Did David Ben-Gurion decline into dementia?

I had direct contact with B-G, which today, in hindsight, seems to indicate that he was already in the initial stage.

 David Ben-Gurion takes former Canadian premier Lester B. Pearson for a walk around Sde Boker on December 5, 1968. (photo credit: YOSSI GREENBERG / GPO)
David Ben-Gurion takes former Canadian premier Lester B. Pearson for a walk around Sde Boker on December 5, 1968.
(photo credit: YOSSI GREENBERG / GPO)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

David Ben-Gurion’s last years in office were marked by a tragic decline. Politically they were highlighted by a stubborn insistence to pin the blame for a security disaster on a man who had been defense minister, when B-G, exhausted, took time off. Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula, then moved to a tiny kibbutz in the Negev desert, to set an example for Israel’s young people to follow and settle in that strategic area. The man who replaced Ben-Gurion as defense minister in 1954-5 was a Labor Party leader, Pinhas Lavon.

While Lavon was in office, a spy cell in Egypt was activated by Israeli military intelligence in a rather harebrained plot designed to set off bombs in Cairo to create the impression that Egypt was unstable. The cell was betrayed. Thirteen Jews were arrested. Two committed suicide, two were executed by the Egyptians, and the others were imprisoned. Officially Israel denied it had any connection to the ugly incident. Lavon tried to cast the blame for the failure on Ben-Gurion loyalists.

A series of secret committees tried to find out “who gave the order,” as it became known in Israel. Ben-Gurion wanted to pin the responsibility on Lavon. When the matter became public, another committee cleared Lavon in 1960.

Ben-Gurion was furious because clearing Lavon shifted the blame to his protégés, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. He demanded the appointment of an official State Judicial Commission of Inquiry. The party leadership opposed this and tried to sweep the incident under the table. From 1960 until his departure from the political scene, B-G would not let go of the issue.

Levi Eshkol, with whom I was very close, wanted – quite pragmatically – to sweep the matter into the dustbin of history. He and most of the cabinet from Labor and other parties wanted to wipe the slate clean and deal with present issues. Why rake over the past? Why assign blame for past failures? There’s enough on our plate today. That was the majority feeling. Ben-Gurion became more and more a single-issue voice, and in the eyes of many the grand Old Man was busy destroying his own image. Israel’s favorite caricaturist of the time, Kariel Gardosh (whose pen name was “Dosh”) drew the Old Man chopping down his own statue.

 The writer (in white shirt) takes American arts patron Marion Javits, wife of US senator Jacob K. Javits, on a hike near Sde Boker in 1962. (credit: MOSHE PRIDAN / GPO) The writer (in white shirt) takes American arts patron Marion Javits, wife of US senator Jacob K. Javits, on a hike near Sde Boker in 1962. (credit: MOSHE PRIDAN / GPO)

Could this have been a sign of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia? I had direct contact with B-G, which today, in hindsight, seems to indicate that he was already in the initial stage. Of course, it did not occur to me in 1961 or 1962 that this could be the case. In my eyes, B-G was infallible.

One day I came to escort him to a session sponsored by the American Jewish Congress. He was at the height of a controversy with a Diaspora Jewish leader, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, who not only thought that peace with Arab countries was possible then, but actually negotiated with them in his capacity as president of the World Jewish Congress. B-G despised the bon vivant Goldmann on at least two scores: he deeply felt that Diaspora Jewry should not negotiate on Israel’s behalf. Its task, as he saw it, was to support Israel, but to stay out of its national decision-making. Furthermore, he was convinced that only when Israel’s neighbors learned that they could not best Israel by force of arms could peace come about.

I felt that it would be better to lower the heat and stop the public arguing, which I feared would happen at the meeting we were about to attend and at which B-G was the central speaker. B-G’s reaction was frightening, totally beyond my understanding. His face turning red, his features distorted, he began to shout: “I am a free man! I am a free man! I am a free man.” In Hebrew, each sentence contains three words. He almost chanted them.

I cannot in retrospect understand the reaction, because at the time all I wanted was to calm him down and get him to the meeting on time. That’s what happened. Years later, in recalling the incident – I even remember it took place in a small room in his official Jerusalem residence, which was used as a kind of large walk-in closet for hanging up coats, both for the Ben-Gurions and their guests – I still could not understand his furious outburst. “I am a free man!” Who was I to threaten that freedom? Was my remark just the last straw in a series of attempts to pressure him? And because he had not shouted at his fellow ministers or advisers who had raised the issue, was the bottled-up fury finally able to be released on me, a subordinate “insider?”

