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Inside Ben-Gurion’s Head

Inside Ben-Gurion’s Head

The founder of modern Israel had little doubt about his place in history.

David Ben-Gurion, who lived from 1886-1973, meticulously saved copies of every letter he wrote and even asked his father to save letters he received because they would be needed later, for the history books. His diaries contained detailed notes of what he was experiencing at crucial moments in history. Less apparent, though, was what this instrumental figure was feeling in his heart.

In his first entry on May 14, 1948, he writes of getting a briefing about the fighting at Gush Etzion, but not about what the thrill of witnessing the birth of the modern Jewish state that he envisioned when a young Dovid Grin and his Zionist friends in Czarist Russia decided to speak only in Hebrew.

He kept the journal from 1915 until the year of his death, but was more technical than sentimental. Also absent from the archive are letters to and from his wife, Paula. A December 1st, 1917 journal entry notes simply that “I married a wife before lunch.”

“There is hardly any emotion,” says Paula Kabalo, program chair of the university’s Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, which maintains the Ben-Gurion archive, similar to a presidential library but with less space and funding. ”If he wanted to express emotion, he wrote it in his articles.” So extensive was his own collection of letters that he sometimes responded to others with references to his previous letters. used the letters as a tool,” said Kabalo.

The extensive collection of writings by and about Ben Gurion are contained in a cramped, cold room in a basement at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Sde Boker campus. Plain cardboard boxes with black marker inscriptions line the walls with fascinating teasers in Hebrew, such as with the names Truman, EIsenhower and Johnson. To visit here is to wish you could spend a few days here browsing with a translator's help.

“Our mission is to make this place accessible to researchers,” says Hanna Pinshow, who runs the archive. The documents, almost all of them copies of orginals obtained from an archive kept by the army, helps students in courses at the institute such as “David Ben-Gurion: 30 Years Of Crucial Decisions.”

Pinshow notes that the extensive collection of letters shows that he was always cordial. “He wrote wrote to anonymous people the same way he wrote to heads of state,” she said.

A few miles from the campus, which also contains the resting place of David and Paula Ben-Gurion, is his meticulously preserved home in the Negev. He also lived in Tel Aviv and at the prime minister’s residence, but this home was special to him because he believed deeply that the future of the country was in developing that region. "It is in the Negev that the creativity and the pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested," he once said, in a quote preserved in stone near his home.

Inside you can see more evidence of Ben-Gurion’s sense of purpose: His photo hangs alongside pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Moses and Mahatma Ghandi.

On a tour, we learn some interesting facts: He hated television, and predicted that it would poison the minds of young people. The set in his living room was a gift from Zenith that he didn’t want to rude in returning.

He and his wife, Paula, slept in separate bedrooms. Paula, it seems, liked her beauty rest while David worked late into the night, viewing sleep as a waste of time.

It's not part of the exhibit, but when prompted, a guide might dish some dirt. Yes, at least two other women have been romantically linked to Ben-Gurion: A childhood friend from Poland, and a woman who taught him Greek while he was exiled to America by the Turks.

Also not part of the tour is his mixed legacy on Orthodox Jews, making kashrut, Shabbat observance and army deferral for yeshiva student official government policy, while, some said, showing disdain for a Sephardic culture kept vibrant through centuries of exile.

There were limits to his sense of grandiosity. While he asked for his home to be preserved, his will requests a humble funeral with no eulogies and no 21-gun salute, a request filled in December, 1973. There were also limits to what he could accomplish. But every day new technology, spearheaded at the university that bears his name, makes it easier to make the desert bloom with minute amounts of water, drawing entrepenuers who use the arid land for farms, vineyards and even luxury hotels like the newly opened Bereshit resort in Mitzpe Ramon.

This historic figure with his trademark bushy white hair not only embodied the Israeli can-do spirit, but pretty much initiated it. It takes a proud, larger-than-person man to dream big dreams and make them come true, and he was up to both tasks.

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