Usually country’s founding myths are just that — myths — and the personalities of the people who founded them — assuming they were real people in the first place, which is a major assumption — are so wreathed in gauze and romance that they are barely recognizable as human.
Even the American founding fathers, who flourished a mere three and half or so centuries ago, come accompanied by stories. Yes, you can look behind George Washington’s cherry tree and Benjamin Franklin’s proverbs and kites and Thomas Jefferson’s polymathic competence at just about everything — real warts-and-all histories exist — but most of the time we don’t bother to do that.
And then there’s Israel. There are those first few generations of absolutely real people, who acted in ways that were both selfless and noble and also recognizably human. Abba Eban. Golda Meir. Menachem Begin.
Ben-Gurion was Israel’s first prime minister; he oversaw the creation of this new country out of the trauma of the Holocaust and the complicated sophistication of the British and the realities of the postwar Middle East and the overwhelming millennia-long love and connection of the scattered Jews for their biblical homeland.
He also was a very real person, born in Poland, an ardent Zionist, an overwhelmingly brilliant, well-read, well educated, and to some extent self-educated (in that he was so intellectually agile that it was easier for him to teach himself than to wait for a teacher to catch up with him). He was kind, pragmatic, a politician, a unifier, a husband, a father, a grandfather.
That all sounds good, but how do we know that any of that is true? Just from hagiographies? No. Not only did he live and die within living memory, not only do we have the first-hand reminiscences of people who knew him, some of whom are still alive, but we also have evidence on film.
In 1968, a group of filmmakers went to Sde Boker, where the recently widowed Ben-Gurion had retired — it was an out-of-the-way place, and there he could be “just David,” he said — and shot six hours of interviews with him. The film they’d planned went nowhere, and the footage they’d made went missing. A few years ago, another group of filmmakers hunted it down. They found the video in Steven Spielberg’s Jerusalem archive. But because in 1968 audio and video still were kept on different media, the audio part was lost. Eventually it was found — it had been in the archive at Sde Boker all along — and technicians began the painstaking job of pairing the video and audio. The 70-minute result, “Ben-Gurion Epilogue,” was shown at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last year. This year, it will be screened in Teaneck. (See below.)
Yefet Ozery, the senior philanthropic advisor to the American Associates of Ben Gurion University, plans to speak after the film is shown. His connection with Ben-Gurion goes far beyond the fact that he works at the university that bears the prime minister’s name (although Mr. Ozery is passionate about the university’s work and its mission).
When he was in high school, Mr. Ozery corresponded with Ben-Gurion, and as a result of that correspondence he met the prime minister and presented him to his school. But his tie to Ben-Gurion is even deeper and more existential than that.
Mr. Ozery was born in July 1949, the last child to begin his life in Gadef, a small village in Yemen. Had it not been for David Ben-Gurion, it is highly unlikely that he would have grown up in Israel, and his life would have been much harder, and most likely much shorter as well.
Here’s the story.
In 1949, when Mr. Ozery, his parents’ second child, was four months old, his 20-year-old father and a friend loaded up their donkeys and went to market. “Yemen was a very backward country,” Mr. Ozery said. “We didn’t have news. We didn’t know what an airplane was. If you went to a big city, you’d see a car, but very few people went to a big city.” So, donkeys.
The village — “all Jewish, in very close proximity to an all Arab village, made up of about 40 Jewish families, all intermarried with each other because they were disconnected from any other Jewish community so everyone was related to everyone” — was supported by weaving. The market town was “the big city of Taiz, which my grandmother said was about half a day’s donkey ride away.” (His father died young, Mr. Ozery said, so most of his stories about Yemen come from his mother, Sarah, and his grandmother, Shadra, who was “the smartest person I ever met.”)
Once on the road, the two men — Mr. Ozery’s father’s name was Nissim, appropriately enough, because the name means “miracles” — met a stranger, also on donkeyback. That man was an Ashkenazi Jew. “He didn’t look Jewish, but he said ‘Shalom aleichem’ to them. They just looked at him, startled. They said ‘Who are you?’ and he said ‘I am a shaliach’ — a messenger — ‘from Eretz Yisrael.’” From Israel, a state of whose existence they had not heard, although it was the land where they believed someday their descendants would visit. “They said ‘You don’t look Jewish.’ But the shaliach started reciting the Shema, and by the end of the first paragraph they said ‘We believe you.’”