Or was this the beginning of dementia, perhaps already showing in his compulsive insistence on a State Judicial Commission? I know that later he had memory problems. When I came to interview him for my thesis, one of two lengthy interviews in 1969 and 1971 at his home in Sde Boker, I was joined by my close friend, Dr. Marion Rabinowitz. Rabinowitz was a geriatrician. I introduced him, and recall their conversation verbatim. It was of course in Hebrew.

B-G: “You are a doctor?”

Rabinowitz: “Yes.”

B-G: “You know something about memory?”

Rabinowitz: “A bit.”

B-G: “I am writing a letter...”

B-G always wrote his letters from Sde Boker by hand on a lined pad, with a sheet of carbon paper below the letter so he would have a copy.

B-G: “...and I forget the name of the city where that person lives. But I remember it is two words. The first word is ‘Tel.’ So I look at a previous letter I wrote and see it is ‘Aviv.’ Tel Aviv.”

That same year, 1971, I led a busload of Overseas Students from Hebrew University to Sde Boker to meet B-G. Again, a memory problem.

He was telling the students in English about an incident with the United Nations. I recall my exchange with him:

B-G: “...and we were brought up to the... Oh, what do you call it...”

I: “Security Council.”

B-G: “No, no. It has 15 members, five are permanent….”

I: “It is called the Security Council.”

B-G hesitates.

I: Mo’etzet Habitahon. Then switching to English: The Security Council.’

B-G: “Oh yes, the Security Council.”

These two incidents should have triggered a red light in my mind. But I took it as normal for a man of advanced age. After all, he was then 85. We all forget names sometimes. But to forget Tel Aviv – the first Hebrew city for almost two millennia, and where Ben-Gurion had spent most of his long life – that is a different story.

Shortly after that meeting, my old friends from Toronto. Louise and Murray Cornblum, asked if I could arrange a filmed interview with Ben-Gurion for a movie Louise was making on Israel. By then, I suppose, Chaim Israeli, a loyal follower and former secretary to B-G in the Defense Ministry, was concerned that B-G had too few visitors, and readily made an appointment at the Ben-Gurion home in Tel Aviv.

B-G seemed in good form during that interview, and his long-term memory easily brought up the assassination in Cairo of the British minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, by the Lehi (Stern Group) in 1944. After the interview, as the film crew began packing up, I walked B-G out of his library to the corridor leading to the ground floor where the kitchen and dining room were located.

One of his security detail took him by the elbow and said in a kindly, almost wheedling voice, “Come, Ben-Gurion, the meal is ready.”

It was early evening, time for dinner. B-G’s face showed confusion.

“What meal is it?”

The next day I phoned Israeli and told him the story. “I don’t think you should bring him any more outsiders, Chaim. We want to prevent anything... ” I did not say the word “shameful.” The word “dementia” did not cross my lips.

On a late October day in 1973, the phone rang in the office of the vice provost of the Hebrew University’s School for Overseas Students. “Teddy (Mayor Teddy Kollek) is on the line,” my secretary said. Teddy’s voice came through, as usual, powerful and vibrant. But now with a tinge of sadness. No wasted words.

“Syd, I am going to Tel Hashomer to see Ben-Gurion. Do you want to come?” That was Teddy Kollek. We were driven to the hospital in Teddy’s official car, and were able to park next to the four-bed bungalow that then contained only one cot and one patient. No nurse or doctor was in attendance, but I assume (don’t recall specifically) that a security service guard or two were at the entrances.

In a plain bed, not even a proper hospital bed, lay a small man, five-foot-five, now shrunken even more, breathing on his own, and probably brain-dead. He lay swathed in blankets, motionless. The great man was now a living corpse. He died a month or so later.

From the postscript to my book Ben Gurion: State-Builder, I quote:

“It is the day of David Ben-Gurion’s funeral. In sunlit Jerusalem, its red roofs dwarfed by the Knesset hilltop where stood the bier, the nation of Israel bowed its head before the creator of its independence. Borne on the shoulders and the wings of the defense forces he created and welded, his body has been interred next to his loyal and loving Paula, at Sde Boker, a man-made oasis in the Wilderness of Zin whose hills and haunted, desolate landscape he loved and wished to bring to life.

“The end of a great man. ‘If you seek his monument, look about you.’ It is the end of an era.”  ■

Avraham Avi-hai, then still known as Syd Applebaum, was recruited by director-general Teddy Kollek to a senior position in the Prime Minister’s Office at the end of 1959. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion resigned in June 1963. Comments: 2avrahams@gmail.com.