Alon Ben-Gurion, grandson of Israel’s founding prime minister, was born in Israel in 1951 and was severely wounded in the Yom Kippur War. For the last 40 years, he has worked in hotel management in Israel, England, Belgium and the United States, and speaks regularly about his grandfather’s legacy.
Ben-Gurion will be in Toronto on Nov. 20 for a parlour meeting of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
There is a new biography about your grandfather titled A State at Any Cost by Israeli journalist Tom Segev. What are your thoughts?
I’m happy that people write about Ben-Gurion. It means that it’s still a vibrant subject. But the writer is not a historian, he’s an investigative reporter, and I don’t think there’s anything new in this book. I think it’s a pretty shallow book.
A historian writes history as it was. He does not inject his personal opinions. Tom Segev historically injects his personal opinions, and there’s also untruths in parts of the book. Let’s put it this way: it did not open my eyes to something new. There’s no new revelations and a lot of it is opinion. In 100 years, the test will be: who will be remembered, Tom Segev or David Ben-Gurion?
The book describes Ben-Gurion as complex and enigmatic.
He was a very complex person, there is no doubt. Leaders are very complex. But I look at the human side of him. He was a man of the book. In order to read a book, he used to say that you have to read it in the original language. In order to read Don Quixote, he studied Spanish. That’s the kind of man he was, an intellectual on the one hand, but very pragmatic on the other.
When he had to make hard decisions, he made them whether it was good politically or not. He used “we” and “I.” That was very important for Ben-Gurion. When there was a success, he said “we.” When there was a failure, he said “I.” When he gave the order in 1956 for the Israeli army to vacate the Sinai desert, he said, “I gave the order to vacate. The army is very strong, very good, but I gave the order.” So, yes, he was a very, very complex person.
What would your grandfather say about Israel today?
You know, that’s the number 1 question everybody asks me, and it’s the easiest question to answer, because it’s not a realistic question. David Ben-Gurion died 45 years ago. If you want to ask that question, ask him. I can’t tell you what he would say. I can tell you what he said when he was alive.
Did he ever speak about political and other arrangements with the Orthodox establishment, which are now so controversial?
He didn’t care about the definitions of an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jew. He said, and I’ll quote him, ‘I don’t care if you’re a Zionist Jew, a non-Zionist Jew or an anti-Zionist Jew. You’re all Jews.’ That’s how he looked at it. Now, a lot of people accuse him of allowing religious boys not to serve in the army. I once asked him about that. He said it was nothing political. A rabbi came to him and said, “I need you to allow a number of students not to serve in the army.” Ben-Gurion said, “It’s not going to happen.” The rabbi said, “In that case, I will have to take the students and leave the State of Israel.”
And Ben-Gurion said to me, “Alon, I did not sleep all night that night.” He said, “It took us 2,000 years to build a Jewish state, and here comes a rabbi and tells me that he cannot stay in Israel because his people cannot practise the Torah, and he has to go back to the Diaspora.” He said, “It’s unheard of – that a Jew cannot live in Israel! It cannot happen!” This was not an election year, it had nothing to do with elections. And the next day, he excused 400 people from the army.
Yes, the religious today in Israel receive more power than they’ve got numbers in the population. But what happened in the elections now? The people who are not religious got fed up with this, and Israel’s in a stalemate. To blame everything on Ben-Gurion, it’s all very nice to say, “Yes, it started then,” but we’ve got to remember that the Zionist Orthodox, fought with the paramilitary Palmach and the Haganah during the 1948 War of Independence. They were part of building Israel.
Any fond personal memories of him?
When he was “Saba” (Grandfather). He had a small book that he used to write birthdays in, and he always bought us a present, but it always had to be a book. Months later, I forgot about the book he bought me, and he used to drill me about why I chose that book. It was a very interesting and fun experience.
What’s the memory that best reflects him?
I look at the leadership he provided. I look at the person, the behaviour. What was important for him? That the country came first. He was a very modest person. He was a man of the book. He couldn’t care about material things, like food, drinking, eating, entertaining himself, buying jewelry for his wife. He had one mission since he was a child, and that was to create a nation for the Jewish people. He built it, he declared it. If you asked him, “Did we achieve our goals?” he would tell you, “No, we are far away.” He served the country; the country did not serve him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity