Though I have been visiting Israel for years, I never engaged much with the country’s history: it was more about drinking cocktails in Tel Aviv hotspots and looking out for hot men.
This time, however, was different. I wound up focusing more on David Ben-Gurion in his heyday as Israel’s first prime minister in the 1940s and 1950s than on the coolest rooftop bars.
It was partly because as the state of Israel turns 75, amid unprecedented political tumult, the question of what it is, and where it is going, is in disarray. “It’s like a dear friend you’ve had since childhood that’s lost her way,” explained an Israeli friend to me recently.
“You love her, but for now you don’t know her. You hope, you trust, she’ll return to herself again.” And so one’s thoughts turn to the state’s first principles.
But it was also down to chance. A tranquil week in the Negev with my family, during some of the most intense phases of political uproar, was spent in a cabin very close to Sde Boker, the kibbutz locale of the Ben-Gurion desert home, where David and wife Paula moved in 1953 and, eventually died — she in 1968, he in 1973.
Ben-Gurion, for those who, like me before this trip, know of the man mainly as the namesake of Israel’s main airport, was Israel’s prime minister from 1948 to 1963, apart from a short period in the mid fifties.
Born in Plonsk, then in Poland, in 1886, he was an ardent Zionist from his youth, moving to Palestine in 1906, where, nearly 30 years later he became leader of the Jewish community as head of the Jewish Agency, and in 1946, head of the World Zionist Organisation.
He was first to sign the declaration of independence (which he helped write). A brief sojourn in New York from 1915 led him into the embrace of a nurse, Paula Munweis, whom he married in 1917 and who remained completely dedicated to him for the rest of her life.
Ben Gurion's childhood home in Poland (alamy)
So much for the bare bones. But what was he like? I was intrigued, impressed and somewhat emotional at what I saw, both in Sde Boker and the Ben-Gurions’ Tel Aviv home. In Sde Boker, strolling past the humble dwellings that belonged to Ben-Gurion’s neighbours into the low-roofed kibbutz house, I was blown away by its utter modesty. How different this world-historical ruler’s home was to the typical palace one associates with power. Compare the showier tastes of Netanyahu and his wife Sara, whose Caesarea villa is on a street where some houses cost over $2 million.
The Ben Gurions' home in Tel Aviv (Photo: Talymoryair)
In the Sde Boker house you can see Ben-Gurion’s slippers, his single bed, relatively sparse furnishings, Greek statuary, an array of objects from fans and friends around the world, and the lemon squeezer Paula used every morning — all left, at his express wish, as they were. It was packed with books, including, touchingly, The Survival of Small States by David Vital (1971), left atop a pile near his briefcase as though he’d just nipped out.
Ben Gurion's study at Kibbutz Sde Boker (Alamy)
Both homes, in Tel Aviv and Sde Boker, exude a strong sense of history and identity, of the unique qualities of Israel and the exceptional conditions of its formation. So my desire grew to know more about the short man behind the modest taste, extraordinary actions, fame, brains, words, learning and, of course, the funny hair.
Amazingly, at his Tel Aviv home, a staff member was able to pass along the numbers of two of Ben-Gurion’s grandsons: Moshe and Yariv. Yariv didn’t respond to my attempts to contact him, but his brother Moshe did. Which is how I ended up on a Zoom call with Moshe Ben-Eliezer, son of David and Paula’s eldest daughter Geula.
While too young to remember the founding of the state itself — he was born in Tel Aviv in January 1948, so he’s as old as Israel — Moshe remembers plenty about his grandparents, the statesman and his “exceptional” wife.
As Ben-Gurion once explained to a journalist, Paula consorted with anarchists along with much of “the progressive youth” of New York before he persuaded her to believe in the state of Israel and commit her life to his vision.
Moshe, a grandfather of four himself and a die-hard Arsenal fan, thanks to a clutch of childhood years spent in London, tells me from his book-lined study in Tel Aviv that he and his siblings were “very close to my grandfather.”
David and Paula Ben Gurion and their children (Photo: Getty Images)
But when your grandpa is David Ben-Gurion, prime minister until 1963, things are a bit different. “Let me elaborate,” says Ben-Eliezer. “I recognised that my grandfather wasn’t a regular grandfather. We almost didn’t do anything together. I’m not complaining, I’m explaining because I understood, even as a child, that he had more pressing issues than playing ball with me. But he was very attentive and he was very concerned.”
Within strict limits, that is. I am intrigued, but not surprised, to hear that Ben-Gurion’s intensity of purpose took precedence over everything. “He was concerned about the things that concern him. For instance, how do I study? And especially what do I read? Reading… He was an outstanding reader. He had an exceptional thirst for knowledge — any sort of knowledge —but especially knowledge that concerned creating a state and maintaining it; political science, history of Judaism, history in general.
He had a special place in his heart for Eastern religions, for Buddhism, and all that. He wasn’t a religious person though he grew up in a religious family. So that was one concern. How much do you read? And the books were always present. I think even for my first marriage, I probably got a book. The only exception was from my bar mitzvah when I got this watch —” he holds his hand up with a laugh, showing it off.
