November 2, 2005

The Voice of Ben-Gurion

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Alon Ben-Gurion MPS ’82, grandson of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime minister, lectured in Uris Auditorium last Thursday. Ben-Gurion spoke about the legacy of his grandfather and his dream of developing the Negev Desert, which comprises more than half of the State of Israel. Earlier this week, The Sun spoke with Alon about his grandfather, terrorism and issues of sustainability in Israel:

Sun: Well, first, I wanted to get your thoughts on the recent suicide bombing in Hadera, the first major terrorist attack in Israel since the Israeli Disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August.

ABG: Well, I’m not a political person… But I know that we had suicide bombings before Disengagement and that we will have suicide bombings after Disengagement. Israel has got to take care of Israel. Disengagement was a one-sided decision by the Israeli government, and I think it was a good decision. It was very debated, and it was very painful, but it was done. And it was done to protect Israel. Israel, throughout the last 50 years, has always looked at how it could protect its citizens, and it will continue to do that. If we have to do one-sided moves, we will continue to do that. We will extend our hands for peace, but we will also protect ourselves.

Sun: Your grandfather faced very different challenges when he was Prime Minister of Israel. What sort of leader do you think David Ben-Gurion would be today?

ABG: Well, let me tell you something- I do not know what my grandfather would say or do [today]- He’s been dead since 1973- However, one has got to read what he said and what he did to understand some of his thinking- People think that [for him] to declare the State of Israel [in 1948] was an easy decision, but it was very hard. He faced three big obstacles. Number one: George Marshall, who was the U.S. Secretary of State, wrote a telegram [which told] Ben-Gurion not to declare the State of Israel. Number two: Ben-Gurion knew that the moment he declared the State of Israel, he would face an invasion from five Arab countries- Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt- Number three: Already then, before the State of Israel, there was a right wing and a left wing [among the Jews there], and both sides were not very favorable to the idea of declaring a state at that time [because] we didn’t control many of the areas that we did later, so people said, “let’s wait and establish the State of Israel under better conditions.” – That’s when he said, “I’d rather have a Jewish State on a small territory than have a large territory without a Jewish State.” – He just wanted a Jewish State; he didn’t want more territory. In 1953, he gave an interview to a French magazine where he said, “Whoever holds Gaza has cancer in his hands-”

Sun: As you mentioned on Thursday, Bill Gates was in Israel only a few days ago. Today, of course, Israel’s economy is dominated by its technology industry, making it very different from the agricultural country your grandfather founded. How do you think David Ben-Gurion might view this transformation?

ABG: Ben-Gurion used to say that we have to be Am Hasefer, the nation of the book. He was very big on intellect. He was very big on education. The fact that there is less agriculture today is not because we aren’t as good farmers as we used to be but because technology took over. He always said we would survive our enemies by our brainpower- In Israel, we don’t have a lot of natural resources. We don’t have oil. What do we have? We have brainpower- Going back to agriculture, for example, we’ve got less people working in that field but what they’re producing is magnificent. We are one of the leading countries in irrigation, and we are teaching countries in South America and Africa about it. Also, people have been asking how we’re going to replace oil as a source of energy. Well, you should go to Israel, and you will see that we are very advanced with solar power. Ben-Gurion, of course, always had a dream. He said, “Yes, 60% of Israel is a desert. But with science and the Jewish brain, we can turn that place green. We can settle it; we can solve the water problem; we can build cities there; we can get people to work there.”

Sun: What was this special connection that David Ben-Gurion had with the Negev Desert?

ABG: Well, let me tell you a story- In 1953, when he was Prime Minister of Israel, my grandfather was traveling [through the desert]-my father was with him-and on the side of the road, he saw a couple of tents, so he told his driver to pull over so he could see who was living there. Inside the tents were twenty youngsters who were building a kibbutz, and he went, and he sat with them, and they told him all their problems dealing with the desert, and Ben-Gurion said to them, “Tell me something, if one of your parents wanted to come and live here on the kibbutz, what kind of work would you give him?” So, they laughed at him. They said, “Mr. Ben-Gurion, none of our parents would ever come to this forsaken land.” He said, “well, let’s just imagine-” Of course, he was planning his own arrival-that’s why he was asking. His military attache was listening with my father on the side, and only my father realized what was going on. He turned to the military attache and said, “I think you need to look for a new job.”

Sun: I know the other day you mentioned the “Bridging the Rift” Center that’s being built in the Negev, on the Israeli-Jordanian border. Did you know that was a Cornell initiative?

ABG: Oh, really? No, I didn’t know that. I think it’s a fantastic idea.

Sun: Speaking of Cornell, you got your graduate degree at the hotel school here. How was it coming back?

ABG: Well, Cornell is always a fascinating place to be. You see your old advisors, you see how the university has developed. I was there back in ’82. It’s been almost 25 years- I’m actually coming back again for the reunion. But it’s nice to see the students, see how bright they are. Once you graduate, you never really let go. I am still very much connected. We have a saying that if you get lost in an alley anywhere in the world, all you have to do is yell Cornell, and somebody will open a window.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer