David Ben-Gurion’s visit to Detroit in 1951 is well-documented and preserved in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Detroit Jewish History.
Seventy years ago, on May 21, 1951, the city of Detroit and its Jewish community hosted the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, for a 36-hour visit. He was not on holiday. Along with other Israeli leaders, Ben-Gurion was traveling across America for a critical Israel Bond Drive. As an editorial in the May 18, 1951, issue of the JN stated: “The small state of Israel remains in danger. Ben-Gurion’s visit here is not a social event …” But his visit was a big deal.
Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister of Israel. Born in Poland in 1885, he became a Zionist as a young man and immigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1906. Ben-Gurion was a self-educated person, a voracious reader and bibliophile and, above all, a highly skilled, determined politician, who made the creation of Israel his life’s mission. He served as prime minister from 1948-1954 and 1955-1963 and was defense minister during Israel’s War of Independence from 1948-49. It is not an overstatement to say that Ben-Gurion is to Israel what George Washington is to the United States.
Both the Detroit Jewish Chronicle and JN covered Ben-Gurion’s visit and related events. There are numerous reports and editorials from the May 18 and 25, 1951 issues, which can be found in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Detroit Jewish History. There were also plenty of greetings to Ben-Gurion from various local organizations. For anyone interested in the history of Israel and its relation to Detroit, this is excellent reading.
Ben-Gurion, his wife, Paula, and their entourage arrived at Willow Run Airport on Sunday, May 20. Their motorcade then proceeded to drive through Detroit’s Dexter-Davidson area, the heart of the city’s Jewish community at that time.
Everyone in the community was invited to the official reception for Ben-Gurion on Monday at Detroit City Hall. Mayor Albert Cobo and Gov. G. Mennon Williams welcomed the prime minister, who gave an address about Israel’s status and needs. It was also proclaimed Ben-Gurion Day in Detroit. Later that day, Ben-Gurion visited the Kaiser-Fraser automobile factory in Ypsilanti — KF had recently built a plant in Haifa, Israel — before he headed to his next stop, Chicago.
I found two other interesting reports. After Ben-Gurion’s visit, there was a story in the May 25, 1951, Chronicle about Norman Cottler, owner of the Dexter-Davison Market. Cottler knew Ben-Gurion in 1916, when both joined the famous “Jewish Legion” formed by the British to fight in WWI. He gave $5,000 to kick-off a $2 million Israel Bond drive in Detroit — this would be $50,000 and $20 million today.
There were also reports in both the Chronicle and JN about an event held a week before Ben-Gurion’s visit, a rally for Israel’s third anniversary at the State Fairgrounds in Detroit. On May 13, more than 9,000 Detroiters attended the rally. Golda Myerson was the featured speaker. Myerson later changed her surname to Meir and would be prime minister of Israel, 1960-1974.
David Ben-Gurion’s visit to Detroit was historic and a great success. It is further evidence of the important role that Jewish Detroiters played in the growth of Israel. And his visit is well-documented and preserved in the William Davidson Digital Archive.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.