Don Cohen Contributing Writer
Grandson of David Ben-Gurion talks of his grandfather and JNF’s work in Israel’s Negev desert.
Friends and supporters of the Jewish National Fund filled the social hall at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield June 14 to hear from Alon Ben-Gurion, a grandson of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Best known for planting trees in the Land of Israel for more than a century, a current JNF priority is building and supporting communities in Israel’s Negev desert, working to fulfill the elder Ben-Gurion’s vision of making the desert bloom.
Alon Ben-Gurion is general manager of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City and a sought-after international hospitality consultant. A third-generation Israeli, Ben-Gurion was a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and an officer when wounded in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
But Ben-Gurion didn’t talk much about himself; he knew his audience had come to hear about his paternal grandfather. David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) had emigrated from Russia to Ottoman Palestine in 1906 and, after becoming a leader in the Labor Zionist movement in 1935, became chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency, which essentially served as the pre-state government. Later in his life, he moved to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev with his wife, Paula.
“Who would have believed it?” Alon Ben-Gurion said of the gathering that celebrated 70 years of the State of Israel.
No one can deny the outsized role his grandfather had in establishing the Jewish State, but Alon said when someone would call his grandfather “the Father of the Nation,” he would humbly respond “no one man could be responsible for something like that.”
Ben-Gurion told a number of historical and personal stories about his famous grandfather.
With the end of the British Mandate for Palestine in May 1948, the yishuv (Jewish settlement) had to decide what to do. Ever since the United Nations had voted to partition Palestine in 1947, Arab forces had been on the attack and survival was far from certain.
“He had a war before he had a state. This is very uncommon among nations,” he said. There was heavy pressure to not declare a Jewish state, with many observers cautioning that the Arabs would destroy it in short order. U.S. Gen. George Marshall asked the Jewish community to hold off on the decision for three months.
“Three days before the Declaration of Independence, it was not sure if a state would be declared,” Ben-Gurion said of the deliberations his grandfather presided over. “Ten of the 30 people making the decision wanted to go with Marshall.” When David Ben-Gurion asked his generals the odds of withstanding the attacks, they responded, “50/50.” One percent of the Jewish population died in the war, but Israel would be established, survive and flourish.
Being the grandson of an intellectual and political powerhouse who lived and breathed the Jewish state was complicated. “How was he as a saba (grandfather)?” Ben-Gurion asked rhetorically. “When he was building a country, you were not the first thing on his mind. He was my saba, but he belonged to the people.”
He recalled how when he was 12 his grandfather asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and he asked for a book on the Roman Empire. The elder Ben-Gurion approved. He often read two books a day and learned many languages — Greek for philosophy, Spanish for Don Quixote, Turkish to deal with the Ottomans — so he could read things as originally written. The next day Alon received a box with a dozen books about the Roman Empire.
Alon told about when his grandmother, Paula, sent a picture of David to her parents. They asked why she wanted to marry him, saying he was short, ugly and had no hair. “He has potential,” she told them.
Alon told about Paula, a feisty woman, visiting a hospital when one of the staff told the nurses, “Take good care of the patients and you may marry a prime minister.” Paula looked at her, noting, “I didn’t marry a prime minister; I made a prime minister.”
Prior to his talk, Karen Freedland-Berger of West Bloomfield and Andy Goldberg of Bloomfield Hills, co-presidents of the Michigan JNF Board, spoke about the reinvigoration of the JNF locally and the important work being done in Israel. Dr. Hershel and Dorothy Sandberg of Bloomfield Hills were inducted into JNF’s Century Council, and Judy Robins of West Bloomfield received her Sapphire Society Pin for a gift creating a nursery that also serves as a bomb shelter in Halutza, a city in the northwest Negev.