This coming Thursday is Ben-Gurion Day. It will be commemorated, as it is every year, in a state ceremony, in the presence of the president and prime minister, at David Ben-Gurion’s grave site at Kibbutz Sdeh Boker, followed by the special honorary doctorate ceremony at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In contrast to the main honorary doctorate ceremony which takes place during the annual board of governors meeting in May each year, this additional ceremony marks Israeli personalities who have contributed to society, to science and to the university and has an Israeli, rather than an international flavor about it.
The university, originally founded as the University of the Negev, acted quickly to take on the name of Ben-Gurion shortly after his death in 1973, since which time the University of the Negev has become synonymous with that of the state founder for whom the development of the Negev was a cherished dream. In addition to the research facilities focusing on desertification and arid climates, the Sdeh Boker campus of Ben-Gurion University also houses the Ben-Gurion archives and has become the main center for research into the early history of the State of Israel, attracting scholars from throughout the world.
It is 40 years since Ben-Gurion passed away shortly after the Yom Kippur War.
Although he was a hard-core ideologue of socialist Zionism, his name and memory remain above sectarian party politics. The same cannot be said of any other significant Israeli prime minister. Menachem Begin is remembered particularly by the right-wing parties as the personality who changed the very nature of Israeli politics by opening it to the many disenfranchised groups who had largely been excluded by Ben-Gurion. Nor does the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin have this status, with the annual memorial ceremony in his name having become transformed into a gathering of the dwindling peace camp, attended only by supporters of the Left, rather than by all those who should use his memory to abhor political violence and assassination.
Ben-Gurion was, at one and the same time, the undisputed leader of the state and the Labor Party during the first 15 years of statehood, but unlike most of his colleagues at the time (Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Pinchas Sappir) he remained an independent thinker and freed himself from the constraints of rigid and narrow ideological thinking. For Ben-Gurion,the state remained supreme, while for the others it was the party which was of greater importance. Against the interests of his own party, Ben-Gurion supported changes in the electoral system, despite the fact that the changes would have led to a decrease in the hegemonic power of Mapai, but his party refused to back him.
And when the dispute between Ben-Gurion and his party over the Lavon affair became unresolvable, he had no qualms about leaving the party and setting up an alternative political power base – Rafi – whose members included no fewer than three future presidents of the State of Israel – Haim Herzog, Yitzhak Navon and Shimon Peres – as well as mythical Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and warrior and future foreign minister Moshe Dayan. If there ever was a short-lived party which was also a successful talent scout, then it was the Rafi Party of Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Gurion was also a man of letters.
He read, debated and disputed history, philosophy and theology and it is perhaps fitting in this respect that one of Israel’s seven universities is named after him. How often, as dean of a faculty, do I hear the argument that it is impossible to even envision a university named after Ben-Gurion which does not have a Bible or a Jewish History department – and that the “old man” would turn in his grave if he knew of attempts to close down, or merge, these departments in an effort to make them more efficient.
Ben-Gurion would be truly disappointed if he knew that the younger generation today are no longer interested in studying these topics, opting for professional degrees in law, accountancy or computer science, and preferring a global outlook to one which focuses internally on Israeli and Jewish history.
But Ben-Gurion’s call for the Israeli population to follow him in settling the desert was one that was never heeded. Other political leaders who have made their initial mark in the Negev, often in local government, have, once becoming members of the Knesset, invariably left the region for the center of the country. Ben-Gurion did exactly the opposite. Despite being prime minister, he moved south to Kibbutz Sdeh Boker as an example which he hoped others would follow. The idea that three decades on, residents of the Negev would be commuting on a daily basis to their workplaces in the center of the country, or that faculty at the university would remain in Tel Aviv and commute by train to their workplace in the Negev, would have appeared preposterous and unacceptable to him. Not only did he believe in population dispersal away from the center of the country, he believed in the Negev for its own intrinsic and therapeutic values, and its association with Jewish and Hebrew culture.
Two parallel and contrasting events to be held at the university tomorrow, the day prior to Ben-Gurion Day, make his vision come to life 40 years after his death. The publication of the book (in Hebrew) entitled Science and Scholarship in the Negev, depicting the history of this relatively young but internationally recognized institution, will be marked in a public symposium attended by some of the university’s founding fathers, along with a lecture on the state of Israel’s universities by the outgoing chairperson of the Council for Higher Education professor Manuel Trajtenberg.
It will be interesting to hear what he has to say about the state of the humanities in contemporary Israel and whether the name and personality of Ben-Gurion feature in any way in his presentation.
At exactly the same time, the “other” side of the campus will host a public event focusing on the way in which the university, and Beersheba as a whole, is becoming part of the innovative technological development of Israel, assisted in no small way by the decision of the Defense Ministry to relocate many of its army bases and research facilities to the south of the country and to enter into new research agreements and cooperation with the university faculty. Prizes will be awarded to those who have succeeded in turning their research projects into successful business enterprises.
Two parallel events, one focusing on the humanities and the spirit of higher education, the other on the country’s scientific and technological innovations – few would have dreamed of such a gathering less than 50 years ago when the university was founded and before it relabeled itself with the Ben-Gurion brand. While Ben-Gurion may be turning in his grave due to political developments in Israel and Israel’s dwindling status on the world stage, he can at least take some degree of satisfaction in seeing how his beloved Negev, the previously undeveloped desert, has become a focus for the arts and humanities, technology, science and development – even if it was a long time coming.
Ben-Gurion, for all his faults, remains one of the few leaders who still has a national, rather than sectoral, following (at least as far as the Jewish population of the country is concerned). It is somehow fitting that he is remembered as much for his contribution to science and development as for the political events to which he contributed.
In his memory, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that Israeli society, with all its political and international problems and dilemmas, does not lose track of the essential spirit which makes the country unique despite its small size and short history.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed in this article are his alone.