Israel: David ben Gurion
Son of the Lion’s Cub
After miles of desolation, green fields appear suddenly, like a mirage, in the heart of the Negev desert. Andbeyond the fields lives David Ben Gurion.
The ride from Tel Aviv had been a long one—three hours by car, and much of it through desert. Although it was April, when the dry season had long begun in Israel, it rained almost the whole way, and when it did not rain, the skies were almost black.
By contrast, the sands seemed yellow, dotted with black tents of Bedouin men. Bedouin women in black garb herded the sheep and the camels. A jackal stopped in its tracks to observe us, and it seemed as if we had intruded upon a picture from the dim past.
When we reached Beer Sheba, my driver, Nissim, whose name is the Hebrew word for miracles, noticed that his gas tank was nearly empty, and we stopped at a service station for refueling. There was a long line ahead of us and as a result, we were fifteen minutes late for our appointment.
Not that David Ben Gurion is given to waiting for anybody. His day is filled with study and writing and with constant interest in Israel and the world beyond. The few people he does agree to see are little more than infringements on his busy schedule.
He lives in Sde Boker—the field of the shepherd—a small communal settlement, from which, like the son of the lion cub his name denotes, he charges into the public limelight from time to time, causing controversy wherever he goes.
The paint on his green frame four-room house has long faded in the steady heat of the sun, and is peeling here and there. A rusty air conditioner tilts crazily from one of the windows, threatening to become dislodged and crash to the ground any moment. A shingle is missing from the red roof. Altogether not what one would expect to be the residence of the first prime minister of Israel and a member of Parliament still, and yet everything one would expect of Ben Gurion who cares nothing for outward appearances.
A woman was washing the tile floor of the enclosed patio which forms the entrance to the house, and I stepped carefully so as not to slip. The front door stood ajar, and as I looked in, I saw a small man wearing a turtleneck sweater and khaki pants seated behind a large cluttered desk, busily writing.
Much of his legendary white mane is gone by now. His eyes appeared somewhat tired behind horn rimmed glasses. But a vast library on shelves all around his large, paneled office, books piled up on a table in the center of the room, and stacks of papers, indicated that despite his years, this acknowledged spirit behind the founding of the Jewish state was as hard working and as alert as ever.
He rose to shake hands, then settled himself in his comfortable chair and asked me to be seated too, across from him. He asked for my name, and I said my Hebrew name, “Yehoyakim David,” and I spoke to him in Hebrew.
Ben Gurion put down his glasses. “You, an Israeli, in Newark? What are you doing spending your years in America? Why don’t you come home?”
For a moment I was at a loss for words. Why wasn’t I spending my years here instead of in America? How could I tell him how I felt and what it was all about with me? And, anyway, that had not been the purpose of my visit.
He looked steadily at me, and all I could say was, “Mr. Ben Gurion, after all, I came here to interview you, not to be interviewed by you.” And Ben Gurion laughed, and the ice was broken. But I knew he had disapproved. For a moment I felt like a small, erring boy before his father or his teacher, and I had no defense.
He wrote down the date of the interview and the name of my newspaper, and asked for my questions. “You ask me your questions ahead of time, and I shall give you the answers, one, two, three. Quick, quick, you know I don’t have much time.”
I said I wanted to know how he lives and what he does day by day.
“Now, who would care to know how I live and what I do day by day,” He retorted. “Young fellow, nobody would be interested in that kind of an interview.” But I persisted. And then, suddenly, he smiled and said, “Do you really think people care about that?”
I nodded, and he sat back and relaxed in his chair.
“I rise at 7 a.m. and work through until midnight,” he said matter-of-factly. “I am working on a comprehensive history of the state of Israel, not just the twenty years of its existence, but when it all really started, towards the end of the nineteenth century.
“Unfortunately, people take much of my time,” he added with a twinkle in his eye. “You already are the second visitor this morning, and others are coming in a little while.”
He said he had started the history at the beginning. Which is as it should be, but later he skipped a few periods, coming closer to the present. “That’s because, well, when I was writing about the early years, the present seemed so far away…” he explained. “But I’ll be going back to the past as soon as I’ve completed the present.”
