecture at the Hebrew University was given by Albert Einstein on the Theory of Relativity.
Einstein willed all his papers, including his original E=mc2 formula, to the Hebrew University upon his death in 1955.
David Ben Gurion offered Einstein the presidency of Israel in 1952. Einstein reluctantly refused, claiming he wasn’t enough of a people person to do the job well.
Albert Einstein: strongly identified as Jewish and an influential supporter of the Zionist movement, Einstein was skeptical about the need for an exclusively-Jewish state. He believed in the historical and moral case for the Jewish people to have a home in their native land but he worried about the trappings of nationalism. He hoped the state would be bi-national, shared by Jews and Arabs alike. “I am glad,” he said, “that there should be a little patch of earth on which our kindred brethren are not considered aliens.”
Judah Magnes: rabbi from Oakland, California, who became the first chancellor of the Hebrew University when it opened in Jerusalem on April 1, 1925. Like Einstein, Rabbi Magnes was a Zionist but didn’t support the idea of linking Judaism and nationalism. He was determined to use the university to promote equal rights and relations between Jews and Arabs.
David Ben Gurion: born David Gruen in the Russian part of Poland in1886, his father ensured that Ben Gurion from an early age hit all the Zionist checkboxes — youth movements, advocacy for Jewish workers, immigration to Palestine, and, perhaps most important, a love for the Promised Land. Ben Gurion personified the Zionist Movement’s transformation into the State of Israel and served as its first Prime Minister.
Paula Munweis (Ben Gurion): a Russian-American, she met David Ben Gurion on his first trip to the United States. He later said of her, “she was not a Zionist, she had very little Jewish feeling, she was an anarchist. She had no interest in Israel.” But he convinced her to move there with him, and she remained his closest confidant and advisor for the rest of her life.
Goldie Mabovitch (Golda Meir): born in Kiev in 1898, her family moved to Milwaukee when she was eight years old. A prolific fundraiser for the Zionist cause, she met David Ben Gurion during his 1915 trip to the U.S. Ben Gurion later called her “the best man in government.” Under her adopted name, Golda Meir, she went on to serve as the first, and so far only, female Israeli Prime Minister in the 1970s.
THE BIG IDEAS
The 1920s was an era of institution building in Palestine. The biggest were Hebrew University and the Histadrut, both of which still exist today. The Histadrut was the workers union, but Ben Gurion made it more than that. He turned it into the central institution of the Yishuv and the single largest employer and owner of a wide range of companies. The Histadrut therefore had considerable political and economic clout, ensuring that its left-wing leadership, with Ben Gurion at the top, were also highly influential.
Although immigration slowed compared to the earlier decade, the 1920s saw two waves of immigration from Europe. The Third Aliyah immigrants, about 40,000, came immediately after World War One and were mostly from Eastern Europe. Having received agricultural training back in Russia, these immigrants mostly settled on the expanding kibbutzim, especially in the north.
The mid-1920s saw another wave, the Fourth Aliyah. These were mostly blue collar workers from Poland, but unlike their predecessors they settled in urban centers like Tel Aviv. They built the Yishuv’s urban economy, joining the Histadrut in large numbers and expanding the organization’s mission to include classic social safety net features.