The human face of David Ben-Gurion

Our tradition teaches us that this is true of every person. Of Israel’s first prime minister, it is not a generalization. He was often called “unique in his generation.” Unique, and with a human face.

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July 25, 2013 23:22
David Ben Gurion with wife Paula

Ben Gurion 370. (photo credit: courtesy prime ministers office)

‘Are you religious?” B-G sat forward leaning into his long, wide desk. A large Hebrew Bible sat as usual on its right-hand corner, easily reachable. “I heard we have a religious fellow in the office. So, are you?” It was early 1960. I was still in my 20s and had been in Israel less than eight years. The founding founder was delving into my soul. Was this an opening to discuss philosophy, theology? Why with me? Did he plan to convince me to recant? Why bother? Or, typical of David Ben-Gurion, did he want to learn something from me? (Oh yes, B-G always turned the tables on interviewers, asking them what interested him.) “I believe I am,” I said.

“Do you put on tefillin every day?” “Almost every day.”

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Sometimes... I do rush out... I thought, but did not say it.

“Bah, you are not religious! Only if you put on tefillin every day!” He leaned back.

“My father only hit me once.”

He had tears in his eyes.

“I was 15 years old. He asked me if I had put on tefillin. I did not lie, I said, ‘No.’ He slapped me on the cheek.”

Ben-Gurion had sent men into battle, had seen more than 6,000 killed in the War of Independence.

He’d ensured that the pre-state Yishuv had soldiers, training and weapons for a war he knew was coming once the gunpowder, dust and ashes settled after World War II. Yet memory of his angered (and undoubtedly anguished) father still brought tears, unshed, glistening in his light eyes.

He continued reminiscing. “He died in 1942. It was war time. I was in America (He pronounced it a-MER-i ko.) I couldn’t come back for his funeral.”

Again a sheen in his eyes.

B-G had a great love and knowledge of Bible. In addition to the noted Bible circle where the select of the academic elite met in his home every Saturday night, all of his many speeches (which he researched and wrote by hand) contained quotes from the Bible on almost every page. But his intransigent desire to understand and interpret by his own logic, even when running counter to tradition, often brought him into face-to-face conflict with the traditionalists and the religious. An example: Did 600,000 Jews really leave Egypt and survive in desert oases? At a meeting of the Mapai (Labor at the time) Party branch in the early ’50s, attended by such figures as Gershom Scholem and Nathan Rotenstreich, famous Hebrew University professors, the question debated was “Has the Messiah already come?” (Can you imagine a political party putting this on its agenda today?) Ben-Gurion said, “If you can find his name in the phone book, he is no longer the Messiah.”

I suggest our readers try to figure out what he meant. And NO! he did not think he was the Messiah.

Truth to tell, I wonder whether B-G was even listed in the phone book, for security reasons.

Security? Those were simple days. For example the PM’s car was never escorted by another vehicle.

B-G sat, usually alone in the back seat, with his faithful ginger-headed Arah’le in front, armed and driving, and another man in the front passenger seat, also invisibly “carrying.”

B-G would lean forward on their seats, chatting, and asking questions. Yitzhak Navon, later to become president of Israel, sat in a small office in front of B-G’s larger one, and had a loaded revolver, in case of need, in his desk drawer.

Back to Bible, and to Jewish history. B-G wanted all Jews to settle in Israel. He told a group of visiting Chicagoans, as he always did, “Come to Israel!” A rabbi among them rose and cited the Talmud (Tractate Pesahim 87:2) that the Holy One had done us a great service by spreading Israel throughout the nations, so that they cannot easily all be wiped out.

Namely, it was not necessary to move to Israel.

B-G turned red, thrust his index finger upward with each word and said, “Leave.... HIM... out of this!” I thought then, as now, that he wanted people to think for themselves and not rely on convenient quotes in the name of Heaven.

On another occasion I asked him to suggest a Hebrew surname, in place of the name Applebaum, which had been mangled in Canada and then mispronounced in Israel.

He reached his right arm across the width of the desk to the corner where the Tanakh resided. He began rifling through its pages. In came Yitzhak Navon, his bureau chief. Without knocking of course; everything was informal then. “Ben-Gurion, you have an appointment.”

His close colleagues and staff called him Ben-Gurion to his face, and Hazaken (the Old Man) when referring to him, even when he was in earshot.

One more time I was saved, this time literally by the bell.

Again the surname question arose; again he began to search the Bible. This time the phone rang. By then I realized I had indeed been saved. Imagine if B-G had suggested a name like Ophel (sounds like “awful” and has secondary undignified connotations), could I say, “Sorry, I don’t like it?” B-G was in many ways a determined genius.

Determined to create a Jewish homeland, brilliant in his scope of interest. To understand Greek philosophers, he learned Greek. To read Don Quixote, he learned Spanish. To understand silent contemplation, he went through Buddhist solitude.

A few centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that when God made him, he threw the mold away.

Our tradition teaches us that this is true of every person. Of Israel’s first prime minister, it is not a generalization. He was often called “unique in his generation.” Unique, and with a human face.

Avraham Avi-hai was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post in the 1950s and later held senior positions in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. He is the author of a pioneering academic study, Ben Gurion: State Builder. In his capacity as world chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, he had many opportunities to meet and work with Israel’s prime ministers. This is the first of a series on ‘The Human Face of Israel’s PMs.’ His novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, has been published on Amazon in both print and Kindle editions.


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