LOS ANGELES (Jun. 13)
Three years ago, the BBC decided to make a television documentary marking the 40th anniversary of the 1956 Sinai campaign, which pitted Israeli, British and French troops against the forces of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The filmmakers were soon stymied in their search for one top secret document: The Protocol of Sevres, in which leaders of the three temporary allies coordinated their plans to seize the Suez Canal, five days before the actual attack on Oct. 29, 1956.
One copy of the protocol went to each of the three participating countries. The BBC first tried to get the British copy, but was told that the document had been burned almost as soon as it was signed.
Next, the French said their copy had been “misplaced” and could not be found.
Finally, the BBC researchers turned to the Ben-Gurion Archives, and within hours the staff produced a photocopy of the original protocol.
It was all in a day’s work for Tuvia Friling, director of the Ben-Gurion Research Center and Archives, located on the Sde Boker campus of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
At the archives’ core are David Ben-Gurion’s diaries, meticulously kept throughout the 60 years of his public career.
“Ben-Gurion was a historian’s dream,” Friling says of Israel’s first prime minister. He made notes on every meeting he ever held, however insignificant, chronicled his decisions and reactions, and even kept carbon copies of the huge number of letters he wrote.
At the time of his death in 1973, Ben-Gurion left behind 750,000 papers. The archives now hold 5 million documents, including holdings from foreign archives bearing on the history of the nascent Jewish state from 1917 to 1967, as well as on Israel’s relations with other countries and Diaspora communities.
The mass of material, largely computerized and partially accessible on the Internet in Hebrew and English, yields a fascinating picture of the man at the center of Israel’s creation.
For instance, on May 14, 1948, when Ben-Gurion declared Israel a sovereign nation, Jews cheered and danced in the streets of Tel Aviv. But the architect of independence recorded in his diary a profound sense of sadness.
Ben-Gurion knew full well that the Arab states would invade Israel. Until the last minute, Washington was exerting pressure to postpone statehood. And his army chief of staff, Yigal Yadin, reported that Israel had only a 50-50 chance of survival.
“Ben-Gurion, better than anyone else, knew what a heavy price Israel would have to pay in the coming battles,” says Friling, 45, a historian and authority on Ben-Gurion’s still-controversial role in rescue efforts of European Jewry during the Holocaust.
“What made Ben-Gurion such a great leader is that he could foresee future consequences of today’s decision 30 years down the road,” Friling says. “He understood that the price of victory would be Israel’s rule over other people,” which in the long run would divide the nation.
In as yet unpublished parts of the diaries, Ben-Gurion recorded his reaction to the Six-Day War in 1967. He had by then retired as prime minister and retreated to his kibbutz desert home in Sde Boker.
He received a visit from Yitzhak Rabin, then chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, who wanted Ben-Gurion’s endorsement of the still-secret war plans.
To Rabin’s chagrin, Ben-Gurion opposed pre-emptive Israeli military action. He believed that Nasser wanted to create a crisis, but not a war, and that the confrontation could be resolved through diplomacy.
The research center, including the archives, is an educational arm of Ben- Gurion University and offers a range of courses on the history and current problems of Israel and Zionism.
Its library contains every book written by and about Ben-Gurion, and its research units probe areas from Israeli literature and civil-military relations to the country’s ties with Anglo-American Jewry.
“We now have the world’s largest computer database on Zionism,” Friling says. “We examine not only Ben-Gurion’s life, but the entire process of building a nation and, indeed, a new human being.”
A companion to the research center is the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, which makes use of the latest in information technology and computer games to perpetuate Ben-Gurion’s legacy and the values he embodied.
Housed primarily in the desert hut where Ben-Gurion spent the last years of his life, with a stunning view of the biblical Wilderness of Zin, the Heritage Institute seeks to fulfill his vision of “a kind of Hebrew Oxford, a Hebrew Yavnch in the desert.”
Friling, who also heads the Heritage Institute, and his staff have innovated a whole range of multimedia and interactive teaching tools, calibrated from kindergarten age to teachers and overseas students, to teach the basics of historical methodology and to role-play the major decisions that confronted Ben-Gurion.
In one game, for instance, players representing all political views in Jewish Palestine, as well as those of Diaspora, Arab, Americail and Soviet leaders, must decide whether Israel is to declare its independence in 1948.
The research center and the Heritage Institute have traditionally transmitted their ideas and findings through scholarly journals and books. Now, Friling is producing CD-ROMs and an Internet site at www.bgu.ac.il/Ben-Gurion/center.htm
(Tom Tugend recently participated in a press tour at Ben-Gurion University.)