A lost interview with Israel’s first prime minister, recently unearthed by an Israeli filmmaker, reveals a simple, unassuming side of the statesman revered by Israelis as the nation’s founding father.
The 6-hour interview, which David Ben-Gurion gave in 1968 to producers of a film about his life — a film that was eventually unsuccessful and which was quickly forgotten — was discovered by Yariv Mozer in the Hebrew University’s Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.
Mozer has now used the rare footage of the late prime minister to produce his own film, titled “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue,” which recently screened at Jerusalem’s International Film Festival.
In it, Ben-Gurion is seen in the years following his resignation from the premiership in 1963, after which he spent most of his time at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, a last homage to his dream of making the desert bloom.
The former premier is filmed living a charmingly simple life, working in farmlands of the community, taking daily strolls, even enjoying some time off at the pool with his wife Paula.
He tells the interviewers that when he told Paula that he wanted to live in the desert, “she thought I’d gone mad. But she did it, she came after me.”
The former prime minister, celebrated even in life, told kibbutz members he had no wish to receive any special treatment.
“I told them my name is David, not Ben-Gurion. Every morning I came to see what David has to do and I went to do the work,” he said.
Ben-Gurion wanted to serve as an example of what Israel could be, and how Israeli leaders should live.
In the interview, conducted a year after the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel conquered the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Old City, the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip, Ben-Gurion spoke at length of his belief that Israel was still far from achieving its purpose of serving as “a light unto the nations.”
Israel’s moral compass, he maintained, was inexorably tied to its treatment of the non-Jews living under its rule.
Ben-Gurion criticized those who believed that the biblical commandment to “Love thy friend as thyself” pertained only to Jews, saying that “In the same chapter they said a little later, ‘If a stranger will live among you, he should be to you like a citizen and you should love him like yourself because you were strangers in Egypt.’ So it doesn’t mean only Jews.”
He also took the unpopular position in those days of post-war euphoria that Israel should immediately relinquish the territories it had taken if this could secure peace.
“If I could choose between peace and all the territories which we conquered last year, I would prefer peace,” he said. He did have two exceptions though: Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
He also voiced opposition to the then-nascent settlement project in the West Bank and Gaza, wondering out loud why it was necessary to settle an area with large Arab populations when the nearly unpopulated Negev desert was available. He said pre-war Israel had enough room for all the Jews who would come to live here in the next 20 or 40 years.
The film also shows a post-war Knesset speech by the former prime minister in which he warns that “our standing in the world will be determined not by our so-called material riches, and not by our military’s bravery, but by the moral virtue of our undertaking.
Ben-Gurion died in December 1973, just weeks after the Yom Kippur War.
Asked by filmmakers if he feared for his country, for his vision of an Israel that would truly be “a light unto the nations,” the premier said: “I’ve always feared, not only now. That state does not yet exist. It’s the beginning only.”