Personal Glimpses of Ben Gurion

No fleet of tall ships, no enthusiastic crowd of millions flocked here to the Jewish Museum October 16 to kick-off the nation-wide celebration of the centennial of David Ben Gurion’s birth.

It’s probably not that America’s five million Jews think less of Israel’s founding Premier than of the Statue of Liberty. It’s that — despite the liberal use of the word “hero” — the hoopla has been contained.

Even the organization that is coordinating the celebration, the David Ben Gurion Centennial Committee of the United States, began the American celebration not with a litany of speeches, but with a look at Ben Gurion the person.

The glimpses were featured in samples of hours of unused shots from a 1956 interview with Ben Gurion by CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow–now part of the collection of the Jewish Museum’s National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting.

Regularly dragging on his trademark cigarette, Murrow inquired about personal and political issues. He asked Ben Gurion if ever during his 50 years in Palestine and Israel he considered giving up. “No,” he responded, chuckling at the thought. In fact, he continued to challenge himself.

RECOLLECTIONS BY MURROW

At age 69, Ben Gurion seemed to be getting accustomed to his modest wooden house at Sde Boker, built in 1954 on land he desperately wanted Israel to utilize. He chose the site after happening upon it while travelling through the Negev.

Having studied Buddhism in Asia, the Premier admired that region’s moral teachers and predicted a changing world. “I believe now the world is made one with modern communication…” he told Murrow.

Would he conduct talks with Arab leaders? “If they want to talk peace,” he declared, noting that the Arabs would eventually see that Israel could help them improve their sanitation, education and development. He accompanied his staccato syllables by pounding the arm of his wooden chair.

Murrow asked Ben Gurion’s wife, Paula, why she didn’t have servants in her Negev home. Admitting she had occasional housekeeping help, but only that, she harkened back to her socialist roots and replied, “I never believed in exploiting people.”

Murrow biographer A.M. Sperber told one more anecdote to the audience of more than 200. As Murrow prepared to leave Sde Boker, he realized he hadn’t thanked Ben Gurion. Murrow knocked on Ben Gurion’s door, but received no answer. Hearing water running, he peaked inside to find Israel’s Prime Minister wearing an apron and washing coffee cups. Murrow fought an impulse to film the scene, concluding that nobody would believe it hadn’t been staged.

GRANDSON TALKS ABOUT BEN GURION

The outtakes of Ben Gurion — never before seen in public –were “very exciting” for his grandson, Alon Ben Gurion, 34 and a manager of the Tel Aviv Hilton. “I was turning inside,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the kickoff.

Seeing Ben Gurion walking with the taller Murrow reminded Alon of his grandfather’s “march,” a rapid strut with his hands in his pockets utilized to keep up with his much taller body guards. Indeed, most of Alon’s memories of his grandfather — whom he simply called Ben Gurion — were warmly personal and apolitical. “He was my grandfather. He brought us presents,” Alon explained.

Not that Alon hasn’t come to consider his grandfather a giant among leaders. He said Israeli leaders, including Shimon Peres, have told him reverent stories. “You see that he was an outstanding statesman,” he said.

Alon talked of Ben Gurion’s seemingly photographic memory, his passion for learning and love for his wife. He also recalled the night Paula died, when Ben Gurion took his children to Sde Boker to search for a burial plot.

The Premier chose a barren slope. Alon’s father said the site would have to be filled with sand. Ben Gurion said to fill it, and several bulldozers worked throughout the night. “That’s the guy, he really pushed,” said Alon.

Neither was he afraid, the grandson continued. He would have preferred not to have body guards and at least once refused to go to his Jerusalem bomb shelter because he was too busy.

Alon last saw his grandfather two months before he died, however, Ben Gurion was asleep. Three days later, Alon was seriously wounded in the Yom Kippur War. During his hospitalization, Ben Gurion also was hospitalized, and neither could be moved. Alon watched his grandfather’s state funeral on television.

Funded by Hilton International, Alon has begun a 35-day, 25-city celebratory speaking tour of the U.S. “If I was my grandfather,” he said, “I could give you the number of miles.”

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