Alon Ben-Gurion Remembers His Grandfather

Alon Ben-Gurion (right) in his grandfather's library

This interview was excerpted from the Winter 2017 issue of Impact, a publication of the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University. For the complete interview, click here.

IMPACT: If your grandfather could see today’s Israel, what do you think he would say?

ALON BEN-GURION: It’s a good question. But you’d be asking the wrong man. Because Ben-Gurion does not have in his vocabulary the word “if.” So since “if” does not exist, the question does not exist. It’s irrelevant. The better question is, what would we say based on what he said when he put together his vision for the State of Israel. What can we learn from that about what he believed?

IMPACT: What do you think that vision tells us?

ALON BEN-GURION: My interpretation can be like anyone else’s; I have no special license. But I can read between the lines and I know what he said. I think his biggest day was when he landed in Israel, Jaffa, in 1906. Ben-Gurion never used the word Palestine; he always used Israel. He visited one of the 13 villages there that were sponsored by Baron Rothschild—and left very fast. He saw that the Jews were the landlords. They weren’t doing the work; the Arabs were. He said, “That is the wrong picture. If we don’t work the land, we don’t own the land.”

IMPACT: What was it like to grow up as David Ben-Gurion’s grandson?

ALON BEN-GURION: He was a grandfather! It’s not like America; we never had a legacy like the Kennedys. No secret service. Nobody treated us differently and we had a normal life. My two sisters and I went to the normal school, joined the youth movement. He was the prime minister but for us he was just a grandfather. When he came with Paula, my grandmother, there’d be a convoy of two cars and bodyguards, but they were part of the family; I grew up with them.

IMPACT: Does any memory stand out that reflects your relationship with him?

ALON BEN-GURION: He had a little black book. He entered the names and birthdays of all the children and spouses. A few days before your birthday he would call: “Alon, your birthday is coming up. What can I get you as a present?” It had to be books, always books— he was the man of the books; we are a nation of books. When I was 12, I was studying the Roman Empire, so he sent me a box of books about Rome. Next time I saw him: “Alon, did you get enough books? Did you enjoy them? What period of Rome did you like the best?” I mentioned Hannibal. We were in Sede Boqer standing eye to eye—I was already his height— and he says, “Let me tell you why Hannibal was the greatest military leader in history!” and he goes into a half-hour lecture. The tone, the passion, the look, the eyes—my kids would say, “are you for real?” You just looked at him. Later I saw him give speeches often and it was just the same. Whether you’re the president of a country or a child of 12, he’d finish the lecture and you’d say,“Wow! What was that all about?” Always, silence followed. You’re overwhelmed with the passion, the information.

IMPACT: You were a young adult when he died so you knew him for a number of years. How would you describe him as a person?

ALON BEN-GURION: He was a very, very interesting human being. As you grow up you see things, and what’s fascinating to remember today is the modesty, the simplicity—in part maybe it was the generation. If you go to Sede Boqer you see the hut he lived in. And the bed—there’s no way any one of us could sleep on it; the mattress is unbelievable. When he retired the first time [in January 1954] and went to Sede Boqer, he wanted to work with sheep. Cabinet members, the prime minister, came to see him, and there he was, a kibbutznik working with sheep. You see people standing around him, in the barren desert, all in suits. As a child you think this is strange— and funny. The things that were important to him and not important…the beautiful homes, going out to dinner, traveling to fabulous islands, the materialistic society that we all became part of…to him it meant absolutely nothing. For him it was all about the State of Israel. He wanted Israel to be a beacon, a light for the world—a special country with great education, agriculture, technology—that would spread the knowledge so that other people could be successful too. He believed we survived 3200 years in exile because we have a belief. And that now we are here to build a nation but also to help other countries, and lead by example.

IMPACT: What kind of people did he like being with?

ALON BEN-GURION: He loved the army. He’d rather spend time with a soldier than anyone else. I remember that when we came home from the army—me, my older sister and her husband, my younger sister—the first thing we’d do is take off the uniform and put on jeans and sneakers. When we went to Sede Boqer that way he’d be angry. “Aren’t you in the army? Are you ashamed of it? So, you’re not wearing the uniform?” We worked it out this way. We’d wear the uniforms and give him a hug and kiss. Then he’d say, “Go change.” That solved the problem. Once he saw us in uniform he was happy.

IMPACT: Some of his early agreements in creating the State are criticized now. Did Ben-Gurion talk about his reasons for the arrangement with Orthodox Jews, which is so controversial now?

ALON BEN-GURION: I asked him about that once. He told me that the rabbi said to him, “If you insist on our being drafted into the army, we’ll have to leave the country.” Ben-Gurion didn’t sleep all night. He said, “The fact that we built the country for the Jews all over the world and a Jew tells me he’ll have to leave—that’s unacceptable.” The thought that a Jew cannot live in Israel is what bothered him. But the agreement was for 400 men. It escalated.

IMPACT: Did you ever wish you had a different kind of grandparent?

ALON BEN-GURION: No! I can’t say that. I grew up with him the way he was, and Paula. The most important thing for me is the devotion to something he believed in. You read about it and see that it was his dream as a kid. But at the end of his life he had the same emotion. I once went to Sede Boqer—I was a senior in high school—and saw him by himself, with his bodyguards, and he’s writing. “What are you doing?” “I’m writing.” “You’re always writing!” “I write 17 hours a day—the story of the State of Israel for the younger generations.” “Why are you in such a rush?” “Because I’m going to die at the age of 87.” “Why do you think that?” “Because my father died at the age of 87.” He did. And my father, Amos, did.

Discussion Questions

  1. What parts of the interview resonate with you, and why?
  2. What themes does Alon Ben-Gurion touch on when he reminisces about his grandfather?
  3. What did you learn about David Ben-Gurion or about Israel? What do you want to learn more about?

 

Living History

Select one sentence from the article in which Alon Ben-Gurion describes something about his grandfather:

  1. Why did you choose this line?
  2. What's unique about the relationship between Alon and his grandfather? If you could ask Alon a follow-up question, what would it be?
  3. How about his grandfather -- the founder of the modern state of Israel: What would you ask him?

In the interview, Alon Ben-Gurion talks about his relationship with his grandfather, knowing that the man was very famous and known by everyone. Have you ever thought about how your relationship with someone may be different than the way others relate to him or her? Describe a situation in which you realized you were thinking about a person in one way and other people thought about them through a very different lens.

 

Big Ideas

Alon Ben-Gurion says his grandfather believed "we are here to build a nation but also to help other countries, and lead by example."

  1. Describe something profound you've learned from a grandparent or another older relative. How is it relevant in your daily life?
  2. What do you think it means for a country to "lead by example"?