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Richard Trank interviewing Ehud Barak.(Photo by: SIMON WIESENTHAL CENTER)
Ben-Gurion documentary coming soon to a theater near you
Simon Wiesenthal Center hopes to educate young Jews about “prophetic” figure and founder of Israel.
David Ben-Gurion is finally getting the star treatment.

“He was the man. Without him, had he not declared statehood, nobody knows what would’ve happened,” Simon Wiesenthal Center president Rabbi Marvin Hier said of Israel’s first prime minister. While sitting under the awnings of the historic King David Hotel last week, Hier – who had just come from the Bahrain summit – enthusiastically discussed the Wiesenthal Center’s upcoming documentary about one of Israel’s most enduring figures, saying it will reveal facts and footage about Ben-Gurion that have never been seen before.

The documentary, which is set to be released in the spring, got sidetracked almost four years ago. That’s when Richard Trank – academy-award winning director and executive producer – first began work on the film.  Trank and Hier have collaborated on a dozen films (including subjects like Theodor Herzl and Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers),  and they won an Academy Award in 1997 for Long Way Home, a documentary examining the period between 1945-1948, when the survivors of the Holocaust rebuilt their lives and helped create the State of Israel.

After interviewing Shimon Peres for the film, Trank realized what a riveting subject Ben-Gurion was and shifted focus, putting aside the project. The Peres biographical documentary Never Stop Dreaming, narrated by George Clooney, is set to be released soon in theaters worldwide.

Trank and Hier have since returned to working on the documentary about Ben-Gurion, whom they call a “prophetic” figure.
“When Herzl died in 1904, Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to his friend... saying he felt that either God or nature had selected him to be the alter-ego of Theodor Herzl and to deliver the goods. Forty-four years later, he does exactly that,” Hier explained. Undoubtedly a household name, Ben-Gurion and his influence are not widely recognized anymore, and his impact is what Trank hopes to get across in the film.

“People in the US know Ben-Gurion is an airport they fly into. They know a face with a crazy hairdo, but they don’t really know about this man – his perseverance and his vision, and how essential that was to the creation and building up of the state,” he said.

According to Trank, the film will reveal Ben-Gurion’s incredible foresight, modest lifestyle and self-learning style of education.
“This was a man who was in many ways self-taught. He taught himself Greek, to read French, German, Yiddish – obviously Hebrew. The library this man had was unbelievable, everything from Jewish religious texts to Greek mythology. He just had an unbelievable breadth of knowledge.”

Hier and Trank hope the documentary will be instrumental in educating American youth on Jewish history. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films division is known for its ability to recruit stars – such as George Clooney, Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman – to narrate the documentaries it produces.

“The reason we do these films is for the younger generation today, because they don’t know that history [of the Jewish people],” Hier said. “And if someone doesn’t tell them, then the people we need to be pro-Israel in the non-Jewish world also don’t know. They don’t know what a struggle it was or [how right] the cause was.... A young generation is born, they don’t know that history, and they are very easily attracted to short versions of that history. We don’t believe the solution [to dealing with an increase in worldwide antisemitism] is just to yell, we believe part of the solution is to educate.”

Interestingly enough, none of the big Hollywood stars who have worked with the Simon Wiesenthal Center have ever accepted payment for their work. The center’s relationship with A-list actors began when Frank Sinatra, one of its original board members, made introductions between Rabbi Hier, Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles. The latter two narrated Genocide, the center’s academy-award winning documentary on the plight of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

TRANK AND his team have been filming all across Israel. They were up North at an agricultural settlement where Ben-Gurion lived; in the lower Galilee, at the original Carmel Winery in Rishon Lezion, one of the first places he worked; and, of course, in Sde Boker in the Negev, the “Old Man’s” pride and joy, where he retired.

The filmmakers interviewed many dignitaries about Ben-Gurion, including former prime minister Ehud Barak, and they still hope to interview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his travels, Trank has discovered more than he ever could have imagined about Ben-Gurion, including his steadfastness at opening the doors of Israel to Jews everywhere.

“There was a lot of pressure to restrict immigration until they got the economy together,” Trank explained. “Ben-Gurion’s point of view was ‘No, we have to be the place where any Jew who wants to, comes here. The doors need to be open.’”

When asked how Ben-Gurion might view Israel in its state of affairs today, Trank responded: “Mixed. He would be incredibly proud of the advances – medical, scientific, hi-tech – that Israel has pioneered, because he was all about science. He would be blown away by the way Tel Aviv or Jerusalem looks today. [But] I think there would be a part of him that maybe wouldn’t be so happy about materialism, and the pervasiveness of the media. He would probably be happy to see the creature comforts people have now that they didn’t have then, but I also think he’d be disenchanted with the emphasis on the material and the elusiveness of peace. At the same time, he was a man that believed in a strong Israel.”
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