When David Ben-Gurion applied for membership of Kibbutz Sde Boker, the 18 impoverished, idealistic young men and women who had pitched their tents in the desert a year earlier were ambivalent about confirming him as member.
By a margin of one vote they accepted the aging statesman, then a not-so-sprightly 67. In 1953, when he left the premiership, Ben-Gurion began working the land. He was called back to the government just two years later in 1955, first as defense minister, then as prime minister. Upon his second resignation in 1963, Ben-Gurion returned to Sde Boker and lived there until his death a decade later. In his will Ben Gurion requested that his desert home be preserved exactly as he left it.
A government-funded program did just that.
For years, visitors could see only a small part of Ben-Gurion's home. But since renovations in the 1990s, his entire home has been open to visitors, with the quarters that formerly housed his security guards home to a riveting exhibition detailing the life of one of Israel's historical giants and his connection with the Negev.
David Green, a native of Plonsk, Poland, made aliya at the age of 20 in 1906 and in time changed his name to Ben-Gurion, or "lion cub." As early as 1935, when he was chair of the Jewish Agency, Ben Gurion traveled through the desert and formulated his vision of the Negev. It was, he said, "a great Zionist asset with no substitute anywhere in the country."
While Ben-Gurion's goal was just to fit in at Sde Boker, it soon became clear to those above him that he needed to work in a more controlled environment with less exposure to the elements and heightened security. The Defense Ministry constructed his simple "Swedish hut," which was large enough to house five regular kibbutz families. Nevertheless, the hut's structure and furnishings represents the dweller's belief in simplicity and frugality.
The many items on display in the living room point to what was closest to his heart. Pictures of the state's official symbol, the seven-branched menora, a copy of Israel's Declaration of Independence, a hanukkia that plays "Hatikva" and a portrait of colleague President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi all jostle for attention. A large globe shows a dark smudge where Israel is located, the spot having been formed by visitors pointing out Israel's place in the world.
Other highlights include Ben-Gurion's library/study, which contains 5,000 books. Even the biblical quotations he kept on his desk remain as they were. Most of them speak of the Negev's blessings, such as these words from Isaiah 35:1: "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing."
In the exhibition is the red felt tarboosh (fez-like) hat Ben-Gurion wore while studying law in Turkey in 1912, a recording of the moment he declared independence on May 14, 1948, and his signed order creating the Israel Defense Forces that very same day. Designed chronologically, the museum emphasizes Ben-Gurion's embrace of the biblical dream of reclaiming the desert and absorbing a huge influx of immigrants into what he termed "The cradle of our nation."
The exhibit also depicts his widespread correspondence with citizens of Israel and world Jewry. His replies are exceptionally moving and without airs. "To my friends at Kibbutz Nahal Oz [Brook of Courage]," he wrote in 1961. "Anyone who has even a drop of pioneering spirit in his soul is celebrating the 10th anniversary of your settlement. I do not know if a brook [Nahal] flows by your kibbutz - but courage [Oz] is not lacking. Remain firm in your determination and you shall succeed."
The exhibit also reveals the character of Ben-Gurion as husband and father. Our tour guide shared with us the whereabouts of the three children he had with his wife, Paula. The eldest, Geula, died in 1998 at age 80 in Tel Aviv. Their son, Amos, who is now 86, lives in Haifa. Another daughter, Renana Ben-Gurion Leshem, aged 81, lives in Tel Aviv. Alon is the only grandchild carrying the surname Ben-Gurion.
Alon, a former IDF paratrooper who was seriously wounded in the Yom Kippur War, went on to graduate from both Tel Aviv University and Cornell University. He recently received, as a gift from Konrad Adenauer's grandson, a photograph of Ben-Gurion and Adenauer, the chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963, taken during a historic meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan.
"The fact that he was a prime minister, there was no royalty attached to it. He was my grandfather," Alon said in a recent interview. "We didn't look at him in terms of his being the head of the country. He dressed very modestly, usually in khaki clothes. Food, entertainment and all that was not on his agenda. One of the few movies he saw in public, I saw with him. It was the gala premiere of Exodus in Tel Aviv. He was devoted to one thing," said Alon, "and that was the State of Israel."n
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