Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the living room of David Ben-Gurion's residence, with donor Sruel Prajs and Eliezer (Moodi) Sandberg.
(photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
Despite David Ben-Gurion’s staunch advocacy for populating the Negev, his Sde Boker grave-site stands on a lonely outcrop of rock overlooking desolate canyons.
Israel’s top political leaders gathered at the site Thursday to commemorate the anniversary of his death.
“[Ben-Gurion] always said the Negev has to rise and not fall,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We continue to assure that the Negev will be on the rise.”
A 10-minute drive from the site where Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Benny Gantz, among others, laid wreaths at Ben-Gurion’s grave, the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute unveiled a new, interactive visitors’ center at the unassuming home he inhabited between his retirement as prime minister in 1953 until his death 20 years later.
Iri Kassel, the former director of the institute who helped initiate the renovations, said the site currently gets about 85,000 visitors a year, including Israeli soldiers and participants in Israel programs such as Birthright.
He said the additions will likely attract even more visitors to the site.
The Prime Minister’s Office and United Israel Appeal, coordinated and funded the project with a donation from Sruel Prajs, a German businessman and one-time chairman of Keren Hayesod in Germany, and his sister Norma Drimmer.
“To give you the money to do something like this is much easier than fund-raising it,” Prajs said at the unveiling.
A Keren Hayesod spokeswoman declined to reveal the price tag of the renovations, but said it cost “hundreds of thousands of euros.”
The actual building where Ben-Gurion lived with his wife, Paula, remains largely the way he left it, as per the terms of his will. Situated in the community of Kibbutz Sde Boker, about an hour’s drive south of Beersheba, it is frozen in time, with separate bedrooms for each spouse and furniture that was fashionable in 1960.
But the rest of complex has been brought up to date.
In one building near the entrance, an animated video featuring a caricature of the diminutive leader, with his characteristic high waistband and bald head framed by white tufts of hair, lectures visitors about the importance of settling the Negev.
Among the recent renovations, a house once occupied by Ben-Gurion’s security detail was converted into a “leadership hut,” where visitors can view a film covering critical points in Ben-Gurion’s career.
It tells of how he agitated for the Zionist movement in prewar Europe, commanded Israel’s army during the War of Independence, and finally settled in Sde Boker to participate in the southward movement he so actively encouraged.
Another renovated hut now serves as an interactive education center, where visitors can sit around tables embedded with touch-screens and examine documents and videos from Ben-Gurion’s life.
Crucial to this exhibit is the fact that Ben-Gurion obsessively kept copies of every letter he wrote from a young age, said Avigad Vonshak, a professor of biology at Ben-Gurion University and the director of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute.
“Imagine the obsession of a 20-year-old boy keeping copies of his letters,” Vonshak said.
Ben-Gurion’s legacy continues to resonate with those who advocate greater resources and focus on the Negev.
“I don’t think when a young couple decides to move to the Negev they do so because of Ben-Gurion,” said Kassel, but he connects recent government investments in the Negev, such as the NIS 30 million given to Soroka University Medical Center, to Ben-Gurion’s early emphasis on the region.
Netanyahu also spoke at the dedication of the newly renovated complex, telling of how he visited the site as a soldier.
“I hope that every child in Israel will come here,” he said.
Following Netanyahu’s speech and an address from Prajs, a local choir serenaded the crowd with a song praising Ben-Gurion’s memory.
“Mi ha’ish ha’katan gadol hazeh?” they sang: “Who is this little big man?”