It was a privilege to watch An Interview With Ben Gurion last week at Central Synagogue, as part of Spiro Ark’s film programme. It was a privilege not only because I realised that great efforts had been made to bring this film to the public – the sound and the video had separately been lost and they had been painstakingly and lovingly put back together, but also because the film gave a real insight into the life of one of the giants of Israeli history.
The one-hour film was based on a six-hour interview of Ben-Gurion by Dr Clinton Bailey and also included fascinating footage of Israel at its inception, Ben-Gurion’s family and his home in Sde Boker. The film was taken in 1968 when he was 82 years old, five years before his death, and just after his wife died.
Bailey pulled no punches questioning Ben-Gurion about all areas of his life including his marriage, his politics and the way that he lived his life. However, to be fair, it appeared that Ben-Gurion was quite enjoying the process and at one point when Bailey said that he had finished for the day Ben-Gurion said, ‘but we still have another 20 minutes – don’t you want to continue?’
The film illustrated that Ben-Gurion’s ability to lead was a fundamental part of his character and that his leadership style was very simple – he followed his own instinct. There was a very interesting clip of an interview with his wife Paula, taken when Ben-Gurion was the Prime Minister. The interviewer asked her what impact Ben-Gurion becoming Prime Minister had on her life. She replied that she had always been married Ben-Gurion and Ben-Gurion had always been a leader and therefore the fact that he became the Prime Minister made no difference to her life (this of course was at a time when there wasn’t 24 news and there wasn’t such intense scrutiny of politicians as there is today). Being a leader, it appears, was just part of his personality. In another interesting clip in the main interview with Bailey Ben-Gurion gives a further insight into the way in which he led. He was asked about his method of leading the nation and Ben-Gurion says, ‘I never guided Israel, I guided myself.’ He believed in conviction politics – he did what he thought was right and others followed.
Indeed, as that quote shows, he was not arrogant about his achievements. When asked what his main contribution was to the State of Israel, he said that he alone would not have been able to achieve anything and that there were always many people involved in Israel’s achievements (We see lovely footage of Einstein and Ben-Gurion meeting but Ben-Gurion argues that Einstein created his theories by himself but reiterates the point that he could never have achieved what he did by himself). His humility is also illustrated by the fact that he asked that no eulogy or gun salute was given at his funeral.
Although not a religious man, there were many times in the interview where he quotes the Torah and it is clear that his views about the State of Israel were shaped by this knowledge. He said that Israel should have a ‘love of peace but a capability of fighting when necessary’ and that he would give up all of its land except for the Golan Heights and Jerusalem for peace. Israel, he said, should be an ‘Am Segula’, a treasured nation, a nation of higher responsibilities, an exemplary nation.
The film shows footage of his simple life in Sde Boker – eating with the other members of the community in the communal dining room and spending many hours in his rather spartan hut reading and writing his history of Israel. By all accounts he led a solitary existence in these last years, but when it was suggested that his life was solitary he said that he didn’t think he was. He was just living his life doing the things that he wanted to. And that seemed to be the essence of Ben-Gurion – he believed in everything that he did and he was satisfied with life because of it.
In the discussion after the film lead by Lawrence Joffe , there was a bit of cynicism from the audience – some felt that he must have been ambitious and have acted in a cut throat manner to get where he was and although he was portrayed as humble perhaps he wasn’t really. But after watching this film I came to the view that Ben-Gurion was born in a different era, he was made of different stuff and that we are truly missing leaders of this stature in today’s world.