David Ben-Gurion Votes in the Elections, 1949
This photograph shows the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his wife, Paula, voting in the first Israeli elections held in 1949. It is clear from the photograph that the event took place in the winter, as both Ben-Gurion and his wife are wearing coats (Paula Ben-Gurion’s coat is even a fur one). The men in the photograph are all dressed formally with ties, which are not very common in Israel. Most of the people in the photograph look solemn but content. David and Paula Ben-Gurion are about to place their votes in the ballot box on the table in front of them. There are many people looking on, both in the voting hall and through the window.
The first elections in the State of Israel took place on January 25, 1949. Once the results had been announced, the term Knesset (parliament) was brought into being, and the First Knesset of the State of Israel was declared. The elections took place during the difficult time of the War of Independence, however the atmosphere was very festive. A thousand ballot boxes were places throughout Israel, and more than half a million people voted. Of the people who had the right to vote, 86.9 percent voted – the highest percentage to this day – indicating the importance people gave to this historic election.
It was decided that the elections would be for 120 delegates and that it would be a proportional representation system. Security was, inevitably, one of the central political issues. At this point, most of the Negev, the Galilee, and the centre of the country was in Israeli hands, and though the war was not over, the situation was steady. However, there was disagreement between the different political parties about whether to carry on the war until all of the land promised to Israel in the 1947 UN Partition Plan was captured by Israel or to keep to the current borders and direct resources into building the new country.
The outcome of the first elections was a large victory to the Mapai party led by David Ben-Gurion, who won 46 of the 120 seats of the Knesset. Ben-Gurion created a coalition together with the centrist and religious parties and became the first prime minister of the State of Israel.
Ben-Gurion was the most central political figure in the early years of the state. In the pre-state years, he had been active in various Zionist parties and institutions. He was elected as leader of the Achdut Avoda party in 1919, served as the secretary general of the Histadrut (the trade union movement) from 1921 until 1935, and was a member of the Vaad Zmani (the temporary committee of the Jews of the Land of Israel). Following the elections to the Zionist Congress in 1933, Ben-Gurion was elected chair of the Zionist Steering Committee and the Jewish Agency. In 1953, Ben-Gurion resigned from the government and joined Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev; he then returned to the post of prime minister in 1955 and resigned from the government for the last time in 1963.
Jewish Studies teachers can use this photograph when teaching about the establishment of the State of Israel and the building of the political infrastructure of the new state and to explore the concept of democracy in Judaism and changes in the form of government in Israel throughout history.
This image can be used in Civics lessons to discuss electoral systems around the world with Israel as an example of the proportional representation system.
Jewish Studies teachers can use this photograph when discussing the Israeli parliament and its composition. It can also be used when exploring the concept of democracy in Judaism and changes in the form of government in Israel throughout history.
Sociology teachers can use this photograph in discussions on the influence of citizens over the policies of their government.
Describe the people in the photograph.
Who are featured in the centre of the photograph?
What are they doing?
Who are the other people in the photograph?
How are they dressed?
Describe the place where was this photograph was taken.
Reading Between the Lines
This is a photograph of the first elections of the State of Israel.
What date did these elections take place?
Why did so many people accompany Ben-Gurion to the voting booth?
What was so significant about these elections?
Why do you think the people in the photograph are so solemn and formal?
What do you imagine the general atmosphere in Israel was at the time of these elections?
What were the main issues debated in this first election campaign?
Who won this election?
The photograph shows David Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula.
Who was Ben-Gurion?
How was he so central to the history of the State of Israel?
The Israeli parliament is called the Knesset.
Compare between the Knesset election system and the system in your country.
Have you ever visited the Knesset? If not, search for images on the internet.
What is your impression of the building?
What does it remind you of?
Imagine that you were living at the time of the first elections of the State of Israel. Try to imagine how you would have felt.
Remember that just a year before the State of Israel had not existed and that a few years before that, World War II was still going on.
Interview someone who remembers the first time that they voted.
How did they feel?
What is David Ben-Gurion’s legacy in Israel today?
Create a poster to persuade people to vote in the first Knesset elections of 1949. What slogans or pictures have you included and why?