'We Have to Destroy the Wall of Jerusalem': Ben-Gurion’s Diaries Now on Display

‘At 4 P.M. declaration of independence’: The exhibit at the new visitors’ center of the Ben-Gurion Archives sheds light on the thoughts of the ‘Old Man’

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The new visitors' center at Sde Boker, last week.
The new visitors' center at Sde Boker, last week.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On Friday, September 7, 1906, a postcard was sent from Jaffa to Plonsk. “My dear ones! Hurray! I arrived at the Jaffa beach at nine! We’re going to Petah Tikva today at the fourth hour, and I’ll write a detailed letter there,” he wrote. “I didn’t get sick even once on the way!” he added on the margins, signing it, “With a blessing from Zion, David.”

And so, in a few handwritten lines, the most significant chapter in the life of David Ben-Gurion began, 42 years before he declared the establishment of Israel. He later described that day as the greatest of his life.

This postcard, which the 20-year-old Ben-Gurion sent to his father Avigdor Grun, is one of the exhibits in the Ben-Gurion Archive’s visitors’ center, which recently opened in a new building on the Sde Boker campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His diaries, personal letters and many additional official documents are on display, telling the story of the state’s founder.

One of them is a letter Ben-Gurion sent to Warsaw several months before immigrating to Palestine. “I haven’t decided about anything yet,” he wrote to his friend Shmuel Fuchs, sharing his dilemmas about his future.

The Ben-Gurion Archive, last week.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

On the floor below the visitors’ center, which belongs to Ben-Gurion University and to the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, Dr. Adi Portughies displays a 1901 letter sent by Avigdor Grun to Theodor Herzl. David then was a boy of 15 who wasn’t accepted to educational institutions because Jews were denied entry into academia. In fluent, handwritten Hebrew, Grun asked Herzl for advice and help for his son.

“Although it’s hard to come with a private matter to such an important person whose life’s goal and destination are the issues of the entire nation,” he wrote in his opening, “but I have seen and taken to heart, that my private matter is related to the issues of the general public.” He went on: “It touches the souls of tens of thousands of Jews who want knowledge, and there is none … I therefore said, I will pour out my heart to you.”

Ben-Gurion's diary on the eve of the declaration of Israel's independence.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

After additional words of praise for Herzl, the worried father wrote about his son: “Outstanding and diligent in his studies, he has filled his belly with Talmud, and aside from our language, Hebrew, he also knows the language of the country, the science of mathematics and more. He longs to study, but every school is closed to him because he is a Hebrew.”

The father blamed the educational institutions that made it difficult for Jews to be accepted. “And what will we do now for our unfortunate sons and the outstanding abilities that are going to waste?” wondered the worried father.

Grun ended by asking Herzl to help his son get accepted at the rabbinical school in Vienna. “And I will say and come before my dear sir to recommend my son,” he added. “I lack the power to support my son, who is the apple of my eye.” Grun’s efforts failed; the young David gave up the dream of acquiring a higher education in Europe and decided to study law in Turkey.

The archive completed the move to its new home recently, after spending years in an old and uninviting building elsewhere in Sde Boker. Portughies leveraged the university to raise the necessary funds, including from a private donor from abroad. He also convinced the Israel Defense Forces Archive – after considerable effort – to send him its crates with Ben-Gurion’s files, kept there for decades. The State Archive is completing the job now of sorting the material from the IDF, one reason being the need to clear the censor for some documents.

Dr. Adi Portughies holding one of the diaries with Ben-Gurion's signature, last week.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

At the visitor’s center, one can read a historic page from Ben-Gurion’s diary dated May 14, 1948. Ben-Gurion wrote about “armored cars” provided to the Negev, about 70 jeeps and machine guns that were received and about the surrender of Gush Etzion and its residents being taken into Jordanian captivity. At the bottom of the page he wrote, by the way: “At four the declaration of independence. There is profound joy and gladness in Israel.”

On November 29, 1947, the day when the United Nations approved the Partition Plan, Ben-Gurion wrote an even shorter sentence: “The decision has been made: 33-13-10,” referring to the votes for, against and abstaining from the partition resolution. Ram Ziv Av, the visitors’ center director of the, says Ben-Gurion wrote these things while vacationing in Kibbutz Kalia in the northern Dead Sea. Below, he added a list of tasks, including: a government, a constitution, an anthem, a name, a capital, a currency, a budget, airports, a police force and an army. Ziv Av calls it “a grocery list.”

