Ben-Gurion did what he said he would do

Ben-Gurion treated the Knesset with respect, honored the forms as well as the content of democracy.

Teddy Kollek with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, on the Kinneret (photo credit: NAFTALI OPPENHEIM/ BEIT YIGAL ALLON ARCHIVES, GINOSSAR)
Teddy Kollek with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, on the Kinneret
Exactly on the date of David Ben-Gurion’s death, December 1, I began this column, and wondered how I could convey the way the people of Israel felt 47 years ago. Remember too this was just a few days after the end of the Yom Kippur War, in which so many families lost their sons or welcomed them home wounded and scarred. Then I uncovered this report, filed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on December 2, 1973:
“David Ben-Gurion (Son of the Lion) died here shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday at the age of 87. Among the first Israelis to learn of his death were soldiers recovering from Yom Kippur War wounds at Tel Hashomer-Sheba Medical Center where Ben-Gurion had been hospitalized since he suffered a stroke at his Tel Aviv apartment Oct. 18. When he was pronounced dead, police immediately cordoned off the ward. Only his children – Amos, Geula and Renana – were at his bedside. They had been summoned to the hospital an hour earlier when Ben-Gurion lapsed into semiconsciousness (sic!) and his life began to falter. But word of his passing spread like wildfire through the hospital complex. The soldiers were among the first to mourn the man who fathered the Jewish self defense force in Palestine in the early years of this century.
“Rabbis of the army chaplain ship corps began a vigil of prayer and psalm-reading at the death bed. (sic!) When the Sabbath ended, Ben-Gurion was placed in a coffin draped with the national flag. This morning, the funeral procession began unofficially. The coffin was taken from the hospital and placed on an army command car which drove slowly to a helicopter waiting near the hospital grounds to carry Ben-Gurion’s remains to Jerusalem. He will be buried Monday. It was a silent procession, joined spontaneously by hundreds of the hospital staff–doctors, nurses, and attendants and scores of wounded soldiers, many of them following the coffin in wheelchairs or on crutches. When news of Ben-Gurion’s death was flashed around the world, messages of condolence began to pour in from Jewish and world leaders, including President Nixon and President Georges Pompidou of France….
“Today, Ben-Gurion lay in state in the outer hall of the Knesset building in Jerusalem. By nightfall despite rain and wintry temperatures, over 100,000 persons had filed past the bier to pay their final respects to the founder of the Jewish State. For two hours before the public was admitted, Ben-Gurion’s son and two daughters and other relatives and close associates of the former Premier spent time alone at the coffin. Then the doors were opened and the vast procession of tribute began, led by Premier Golda Meir and her Cabinet, the Knesset Speaker and justices of the Supreme Court.
“Flags throughout the nation flew at half-mast as Israel prepared for the funeral. The hour of his death will be marked by two minutes of silence throughout the country. A memorial ceremony will begin at the Knesset at 11 a.m. tomorrow. Afterwards, helicopters will carry Ben-Gurion and the cortege to Sde Boker, the tiny Negev village where he made his modest home and where he will be laid to rest alongside the grave of his wife, Paula, who died in 1968. In accordance with Ben-Gurion’s last request, there will be no eulogies.” THE PICTURE of the wounded following the coffin in wheelchairs and on crutches shook me to the core. There were a few errors in that report. Ben-Gurion did not “lapse into semiconsciousness” (whatever that means and however it was spelled.). He had been in a coma, probably from the moment of the stroke. How do I know?
Visiting Ben-Gurion in hospital
One late October day in 1973, the phone rang in the office of the Vice Provost of the Hebrew University’s School for Overseas Students. My secretary said, “Teddy is on the line.” Teddy’s voice came through, usually 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. He knew that I had revered Ben-Gurion and when I worked in their office (Teddy was Ben-Gurion’s right-hand man as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office) had often been in direct contact with Ben-Gurion. We drove to the hospital in Teddy’s 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 week 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 soldiers 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.”
Twenty-nine years earlier, Ben-Gurion announced his decision to move the Knesset to Jerusalem. It was a bare six months after signing the armistice agreements with the surrounding Arab states. The UN General Assembly had just passed a resolution reiterating that Jerusalem should become a “corpus seperandum” or a separate area governed by the UN. This had been part of the original UN resolution of November 29, 1947 calling for the creation of a Jewish and an Arab State in Palestine. On December 5, 1949, at a Knesset session in Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion said: “We cannot imagine, however, that the UN would attempt to sever Jerusalem from the State of Israel or harm Israel’s sovereignty in its eternal capital.
Twice in the history of our nation were we driven out of Jerusalem, only after being defeated in bitter wars by the larger, stronger forces of Babylon and Rome. Our links with Jerusalem today are no less deep than in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and Titus Flavius, and when Jerusalem was attacked after the fourteenth of May 1948, our valiant youngsters risked their lives for our sacred capital no less than our forefathers did in the time of the First and Second Temples.
“A nation which, for two thousand and five hundred years, has faithfully adhered to the vow made by the first exiles by the waters of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem, will never agree to be separated from Jerusalem.
“We do not judge the UN, which did nothing when nations which were members of the UN declared war on its resolution of 29 November 1947.
“Had we not been able to withstand the aggressors who rebelled against the UN, Jewish Jerusalem would have been wiped off the face of the earth, the Jewish population would have been eradicated and the State of Israel would not have arisen. Thus, we are no longer morally bound by the UN resolution of November 29, since the UN was unable to implement it.” A few days later, the Knesset approved the motion and the Knesset and government moved to Jerusalem.
Ben-Gurion treated the Knesset with respect, honored the forms as well as the content of democracy. And when he spoke, even on the most momentous issues, such as facing down the bureaucracies of the United Nations and of many nations in the world which to this very day play hide-and-seek with Jerusalem, he acted.
He had a vast grasp of history. He understood that the creation of Israel changes the Jewish people and world history forever. His vision reached into the future. He knew when and how to speak and when and how to stand with, or to stand up against, friend and foe. And when he said he would do something – even a momentous act regarding Jerusalem, so central to billions across the globe – he acted.
The writer was appointed by Teddy Kollek, then director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, to the position of director of its Overseas Division. In that capacity he had frequent contact with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Comments: [email protected]