David Ben-Gurion comes to New York

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Premier David Ben-Gurion, right, of Israel smiles as he poses with a scroll of the city after it was presented to him by Mayor Vincent Impellitteri during ceremonies at New York's City Hall, 1951.

David Ben-Gurion comes to New York in these two reports, one from City Hall, the other from the Waldorf-Astoria. It is 1951, only three years after the founding of the state of Israel. Ben-Gurion, the country's first premier, is given a hero's welcome. The first report comes from outside City Hall, where a somewhat hysterical announcer "vamps" while the assembled dignitaries await the start of the festivities. "I never heard such a buzz of excitement and talk," he exclaims, trying to convey the huge crowd's sense of anticipation. There follow the national anthems of both countries, an introduction by the city's ubiquitous Master of Ceremonies, Grover Whalen, and remarks by Mayor Impellitteri, who draws comparisons between Israel's nascent democracy and that of the United States less than two hundred years earlier. Ben-Gurion, when he finally speaks, takes up the analogy, praises the United States being built by "waves of immigration" and pointing out that Israel's influx of refugees, "though more modest…is similar." The Glee Club of the Fire and Police Department entertains. Whalen makes one final introduction, "a Brooklyn girl who made good." She is the former Paula Munweis, now Mrs. David Ben-Gurion.

The second report is from a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria. Speeches by Mayor Impellitteri and Governor Dewey are followed by an appeal to buy State of Israel Bonds by former Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. and City Comptroller Lazarus Joseph. Ben-Gurion, in his remarks, stresses the continuity of a Jewish state, explaining that the Jews were exiled by the Babylonians, then the Romans, but…"return we did!" He points out that the state has been under attack since within eight hours of declaring independence. His final words certainly leave today's listener with much to think about: "We are trying to fashion an exemplary nation."

David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was that rare leader who was able to fight for his people's independence and also successfully led the ensuing democratic institutions he helped found. A dedicated Zionist, he was the first to sign Jewish Declaration of Independence and managed to unite various military factions to coordinate Israel's armies during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. He was Israel's first Prime Minister and first Minister of Defense. As leader of the new state, the Encyclopedia Britannica reports:

…Ben-Gurion presented the people of Israel with a series of challenges: the absorption of mass immigration from all over the world; the assimilation of newcomers of diverse communities and backgrounds; the creation of a unified public education system; the settlement of the desert lands. In his foreign policy, he adopted an independent and pragmatic course. He used to say: “What matters is not what the Gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do.” His defense policy was firm, and he answered violations of the cease-fire agreements by neighboring Arab states with military reprisals.

While one of Israel's "Founding Fathers," Ben-Gurion also established the policy of mass expulsions of Palestinians that sowed the seeds for today's terrible conflicts in that region. Reviewing Anita Shapira's Ben-Gurion; Father of Modern Israel, the New York Times noted how:

…in 1948 when the commanders Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin came to Ben-Gurion asking whether to carry out “a large-scale population evacuation.” Rabin reported that Ben-Gurion responded with a wave of the hand, saying “Expel them.” Shapira explains here that while he forbade the evacuation of some areas, like Nazareth, “like most of his ministers, he saw the Arabs’ exodus as a great miracle, one of the most important in that year of miracles, since the presence of a hostile population constituting some 40 percent of the new state’s total populace did not augur well for the future.”

Ben-Gurion was both a decisive leader and a cagey politician. The example he set for the country he helped will into being is still followed today. Benjamin Balint, writing in The Weekly Standard, claims:

Ben-Gurion remains in the marrow of a country impossible to imagine without his fatherhood. As befits the People of Ben-Gurion, Israel’s political game still follows his rules. If, today, his successors at once play up the country’s defiant self-reliance (we can only count on ourselves), anxiously gauge its international support (can we still count on them?), and pragmatically cultivate alliances (we must count on them)—they are, for better or worse, largely playing the hand that Ben-Gurion dealt.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 5712
Municipal archives id: LT2201