Face-To-Face In The Desert With Ben-Gurion

Face-To-Face In The Desert With Ben-Gurion

In 'Epilogue,' six hours of film interviews with David Ben-Gurion create a soulful portrait of Israel's first prime minister.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Clinton Bailey with David Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker. Courtesy of Clinton Bailey
Clinton Bailey with David Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker. Courtesy of Clinton Bailey

Had Clinton Bailey turned right rather than left on Gordon Street in Tel Aviv back in January 1967, his life would have been entirely different. And so would the new film “Epilogue” and its backstory.

Bailey, an American-born Jerusalemite who is an expert on the Bedouins, conducted six hours of film interviews with David Ben-Gurion in 1968 at Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Israel’s first prime minister was living after retiring from government. Those conversations — recorded as background for a film but unseen for almost 50 years — are the basis of “Epilogue,” a documentary providing an intimate, soulful portrait of Ben-Gurion (screened as part of the Upper West Side Celebrates Israel on Sunday, April 30, JCC Manhattan.)

Back to Gordon Street. Bailey, who grew up in Buffalo, first went to Israel in 1958 to study. After doctoral work at Columbia, he hoped to settle in Israel. In January 1967, while walking back from a job interview, he wandered onto a residential boulevard. Someone called out, “Where are you going, young man?” Perhaps it was because he stood out in Tel Aviv, dressed in a suit, that she spoke English. Turns out she was Paula Ben-Gurion. After he said he hoped to stay in Israel and work, she invited him for tea.

The following day, he returned to meet her husband. Some months later, Ben-Gurion suggested that Bailey contact the director of the educational institute at Sde Boker in the Negev. Soon after, Bailey began teaching there.

“It changed my whole life. There I first met the Bedouin, while jogging around the desert. I like to think it’s all because I didn’t take a right turn on Gordon Street. Those are the types of things you can’t possibly plan or expect. You just have to be open to them,” Bailey says in a telephone interview.

During afternoons in Sde Boker, he’d often walk with Ben-Gurion, circling the kibbutz. “He wasn’t into small talk. If I asked a question, he’d answer.”

When British film producers approached Ben-Gurion, then 82, about interviewing him, the former prime minister requested Bailey as interviewer.

“I was keen to be involved,” Bailey says. “I wanted it to be a film that brought out all the facets of his personality.”

You get a view of Ben-Gurion, his persona, his confidence, humility, knowledge. He’s someone you can admire.

Soon after the interviewing was complete, Bailey and others left the project for artistic reasons. After that he never thought about it again.

A few years ago, Bailey was approached by the daughter of someone involved in a second stage of the project who wanted to track down the tapes for a new film. Bailey directed her team to the son of the original producer, in London. There, in the man’s father’s attic, they found the footage, but it was silent. After further sleuthing, they found the sound in the Sde Boker archives.

“When they called last year to show me what they had done with the tapes, I was amazed. It came out to be exactly what I had wanted back then. You get a view of Ben-Gurion, his persona, his confidence, humility, knowledge. He’s someone you can admire.

“Hearing the voice is a lark,” he adds.

Referring to lands gained in the Six-Day War, Bailey says, “He does say that he would give up virtually everything for peace, and I think that he meant that we have enough territory for settling the number of people who would come.”

And what would Israel’s founding father be thinking now?

“I think he would be very happy that there are now 6.5 million Jews living here. He would not be gratified that half the country is virtually non-populated. Only 5 percent of the Israeli people live in the Negev, including Beersheba.

“I think that in terms of the occupation, he would have thought that we have to be more active in trying to find a way to stop it. I don’t think he would have been happy about the settlements. He understood that we have to have a good reputation in this world.”

Years later, thinking about his old friend, Bailey, the distinguished author of several books and a forthcoming volume about Bedouins in the Bible, says, “We were lucky to have him. Lucky to have a lot of people at the time. He said that he couldn’t have done it [the establishment of the State] alone.”


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