The second thing Ben-Gurion worried about was his grandson’s height because he “was very short. He would measure me against the wall every time he came. Until I passed the required height… you know, I wasn’t as small as him.” For the record, Ben-Gurion was five feet tall.
There were plentiful opportunities for measuring young Moshe when Ben-Gurion lived in the house on Jewish Agency land at Keren Kayemet L’Israel (now 17 Ben-Gurion Boulevard), in Tel Aviv, not far from the young Moshe’s home.
Moshe tells me how when he was a child they lived “in a hundred-metres house, and there were five of us already. Ben-Gurion came to visit and he said ‘it’s a beautiful house, you know, how many families are going to live here?’ Which shows you two things. First, the thinking at the time. Secondly, Ben-Gurion. The modesty. I mean, he had absolutely no interest [in luxury].”
When his grandparents moved to Sde Boker in 1953, though, visits “became more problematic” and required braving dangerous roads, replete with mines amid bomb threats.
When grandpa was busy, which was most of the time, there was Paula, rather overlooked in narratives of Israel’s early history and now the subject of a special exhibition at the Tel Aviv house. “She was very sarcastic, very cynical,” says Ben-Eliezer.
“She had a better understanding of what motivates people and human relations than he did. She was a very unique woman. Her sole mission in life was to take care of Ben-Gurion, help him reach his goal, his mission. But she had a special place for me, and I think that allowed me to to carry on to an extent with my naughtiness.” (That the man I am speaking to was a naughty child does not surprise me; his speech is peppered with playful quips).
What was it like growing up in the shadow of such a man? Difficult. In the 1970s, following a PhD in communications in New York, an interviewer for a job at the consulate asked if anyone in Ben-Eliezer’s family had been in politics.
Admitting that his grandfather had been, the interviewer asked who the grandfather was and, on hearing the answer, tore up his application file immediately. Ben-Eliezer went “absolutely bananas…I lost it completely, and began screaming and cursing. What does it mean? He’s my grandfather. It doesn’t say anything about me!”
But alongside this “there was growing appreciation of my saba, of his unbelievable vision. He wasn’t just a visionary sitting somewhere having a vision. He was able to translate that vision into operative things that would make it come true.” An example: having no military experience, Ben-Gurion joined the British army in 1918, becoming a private.
Before the UN mandate of 1947 that approved the division of British-occupied Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, he “studied the military situation in Israel, interviewed people, people in the British army, people in the Palmach, the Haganah.
He even went down to see how many guns do we have, how many bullets do we have. That was Ben-Gurion. And from that, he developed the defence doctrine of Israel, which stands to this day.”
Like many in his generation, threats to democracy or not, Ben-Eliezer loves Israel, and never imagined moving anywhere else; though as a Zionist left-winger his relationship to the state isn’t without complexity. He thought, and still believes, “that Jews should live in Israel.
And I believe in what my father, my grandfather said, that the creation of the state of Israel is not the end of the story, just the beginning. We must create a state which is going to be attractive and attract Jews.” He worries now, with curent troubles that this project is failing.
In the 1970s, when Ben-Gurion was “in decline”, but “always busy, writing his memoirs”, they “would argue about ‘the Palestinian question’. I was very leftist, and my saba was my saba. He always said ‘there is no Palestinian people’.
He never said it was a myth or anything, but he said ‘there’s no Palestinian people’. And of course, we would argue, but it didn’t diminish my love and appreciation for him.”
Moshe says he has basically “kept the same [left-wing] views” throughout his life, but notes that none of Ben-Gurion’s seven grandchildren went into politics. “My elder brother Yariv was an advisor and PR specialist and did quite well, and I tended to volunteer in various places.
But none of us, you know, adopted the role of ‘let’s be a politician, let’s go into the Knesset’. I’m not a psychologist, but I’d say that when you grow up in the shade of a giant political oak, you don’t grow politically.”
Moshe Ben-Eliezer protests against the Israeli government's proposed legal reforms
What, then, does Ben-Eliezer think about Israel’s future? Is it as doomed as so many people seem to think, in light of Netanyahu’s grip? Could Israel fail to make it to 100?
“It’s a question of which day you’ll catch me,” he says. “On my better days, which are more numerous than than my worst days, I believe that we’ll overcome the present crisis.
"Now, I have an advantage over many of the youngsters who protest. I have great admiration for them, and I join them three or four times a week. But I remember the Yom Kippur war and I remember the Sinai war, and I know you don’t annihilate a nuclear country. We can fragment from inside but…But I think we will overcome it. I think the genie came out of the bottle.”
On his worst days he fears that the two of the greatest wonders of the world — one, the creation of the state of Israel to bring Jews from the diaspora to Israel and secondly the revival of the Jewish language, Hebrew, as a spoken everyday language — are going to disappear.
But mostly he believes change will come. “So it’s a question of when you catch me but essentially I’m an optimist.”