Mary Ben-Gurion, Christian-born Daughter-in-law of Israel’s First PM, Dies at 94

The nurse from an Isle of Man family would undergo both Reform and Orthodox conversions, but the Old Lion’s wife Paula never considered her a real Jew

Mary Ben-Gurion (in black) shakes hands with her father-in-law. Amos Ben-Gurion is the man in the police uniform.
GPO/David Eldan

Mary Ben-Gurion, the Christian-born daughter-in-law of Israel’s first prime minster who reportedly loved her from the start, died this week at 94.

Mary was the wife of David Ben-Gurion’s second son, Amos, who served as a deputy police commissioner and died in 2008. Mary was buried at Kibbutz Einat east of Tel Aviv.

Mary Ben-Gurion and late President Shimon Peres lay flowers on her husband Amos' grave in 2008.
Alon Ron

The love story of Mary and Amos stirred great public interest in its day. Amos, who served in the British Army during World War II, was hospitalized in Liverpool during the war and fell in love with his nurse, Mary Callow, the daughter of an evangelical Christian family from the Isle of Man who was about to finish her nursing studies.

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In 1946 they decided to marry, but Amos’ mother Paula Ben-Gurion was opposed because the intended bride wasn’t Jewish. David Ben-Gurion went to England to explain things to his son.

Amos Ben-Gurion during Israel's 1948 War of Independence.
Frank Scherschel / GPO

But as Tom Segev puts it in his new book “David Ben-Gurion: A State at All Costs,” David wrote to Paula that he wasn’t sure he could extricate his son from the stcky situation.

Another biographer of the first prime minister, Michael Bar-Zohar, wrote that the Polish-born patriarch gave Amos and Mary his wholehearted blessing. He also came for their wedding but was late; the couple were waiting for him at the Liverpool train station already married.

Ben-Gurion reported to his wife that Mary had made a good impression and described her as a wise, strong-willed girl deeply in love with Amos and ready for anything. She hoped to emulate Ruth from the Bible and become a complete Jew.

According to Segev’s biography, David Ben-Gurion said that since meeting Mary, Amos had stopped smoking and learned to economize. Amos said his father fell in love with Mary at first sight, with the Old Lion adding that the marriage was good for improving the race, as he put it.

The problem was solved when Mary underwent a Reform conversion with a New York rabbi who was friendly with David Ben-Gurion. Paula wrote to the rabbi that Amos shouldn’t dare come home with a Christian woman before she converted; still, Paula later said she didn’t consider Mary a real Jew.

Amos and Mary had three children: Galia, Ruth and Alon. The question of Mary’s Judaism came up again when in 1968 Galia was about to marry and the Chief Rabbinate had doubts about her mother’s Jewishness. Mary was then quoted in the press asking whether it was possible that after 22 years in Israel, and especially in the family of an Israeli founding father, she wasn’t a Jew.

The chief military rabbi, Shlomo Goren, solved the problem and performed Galia’s wedding. Segev writes that in the end Mary underwent an Orthodox conversion too.