Thursday, January 27, 2011

Legacies of Ben Gurion

When I looked out my window today and saw a tree standing before me, the sight awoke in me a greater sense of beauty and personal satisfaction than all the forests that I have crossed in Switzerland and Scandinavia. For we planted each tree in this place and watered them with the water we provided at the cost of numerous efforts.

Why does a mother love her children so? Because they are her creation. Why does the Jew feel an affinity with Israel? Because everything here must still be accomplished. It depends only on him to participate in this privileged act of creation. The trees at Sde Boker speak to me differently than do the trees planted elsewhere. Not only because I participated in their planting and in their maintenance, but also because they are a gift of man to nature and a gift of the Jews to the compost of their culture.

It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.

David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister and founder of the state of Israel

I met David Ben Gurion for the first and last time when I was fourteen years old. My family had recently made aliyah to Israel. Despite my inability to string together a complete sentence in Hebrew, I had been thrown into the local middle school. One day my class paid a visit to the Tel Aviv residence of Israel’s first prime minister. In the years since he had retired to a small kibbutz in the Negev desert, his house in Tel Aviv had been converted into something of a museum.

My teacher was busy telling us about Ben-Gurion’s accomplishments when the Old Man himself came trundling down from the upstairs library. With a twinkle in his eye, the former Prime Minister asked if he could meet us. When my turn came to introduce myself, I explained I was born in America and had recently moved to Israel. Turning his piercing gaze and twin shocks of white hair in my direction, the founder of the state of Israel bluntly asked, “Where are your countrymen? Where is the great American aliyah? We need them. And we need you.”

I was fourteen, newly arrived in a land whose language and culture were still so foreign. And the charge I received from Ben Gurion that day has been part of me ever since.

Joel Goldman’s tale of meeting David Ben-Gurion in the early seventies (that is, the previous few paragraphs!) was on my mind this week when my unit toured the former prime minister’s desert home in Sde Boker. It was not my first visit. But it was the first time since my aliyah and months of army training that I have visited and reflected on the legacy of Israel’s first and most important prime minister. My first visit, in other words, since I have made the two great unrealized visions of Ben Gurion— development of the Negev and the aliyah of American Jewry—part of my own life.

Sde Boker is where Ben Gurion’s two final goals come to fruition. The kibbutz was founded by young American idealists after the 1948 War of Independence. When Ben Gurion stumbled across the community during his first term as prime minister, he was inspired by the pioneers’ progressive attitude and asked them if he could join their community. Permission granted, the Prime Minister thereafter retired from office and with his American raised wife Paula made Sde Boker home for the next two decades.

The Neveg remains largely undeveloped. And American aliyah is still a largely unfulfilled dream. Returning to Sde Boker after my own aliyah, and following many months of training throughout the Negev, reminds me that I have only just begun working towards the twin unfulfilled visions of Israel’s founding father.


Sde Boker is a deceptively peaceful desert community. Here Israel's visionary founder retreated from public life. Here he dreamed about the great challenge and potential that awaited his nation in the surrounding hills. A hamlet as riddled with legend and intrigue as the doomed prince of Denmark himself.

Add another mystery to the storybooks.

The highlight of a visit to the Ben Gurion's modest dwelling in Sde Boker is the library, a small room with books in half a dozen languages covering dozens of subjects lining the walls and covering all available desk space. On a past visit, I had noticed an unlikely tome prominently situated in the middle of the lone table that dominates the center of the room: an English language history of Yeshiva University. Having attended the New York center of American Modern Orthodoxy as a student, I was intrigued to find the book in the same place on my visit this week.

The guide explained that the books in the library/study have remained where they were since Ben Gurion's death. With one exception, he added quietly. Sometime in the past year, the hardcover history of Yeshiva University disappeared. The curators searched everywhere, trying for months to discover who could have stolen such an inconsequential book. Failing to discover the thief, an even more exhaustive search was made to find another copy of a book that exists in only a handful of private libraries around the world. Several months ago, an anonymous donor contributed his copy and the confused yet grateful curators returned the new copy of the history to its rightful place. To this day, no one knows why the original book was stolen or who could have taken it.

The story has all the mystery of a Dan Brown thriller, replacing the Louvre and the Vatican with an infamously complex autodidact who nearly willed the modern state of Israel into existence over decades of public service. The missing history might very well be a red herring for some other hidden mystery, perhaps a final legacy wrapped up in American lettering down in the depths of the Negev desert.

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