With love, Saba

An interview with David Ben-Gurion’s grandson, media expert Yariv Ben-Eliezer.

YARIV BEN-ELIEZER recalls memories of his grandfather David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YARIV BEN-ELIEZER recalls memories of his grandfather David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.
Dr. Yariv Ben-Eliezer, who will be 74 in June, turns off the TV (he has been watching the Knesset Channel) in the living room of his small Ramat Aviv apartment after he invites me and Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem to come in. Ben-Eliezer, the oldest grandson of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is a keen observer of the Israeli scene with a sharp wit. He considers himself an optimist, but is pessimistic about the current sociopolitical situation.
“I don’t see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “I believe that before we make peace with the Arabs, we must make peace among the Jews.”
As a former political strategist and media expert, he detests politics and the corruption he sees in Israeli society.
He is pleased he took his grandfather’s advice not to enter politics. Today, he is head of Persuasive Communications Specialization at the Sammy Ofer School of Communications and director of Media Studies at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya.
He previously served as dean of the New School for Media Studies at The College of Management Tel Aviv, directed several political campaigns, including for the Tzomet Party in the 1992 elections, Shimon Peres’s candidacy for prime minister in 1996 and Yael German’s campaign for mayor of Herzliya in 1998, and served as a media consultant for the Israel Football Association. He has published several books and numerous articles on mass communication, and is a well-respected commentator on Israeli media and politics.
Ben-Eliezer speaks English fluently, having lived in for five years in New York, where he received his doctorate from New York University in 1977, but he frequently injects Hebrew idioms in his conversation. His wife, Dalia, to whom he was married for 51 years, died of cancer on September 4, 2012, and last year he penned a memoir for her titled Dalia Ben-Eliezer, with a photograph of the two of them on the cover. They have three children, Ehud, Yoash and Ephrat, and seven grandchildren, the youngest, Talia, was born after Dalia’s death.
He has no photographs of Ben-Gurion in the living room. These are reserved for his private study, where his favorite portrait of Ben-Gurion hangs, signed in Hebrew, “To Yariv and Dalia, with love, Saba [grandfather].”
We sit side by side in the living room, chatting easily about the state of affairs in Israel today. His harsh criticism is laced with a strong sense of morality and lightened by a wry sense of humor.
How do you see Israel at 66? If I look from the point of view of the founders and my grandpa, they believed that the State of Israel should be a light to the goyim (“nations”). I mean, that we should set an example of a just, moral, equal society. And the way I see it now, we’re not.
How do you see it now? I believe that before we make peace with the Arabs, we should make peace among the Jews. As you know, we lived in closed communities in the Diaspora. Everybody had a rabbi, and if we don’t share the same rabbi, we hate each other. Okay, this was the Diaspora. We came to Israel, same thing. Every party, and every member of every community, we hate each other because we are not alike.
And one of the things that the idea of a melting pot was that at least we’d share something together. Okay, we’re different, but we’ll have something that will bond us together because this is something we all share. And we’re not. We disagree about everything.
Like what? You know, there’s a saying that among two Jews, there are three opinions. We argue all the time, and we cannot agree about anything, and it affects everything. It affects the political system, it affects the decision-making, and it affects the taking of responsibility of the administration with regard to everything that goes on in Israel. Because [Binyamin]Netanyahu is anti-[Yair] Lapid, and Lapid is anti-[Naftali] Bennett.
You know there is a story that an angel came to earth and met a Jew, and said, “I’ll give you everything you ask, but your neighbor is going to get it twice.” So the Jew said, “Take one of my eyes.”
We live on simha la’eid (“joy over the misery of others”).
How do you feel about this? I am an old guy now, but I have grandchildren, and I want them to live in a better society, and I don’t see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
How do you think Ben-Gurion would view the situation? Is it a question of leadership? It’s not the leaders, it’s all of us. It’s chutzpadik to guess what he would have said had he been now with us. I know what he said, but I don’t know what he would have said. I know that they were all honest, they were even sagfanim [Spartan].
The saying, “I don’t want to be a freier [sucker],” wasn’t there. They all were freiers. Now, “I’m not going to be a freier” is the motto of the average Israeli. Because the idea is that everyone is trying to screw you, and that’s why you have to screw him back. This is both on the individual basis, and also with regard to the government versus the citizens.
Isn’t it like this everywhere? I went to school for five years in New York. In the States, you pay the IRS. And if you didn’t pay, they really get you. But if you paid more, they’ll give it back to you. Because the idea is that you’re honest until proven guilty. But in Israel, it’s the other way round. You’re guilty until proven honest.
That’s why everybody is afraid to be called a freier. We don’t want to be a freier. We want to show that the other side is a freier. It’s not just on an interpersonal basis. It’s the entire country, government, ministers and authorities within the government. Everybody is trying to screw everybody so he won’t be a freier. And it’s sickening.
Do you see a remedy, a way out of this? There was in 1956, Operation Kadesh, a commander by the name of Uri Ben-Ari. People said he was going to be chief of staff. His driver stole a sack of sugar, and he covered for him. The moment my grandfather heard about it, he threw him out of the army. There was a saying, Yikov hadin et hahar [The law must be applied without fear or favor].
I mean, you don’t cut corners. A law is a law, and if you don’t obey it, you will be held to account. Now, we have a president who is in jail because he abused his power in order to molest women, and we have a former prime minister who may go to jail because of bribes or whatever.
People don’t think that it’s bad to take bribes. It’s bad if they catch you, not that you take it. You see the point? If you see my parents’ home, or [Menachem] Begin’s home, they are simple and modest. Today it’s a show-off situation, and it reflects on us too. Because the people also believe in the same norms. So I don’t believe we can do something to fix it.
What are your recollections of your grandfather? He died when I was 33 years old, so I have lots of memories.
One of them was when I was bar mitzva, people asked him, Do you want Yariv to be prime minister? So he said, I would rather he be a poshet orot bashuk [a merchant in the market] than a politician. Because he knew what a pain it was to be prime minister.
How did you choose your profession? I am a very opinionated person, I have my views, I am a political person, but parties disgust me. If you want to accomplish something, you have to have power, you have to enter an organization or a party, not just tell your ideas. But it is sickening that I would have to deal with parties. And so many good people don’t join parties and go into politics. The people in politics are not at the top of the people in Israel, but the people who can smell the garbage, like they say.
Do you remember the establishment of the state? I was only eight years old. I don’t know if I remember it myself, or I remember because they told me stories. But when the UN accepted the partition, they all went into the streets and danced. But my grandfather was sad.
So my Uncle Amos asked him, “Why are you sad? Everybody is dancing in the street, and you’re sad.”
And he said, “Because I know how much we are going to pay for that in blood.”
He was very realistic.
What do you mean? I know that as far as in expressing his views, he was very active. I would say hawkish. But he was also very pragmatic.
He knew that you could wish for certain things, but wishing is not enough, you cannot accomplish them.
I know immediately after the Six Day War he said he would give everything back, except for Jerusalem.
He said, “Jerusalem is united, and I want to keep Jerusalem.”
He was ready to give all the territories back, and he was the first one to say this among the politicians.
First of all, he had vision. Second, he was pragmatic.
He said, “Come on, you cannot just conquer. It’s your land, but there are people living there, you cannot conquer them.”
So I think he was very realistic.
He said, “I have to compromise between the desired, the necessary and the possible.”
I may desire to have it all, but what’s necessary is the security for my people, that is something to consider, and not everything is possible. He said you take a synthesis of all three questions, and you come up with what you want. What about the situation today? Today, Bibi said two states for two peoples.
I know I’m Jewish, and the Nazis know I’m Jewish. I don’t need Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to tell me I’m Jewish. I live in a Jewish state, and those who have to know I’m Jewish know it. Why do I have to demand that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state? We are a Jewish state, it’s our self-definition.
This is one thing.
The second thing is that you don’t visit the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
Who goes there? What do I care if there’s a flag there of the Palestinian state? Okay, Jerusalem is a symbol, but I’m willing to compromise in order to save life.
I’m trying to see what goes on in the Knesset and what goes on in the government. I don’t think that I’m smart and they’re stupid.
