On and Off the Beaten Track in … Sde Boker: The Graves of David and Paula Ben-Gurion

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imageDavid Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, loved the desert. His love went hand in hand with a firm belief that the future of the State of Israel was linked to bringing Jewish life to the Negev, the desert region in the south of the country. He believed strongly in the economic potential of the Negev and in its contribution to the prosperity of the State. He was also a kibbutznik, firmly entrenched in the socialist philosophy of the collective way of life.

Ben-Gurion’s passions for the desert and kibbutz way of life coalesced when he and his wife, Paula, applied for membership at Kibbutz Sde Boker (“fields of the cowboy”; in Hebrew, the word “boker” means cowboy), located in the heart of the Negev between Beer Sheva and Mitzpe Ramon. Even though he was prime minister at the time, this did not guarantee his being accepted; the outcome was in doubt until a vote was held at a kibbutz general meeting and a majority of the members decided to accept the couple.

Ben-Gurion’s view of the Negev is clearly expressed on the Sde Boker web site:

Ben-Gurion always linked his idealistic slogans to operational accomplishments; beliefs and their realization always went hand-in-hand. … He envisioned the Biblical dream of reclaiming the desert wasteland, and at the same time hoped to answer the national challenge of absorbing the huge influx of immigrants and dispersing the population throughout the country. Thus, for Ben-Gurion, the Negev became an issue of “Renew our days as of old” in both the personal and national sense (bgarchives.bgu.ac.il/moreshet/Zrif/EnglishHut.htm).

Ben-Gurion was elected prime minister and defense minister of Israel in 1949; he resigned from office in 1953 and was accepted as a member of the kibbutz. He was soon called back to office in 1955, and resigned again in 1963. Subsequently, he and Paula made their permanent home at Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Even in death, Ben-Gurion remained true to his love of the desert. Former prime ministers—including Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol and others—are buried in the special section of the Mount Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem reserved for heads of state. The only exceptions are the late Menachem Begin, who, by his own request, was interred on the Mount of Olives, and David Ben-Gurion. Both Paula, who died in 1968, and David Ben-Gurion, who died in 1973, are buried in Sde Boker.

If you are driving along Route 40 in the Negev, a stop at the gravesite of the Ben-Gurions is well worth it. The national park site is free and open all day. The site, chosen by Ben-Gurion himself, overlooks one of the most spectacular views in the Negev: Nahal Zin—the longest dry riverbed in the Israeli desert—and the Avdat Plain.

Nahal Zin is mentioned twice in the Torah: it was the Tribe of Judah’s southern border (Joshua 15:1) and was one of the main routes traversed by the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the desert (see Numbers 20:1; 27:14; 33:36; 34:3, 4). Looking out over the vast stretch of desert from the gravesite, you can begin to appreciate the challenges and travails the Jewish people faced with their leader, Moshe, during their long journey. You may also experience some of the awe that the desert inspired in this modern-day leader of the Jewish people who chose to live and be buried here more than 3,000 years later.

Once you’re in the area, visit Ben-Gurion’s home in nearby Kibbutz Sde Boker. The museum in the simple house beautifully depicts the story of the man and his accomplishments. An audiovisual presentation of Ben-Gurion’s life is also available. The desert home, which appears exactly as Ben-Gurion left it, features a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence; Ben-Gurion’s library of 5,000 books, reflecting the broad range of his interests, and the many gifts he received from individuals and organizations. World leaders who visited Ben-Gurion in his home were amazed to see the modest cabin in which he lived.

Whether or not you have time to see Ben-Gurion’s home, please pause at his and Paula’s graves to take special note of the inscriptions on the stones. Each stone, very simple in style, records only the individual’s name, date of birth and death and date of aliyah to Israel. It is as if, with all of their accomplishments, the Ben-Gurions want to be remembered for making aliyah! Presumably, they took the most pride in the fact that they moved from their native Poland to Israel to help forge the history of the Jewish nation. And perhaps Ben-Gurion’s final wish was to make sure that one message continued to reverberate, even after his death. Jewish people: Come home!

Mr. Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011-972-2-671-3518 or at peter@keshetisrael.co.il.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2008.

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