The visitors’ center staffers are not afraid to display controversial plans and ideas or sensitive affairs such as the shelling of the ship “Altalena,” the exemption of Haredim from the military draft and war crimes committed by soldiers during the War of Independence. For example, Ben-Gurion said at a meeting of his party, Rafi, a week after the Six-Day War: “We have to destroy the wall of Jerusalem, it isn’t Jewish. A Turkish sultan built it in the 16th century. We want Jerusalem to be a big city. One city. What’s important to us is the Western Wall – and it still stands. Demolishing the wall would be of worldwide political value. Then the world will know that there’s one Jerusalem and an Arab minority is possible inside it.”

The visitors’ center displays his letter of reply to a Jewish woman who protested his statement about the Old City walls. “The Jews in their day left the boundaries of the wall and built the new Jerusalem. We must now turn the new and old Jerusalem into a united eternal city. There is no need for a wall that forms a border between one part of Jerusalem and the other,” he wrote to her. “As far as I know, there is no European or American city surrounded by a wall in our day. The IDF is Israel’s wall in our time.”

The Haaretz archive contains evidence of the reverberations Ben-Gurion’s words caused in real time. Poet Yitzhak Shalev wrote in a long letter of response on June 22, 1967: “… It turns out that after B.G. succeeded in several previous smashings, such as the smashing of the ‘Altalena,’ the smashing of his relationship with his best friends and the smashing of his image in the eyes of many of his admirers, there is still enough aggressive energy in his hatchet for a great new act: smashing the Old City wall… It is envy and a lack of any sense of historical respect to destroy an ancient structure only because it isn’t Jewish and was built by a Turkish sultan.”

Writer S.Y. Agnon, who toured the Old City on June 25, 1967, responded: “Ben-Gurion has uttered a lot of nonsense in his life; his suggestion to destroy the wall is the greatest of all.”

Perusal of another document displayed in the visitors’ center also raises eyebrows: a speech delivered by Ben-Gurion in Dimona in 1961 for its fifth anniversary. Addressing Moroccan immigrants, he said: “It is still hard for me to understand how the first 35 families brought to this desolate desert remained here. I imagine they didn’t remain out of great enthusiasm. I imagine they wanted to leave, maybe they even cursed those who brought them here.

“But they stayed. How did those Moroccan families … Where did they find the strength to stay in a desolate place despite their wishes? I have no doubt that had the messianic vision of generations not resided in their hearts, the vision of redemption, making the desert bloom, conquering the country, Israel’s spiritual, economic and political revival – had this desire not been hidden inside them – all the operatives who brought them here would not have helped. The edict to which they were sentenced, to remain in the desert, would not have helped.”

Next year will be the 60th anniversary of a fascinating text written by Ben-Gurion, also on display at the visitors’ center. The subject is very relevant to our times, during which our preoccupation with artificial intelligence fills newspaper pages. Ben-Gurion called the subject “human thinking and electronic thinking.” “It’s somewhat hard for me to accept the term ‘electronic thinking,’ The clear sign of human thinking is the thinker’s awareness that he thinks, and because man knows that he thinks, he is the father and creator of thought,” he pondered.

“The activity of the electronic computer, in my humble opinion, is essentially no different from the activity of the automobile driven by man or the flight of the missile launched by man, even when it has a ‘homing’ system. The car driver knows where he is headed, but the missile chases and hits the plane without any awareness of what it is doing,” Ben-Gurion wrote.

“Does anyone assume that the electronic computer knows the answer that it gives to the question it is asked? A machine doesn’t wonder and doesn’t ask. It ‘answers’ the question inserted into it, just as the car travels to Jerusalem or to Tel Aviv when it is filled with fuel and the driver guides it. And because man knows how to ask – he plans. Therefore, the most sophisticated thinking machine, even one that will be built decades from now, will only be programmed, and will operate according to the programming that came to it from outside,” he wrote. Time will tell if he was right in this prediction, too.

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