I think they all have different visions, and they cannot find a way to agree on the right path. And besides, I think they’re cheating us.
In what way? I think that Binyamin Netanyahu, who is a very smart person, lies. He doesn’t want to have peace, because otherwise he would have done certain things to make peace.
Such as? Such as stop the building in the settlements.
I don’t want to send the murderers out of jail. The murderers will come back to us. But settlements can stop. The gushim [settlement blocs], I want to have them remain where they are. So I believe they can strengthen the gushim. But deserted places, just to have facts on the ground, why? On the other hand, I don’t think Abu Mazen is a hassid umot ha’olam [righteous gentile] either. So I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Do you think there’s any chance of a peace agreement? I’m an optimistic person, and I believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way. The question is: Is there a will? I doubt if there’s a will. I think they want to destroy us, and we don’t want to make peace. I’m talking about the leadership. I think the majority of the people in Israel want to make peace, and I believe if you ask the ordinary Palestinians, they want to make peace. But the leadership, Abu Mazen is afraid, and Netanyahu is also afraid. Because he has Danny Danon and Miri Regev in his party that make him miserable. And also, the election system sucks. All the central committees, and primaries, and cheating and corruption. So even though I’m an optimistic person, I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel.
Do you see any similarity between you and Ben-Gurion? No way. He was a giant, and I’m a midget.
One of the things that really bothered me when I was growing up was that everybody said you have to do this and that because you are Ben-Gurion’s grandson. I’m a normal person. I’ll tell you something funny.
When I was dating girls, when I was still in the army, when a girl said to me after a week, “when am I going to see your grandfather?” I stopped it. Because I knew she was dating him, not me. Now with my wife, Dalia, whom he loved very much, because she was tall and beautiful, we dated a year and a half approximately and she never mentioned Ben-Gurion. Then one day, during the election in 1961, Begin appeared in Ordea Square in Ramat Gan, and we went to listen to him.
And when he ended, she said, “You know Begin is not less great than your grandfather.”
I said, “Dalia, let’s get married!” I knew she loved me, and not my grandfather.
Unfortunately, she died a year and a half ago.
You know, one day, during the ’60s, which was the mini period, she came with me to visit my grandfather and grandmother wearing a miniskirt.
She was very good-looking, so my grandmother, who had a sharp tongue, said, “Aren’t there any clothes in Israel?” And my grandfather said, “She’s good-looking, she can afford it.”
He wasn’t stupid. He looked at people.
One day he asked Dalia something, and she said, “I’m going to ask my husband.”
And he said, “Lo ba’ali, ishi [‘Not my husband, my man’].” Isha and Ish (“woman and man”). He was a feminist.
We got married when I was in the army, and he said, “Don’t get married in a suit, wear your uniform.”
I said, “I’m just a sergeant, I’m no big shot.”
But in the end I said, yes, I would respect him, and it was a modest wedding, not like the kind of wedding you have today.
How did he affect your life? I think the thing that most affected my life, because I was the oldest of all the grandchildren, seven-and-a-half years older than the rest of them, when I was a young child, from the age of eight until bar mitzva, he would say to me every birthday, go to a publishing house and buy every book you want. And I would come home with cartons of books. And my grandmother said (she was more PR-oriented than he), he should write in every book “From Saba to Yariv” with the date.
It was his way of teaching me to love books. And you can see that until today, I love books. As you can see, my apartment is full of libraries of books. My wife also bought books like crazy.
What was Ben-Gurion like as a grandfather? He was very tolerant. As a politician, he was fierce. But as a grandfather, he was mellow and nice, with a sense of humor. You would ask him questions and questions, and he would take the time to answer you and answer you.
Now a couple of years before my grandmother, Paula, died, she said to me, “I have lots of pictures, if you want to take one.”
I chose only what I thought was the best photograph ever of him.
She said, “Okay, take it.”
So she went to him, and he wrote, “To Dalia and Yariv, from Saba.”
She said, “Where is ‘with love’ written?” So he squeezed in, with little letters, “with love.” It’s in my study, where only I can see it. Really, I love him dearly!