Strolling along the beach in Tel Aviv last December, I saw a funny statue of a man standing on his head. I also noticed several images of this man standing on his head on display in Tel Aviv art galleries in Neve Tsedek. Who is this man and why is he standing on his head?
The man is David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and one of the most influential people of the 20th century- according to Time Magazine. But why is he standing on his head? Ben-Gurion was known to have frequently exercised and practiced yoga at the front of his Tel Aviv house or at the beach. Suffering from lower back pain, he worked with Dr. Feldenkrais, who taught him, among other things, to do headstands. In 1957, he was photographed doing a headstand at the beach in Tel Aviv. The statue depicting this iconic image is now standing on the same space at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv.
Recognized as Israel’s founding father, Ben-Gurion led the struggle for an independent Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine. He formally proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, and was the first to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence. He led Israel during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and united the various Jewish militias into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). After the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion served as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. He stepped down from office in 1963, and completely retired from political life in 1970. Believing in the importance of developing the Negev Desert, Ben-Gurion joined Kibbutz Sdeh-Boker where he spent the rest of his life until he died on December 1, 1973. David and his wife Paula Ben-Gurion are buried at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute in the Negev.
Ben-Gurion’s decision to retire in the Negev was not surprising. He believed that the future of Israel lay in the Negev region, a desert area comprising a large proportion of the country. In a 1955 speech on “The Significance of the Negev” he expressed the following view:
It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel will be tested, and this will be a crucial test. Israel’s capacity for science and research will be tested in the Negev and it is incumbent upon our scientists and researchers to focus on new areas of research which residents of the North will have need of: research to desalinate seawater with inexpensive processes; to exploit solar energy which is so abundant in our country, and especially in the Negev; to use wind power to generate electric power; to prevent the wastage of scarce rain water which flows unused to the Mediterranean or to the Dead Sea; to build ponds across the length and breadth of the Negev for collecting precious rain water, to investigate the vegetation found in the Negev, despite its aridity….it is incumbent upon Israel’s scientists to reveal the secrets of nature that are unique to our land….
Inspired by this view, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) was established in 1969 to serve as “an engine for the development of Israel’s Negev region.”
In 1976, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) passed legislation to preserve Ben Gurion’s legacy. The David Ben-Gurion Law, 5737-1976 (Sefer HaHukim (Book of Laws [official gazette]) 5737 No. 831 p.10) designates the Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute (BGHI), and the Institute for Desert Research as institutions responsible for the preservation of Ben-Gurion’s legacy. (Id. § 2).
The law requires the BGHI to be located in Kibbutz Sdeh-Boker. In addition to an archive and a research center on location, the law provides for the preservation of Ben-Gurion’s hut, which served as his place of residence in the kibbutz, including his library as it existed at the time of his death. (Id. § 8). According to the BGHI website:
The Desert Home has been preserved to remain as it was upon Ben-Gurion’s passing in 1973. Gifts from various visitors and colleagues continue to decorate the home as they did during Ben-Gurion’s life—their display providing insight into the couple’s preferences and personalities. At the heart of the Desert Home sits Ben-Gurion’s study and part of his library. The 5,000 books that remain on his shelves reflect the first Prime Minister’s fields of interest: Judaism and the Tanach (Bible), philosophy, history, and geography, and the IDF and defense strategies. In this room, Ben-Gurion wrote the books and articles that paralleled his political activity, including his memoirs that were written mainly with Israel’s younger generation in mind.
On my last trip to Israel, I visited Ben-Gurion’s hut and was impressed by his modest accommodations (you can see a virtual tour of the hut at the BGHI website in Hebrew). To me, the most impressive aspect was his library, which was the largest room in the desert home. It featured books on a variety of topics as described above. It was also interesting to observe Ben-Gurion’s choice of other items on display in the hut, including depictions of biblical Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandi, and Berl Katznelson.
On my visit to the BGHI educational center in Kibbutz Sdeh-Boker, I learned that Ben-Gurion personally read and replied to letters he received from the public. For example, Ben-Gurion’s reply to the letter below from an 11 years old Israeli boy, reflects Ben-Gurion’s straightforward personality.
The Library of Congress has a sizable collection of items on or by David Ben-Gurion in a variety of languages. We invite you to browse the Library of Congress Online Catalog for relevant titles on different aspects of the man and his legacy.