He does all his writing in long hand, with pen and ink, and later has the material typed up. Despite his advanced age—he was going on eighty two when the interview took place—he does all his research himself. “I remember details very well,” added Ben Gurion, pointing to his head with his finger. “But one should not rely on ones memory when writing a book. Writing comes easily to me, I have it all up here in my head, and I just put it down on paper.”
Fascination with the desert and determination that the Negev must be settled first drew Ben Gurion to Sde Baker in 1953, after he resigned as prime minister, to live in the kibbutz with his wife, Paula. She died two months prior to our interview, at the age of seventy six.
“I worked in the fields, just like everybody else,” he recalled. And I thought that he enjoyed those years, the way he was remembering them, softly, happily. But despite his love for the soil, his love for politics was greater, and he returned to head the government once more. Even after his final resignation, in 1963, he continued to be involved in politics, as a member of parliament, and by sniping from the sidelines at his successor and former lieutenant, Levi Eshkol. He even formed his own splinter party. The man who had always been number one, had not wanted, in his heart, to retreat to the desert. Peace and quiet were not really what he was seeking.
Yet as far as the hundred residents of Sde Boker are concerned, Ben Gurion is but one of the chaverim, the comrades, the members, of the kibbutz. “The people here take him in their stride. He is busy with his work and they are busy with their work,” said one of his aides. As a full member of the kibbutz, he takes one daily meal in the community dining room, attends dinners in the dining room Friday nights, and is a guest at weddings and bar mitzvas.
Like former President Truman, Ben Gurion is a walker, and takes a daily walk of about an hour, accompanied by his bodyguards. “I recommend walking to everyone,” he said emphatically, leaning forward. “It repairs the muscles.”
He is an avid newspaper reader, and spends each noon hour catching up on what is new in the world. “But I have so many interruptions and so much to do, that I don’t have enough time to read,” he complained. “I also read about two hours each night in bed, but I would like to read more.”
I had a terrible urge to advise him not to strain his eyes, but I knew it would not be proper to say so. I thought that surely Paula Ben Gurion, had she been alive, would have stopped him, somehow. Her relationship with her husband was legendary. They were married more than fifty years, but she took care of him as one would take care of a child, even insisting that he take warm milk at certain times.
Her death was a tremendous blow to Ben Gurion. I wondered what it was like for him now, all alone after those many years. I knew I could not ask. But later, after the interview, I spoke with Avraham Tsivion, director of the Sdeh Boker College of the Negev, which Ben Gurion had founded. Tsivion recalled Paula’s funeral: “Ben Gurion stood at the open grave surrounded by a thick mourning crowd; family, friends, the relics of his own generation, political enemies, students and teachers at the college, old, very old and young. The coffin was already deep in the ground, the speeches, the eulogies, went on, and the old and now the lonliest man in the world stood close, very close, wrapped in his military jacket, bending his heavy, stubborn head, twitching his lips, and looked motionless with blazing eyes. He suffered. He did not cry. He looked like one of those wind-carved mountains beyond the valley here.”
The grave overlooks a valley below, a deep gorge, and the Mountains of Zin where the Children of Israel traveled on the way to the Promised Land, in the distance. I am told Ben Gurion often stops at the grave, all alone, and stays there for quite a while.
Mrs. Ben Gurion frequently nagged her husband about eating lunch, which he had a tendency to neglect. In her memory, he treats himself to the meal she always wanted him to have, a mixture of fruit and yogurt. “He calls it kutch-much, meaning a kind of mess. It’s a made up word, but you get the idea,” Tsivion said.
Before proceeding to weighty matters, such as the relations of Israel with the Arabs, I wanted to photograph Ben Gurion. I so proposed to him. He looked displeased. “Is it necessary,” he asked. “Well, I need a picture for the newspaper,” I replied.
Resigned, he sat quietly in his chair in back of the desk. I placed a flash cube on the camera, held the camera up to my eye, and peered through it. Ben Gurion looked grim. At my request, he made an effort at smiling, and I quickly snapped away.
“Please do wait another moment,” I said. “I’d like very much to have a picture taken of the two of us.”
“But who is going to take the picture,” he replied. “There is no one in the room except the two of us.”
