David Ben-Gurion is the closest thing the nation of Israel has to a mythic founding father — I’m not counting Theodor Herzl, the early lion of Zionism, who died in 1904 — and though Ben-Gurion’s life is mostly a matter of public record, he remains an elusive, larger-than-life figure. Right up until his death, in 1973, he was the living embodiment of the romantic ideal of Israel, and in memory he still is, though the country itself has slipped far enough away from that ideal to look, in its fusion of might and compromise, like a shadow of a former dream.
The new documentary “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” offers a rare intimate look at what went on inside Ben-Gurion’s heart and mind. The film presents a recently unearthed interview with him, discovered in the Spielberg Archives, that was conducted in 1968, 20 years after he declared the establishment of the Jewish State and five years after he left the government, quite abruptly, to retire. (He had served as Israel’s first Prime Minister for 13 years, and was then its Minister of Defense.) Watching “Epilogue,” you think: What a difference half a century makes. The Israel Ben-Gurion talks about is more than a fading memory; it now seems a distant planet. Yet there are moments when he seems to look forward, with prophetic insight, at much of what has happened since. You get the feeling that he would have said, plainly and without ego (as was his way): I told you so.
At 82, Ben-Gurion is spry and quick-witted, and he looks as he always did — the short squat body and broad Polish-Jewish features, the bald head framed by a long white fringe that gives him the aura of a kibbutznik Yoda, with maybe a hint of a pre-industrial Norman Mailer. (That fringe was his aureole; it was also his brand.) Ben-Gurion came to Palestine right after the turn of the century, and he gravitated to the most arid section of the desert, where he wanted to farm, plant trees, fuse with the land. In retirement, just months after his wife’s death, he’s still living in Kibbutz Sde Boker, a compound of such spartan simplicity that the British film crew recording the interview built an elaborate set, all so that it would look like Ben-Gurion was seated in a study, surrounded by books. (He was, in fact, a voracious reader.) For a while, he reminisces about his early days there, when the Jewish settlers he encountered were scattered and peaceful and Zionism wasn’t about combat.
Then it’s 1948, when Ben-Gurion led the decision to fight Israel’s war of independence, even though the United States urged him to wait. He acknowledges that only with the world-shaking horror of the Holocaust as the wind at his back was there a full context for the creation of the Jewish State. But then he offers a troublesome thought: “I believed that we had a right to this country,” he says. “Not taking away from others, but recreating it.” For Ben-Gurion, the notion of “recreating” what would become Israel looms large. But when he utters the phrase “not taking away from others,” you realize, at that moment, that he’s either deluding the listener or deluding himself.
At the same time, he has a belief in Arab sovereignty that places him on a more enlightened page than those who’d begun to make the decisions about Israel’s destiny. The interview in “Epilogue” takes place just one year after the Six-Day War, in 1967, and following that paradigm-shifting military victory for Israel, Ben-Gurion says that he thinks it would behoove Israel to give most of the conquered territories back, in exchange for peace. But, of course, that was not to be. For 1967 marked the start of the religious “Land of Israel” settler movement — the penetration, at first rather ragtag, into occupied territories that, as led by the Rabbi Moshe Levenger, was an explicit violation of the Geneva Convention.
Most of the leaders of Israel believed Levenger and his followers to be unhinged, but they looked the other way, and so did Israel’s military protector, the United States. You can see all this in great detail in the extraordinary new Israeli documentary “The Settlers,” the first film not to portray the settler movement in dribs and drabs, but to take in the big picture of its 50-year, slow-motion metastasizing design. Ben-Gurion was one of the men who built Israel on the faith of the early Jewish settlers, yet what he offers in “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” is a piece of advice to the nation’s leaders that is tantamount to a survival warning: “You are not considering the future,” he states. “You are only considering the present.” The future, it’s now clear, was making other plans.
The David Ben-Gurion presented by “Epilogue” is courtly and windblown, a figure of history who looks like he was placed on earth to be chiseled into a marble bust, and he presents himself as a man of love and peace. He speaks of the effect that reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had on him as a boy, of his reverence for Buddhism, of his can’t-we-all-get-along ideals. Yet the most striking thing about the movie may be not what Ben-Gurion says but what he leaves unsaid: any sense that the Palestinian struggle exists on a level commensurate with that of the Jews who “recreated” Israel. They, of course, recreated Israel in their own image. But when they looked into their mirror of a nation, that doesn’t mean there weren’t others staring right back at them.