By pre-arrangement, I walked to the door, opened it, and called out “Nissim!” The driver, who had been standing at the door, put his hands to his ears, stumbling backward slightly, in mock shock. I motioned him to come into the room and introduced him to Ben Gurion. He was greatly in awe of the famous man. They shook hands, and Ben Gurion told him to relax.
“Mr. David, I have something to tell you,” Nissim said in a loud whisper.
I went up to him.
“I don’t know how to use a camera,” he said haltingly.
Ben Gurion overhead Nissim’s stage whisper and smiled broadly.
“There’s nothing to it,” I assured Nissim. “You just look in here and press there, and everything will be all right.” I handed him the camera, and walked behind Ben Gurion’s desk, at which the former prime minister was seated. Then I placed myself next to his chair, leaned forward a bit, and smiled into the camera.
But Ben Gurion got up.
“It’s not nice for me to sit while you’re standing,” he said. He stood up and took my hand, and made an effort at a smile.
“Now!” I said to Nissim, through teeth locked in a smile. I must have said it quite loudly, because Nissim began to press away on the button, and the flash cube spun several times. And it was over. If these pictures come out, it will be a real miracle, and Nissim will have lived up to his name, I thought.
Nissim left, and I asked Ben Gurion whether I could take some movies of him.
“But you’ve just taken pictures,” he said, somewhat irritated.
I explained that the pictures I now wanted to make of him were movies. Grudgingly he agreed. I aimed my camera at him, seated behind the desk. But the red flag in the viewer was up.
“Mr. Ben Gurion, there isn’t enough light in the room,” I said regretfully.
“That can be fixed,” he replied, and proceeded to walk around the room, turning on various lights. Then he seated himself behind his desk once more. I looked through the viewer. The red flag was still up, but I rolled away, as they say in the movie business, because after all the trouble he had gone to, I could not tell Ben Gurion that the light was still insufficient. I simply did not have the nerve left. I am happy to report that both still and moving pictures came out well.
Picture taking time over, we talked about serious subjects, about what lies ahead for Israel.
“The future nobody knows,” Ben Gurion said. “There are hidden factors, changing factors. Everybody and everything changes. It is not so much a question of what I would like for Israel, but what is possible for Israel.”
The key to the future of Israel lies in the Negev, Ben Gurion said. This is a personal crusade with him. He had hoped to set an example by settling in the desert, but it is an example which, to his regret, not many have followed. The Negev can accommodate millions of people, Ben Gurion said, and his eyes seemed filled with vision. Israel must have more people if she is to survive, he said. Jews from all over the world must come here. The desert must and can be settled and turned into a fruitful land as it was in the days of Abraham. This is his dream, and I wondered whether he would live to see it come true. But then, he had already seen one historic dream come true—the creation of the first Jewish state in two thousand years. Perhaps more was too much to expect.
Israel’s major immediate problem is, of course, the relationship with the Arabs, and Ben Gurion said there were several prerequisites to peace:
“First, there can be no peace in the Middle East unless there is peace in the rest of the world. I don’t see any chance of peace with the Arabs in the near future unless the Russians want peace here too. The Russians seek the friendship of the Arabs, and so they will let them do pretty much what they want.“
As far as the Arabs themselves are concerned, it is hard to see peace coming from within themselves. We don’t know what the public in the Arab countries is really thinking, because there is no freedom of expression. Certainly the leaders don’t want any peace.
“What will be in the more distant future, on a long range basis, well, even the prophets in the Bible never made definite statements. They always qualified their predictions with the word ‘If.’
“As for me, I’m not even a prophet.”
He smiled and got up. The interview was over. We shook hands and I thanked him, and we said “Shalom.” I walked away, and at the door I turned around once more to look at him in farewell. He was still standing.
“You must come back to Israel, to live. And then, perhaps, some day, we shall see each other again,” he said. “We need more people in Israel.”
I nodded, and later, in the car, I thought about what he said for a long time and Nissim and I did not speak until the camels reappeared near Beer Seba.
Gunter David and his parents fled Germany, their native country, as soon as Adolph Hitler rose to power. They settled in Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine, where Gunter grew up. He subsequently moved to the U.S., where he worked on major newspapers for 25 years. The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize. He has returned to Israel numerous times, as a newsman and to visit family and friends, and covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His second career was as a family therapist and addiction counselor. Dalia, his wife of 60 years, is also from Israel.