The three men were able to talk to each other because Yemini Jews still spoke biblical Hebrew as a living language.
“The shaliach said ‘You should go back to our homeland.’
“‘Look,’ he told them. ‘We have our own state now. We have a leader whose name is David’” — Ben-Gurion — “‘and another leader whose name is Moshe.’” That was Moshe Sharett, who followed Ben-Gurion as prime minister.
“They asked ‘How would we get there?’ and he said ‘The airplanes would be waiting for you in Aden,’” a British-controlled Yemini seaport about a two-week donkey ride away. “So they asked him ‘What is an airplane?’ and he took a piece of paper out of his pocket, and he drew on it, and they looked at it, and they said, ‘It looks like an eagle. That’s what God promised to send us to take us there.’” In Exodus 19, God talks about bringing the Israelites out of Egypt on eagles’ wings, and the promise of the ingathering of the exiles on eagles’ wings echoes in Jewish dreams.
Back on the dusty road in Yemen, “The man pulled a loaf of bread out of his bag, and said, ‘This is what I brought you. So take it back to the village and show them and tell them.’
“So my father and his friend turned around and went back to the village, and they told the rabbi. And the rabbi said to assemble everyone in the synagogue. They said Hallel,” the service of gratitude and thanksgiving that’s said on holidays, “and they said Shehecheyanu,” the blessing for new things, “and then the rabbi told everybody to be ready to move in five days.
“And in five days they left. They rode their donkeys to Aden.
“I asked my grandmother if they were able to sell any property, to have anything to bring with you, and she said the Arabs wouldn’t buy anything from us because they knew we were leaving and would leave everything behind. So we left everything behind.
“So we went to Aden, and the JDC and the Jewish Agency took good care of them, and they prayed that God would send the eagles.”
And then soon the planes came for them, and they went to Israel.
That was the airlift sometimes known as Operation Flying Carpet, but known to the people who it brought to their new lives as On Wings of Eagles.
“I asked my grandmother if they really thought the planes were eagles, and she said that they knew they weren’t really birds, ‘but we knew in our hearts for sure that this was what God meant.’
“And then the whole community was flown to Israel by Alaska Airlines.
“When I went to Alaska recently, I took Alaska Airlines,” Mr. Ozery added. “When I went to buy the ticket, the first thing I saw on its website was how they are very proud to have been involved.”
Mr. Ozery has wondered about the faith it must have taken to leave everything, on the word of an unseen stranger, and strike off in search of a new, better life. “I asked my grandmother how that happened. Why they went. Your son, who was young, came back and said now we have to change our lives. We have to leave everything behind and go. How did you trust him? You didn’t see the shaliach yourself.”
“They had no concerns,” he said that his grandmother told him. “No worries, despite the fact that it was dangerous to be on the road, particularly with babies.
“She told me, ‘I felt, we all felt in our hearts that this was the time for geulah.” Redemption.
“This is a story that many people told at the time,” Mr. Ozery said. “In Iraq. In Morocco. In one version or another. They were all told that the kingdom of David has come to life again, and now we are going back again.”
Eight hours after it took off, the plane landed, and the Yemini Jews began their new lives in Israel. They were not storybook lives, as lives tend not to be, but as hard as many of those lives were, as difficult as assimilation into Israeli culture proved to be, their lives were far better than what the Yemini Jews who remained experienced.
The connection between Operation On Eagles Wings and David Ben-Gurion was more than the way his first name echoed the name of Israel’s glamorous, glorious king, who will be the ancestor of the messiah. The airlift was done at Ben-Gurion’s insistence.
“There had been a big debate in Israel in 1949 about whether this newborn country could bring in hundreds of thousands, possibly a million, new immigrants from Arab countries,” Mr. Ozery said. “The debate was based on the fact that the country’s leaders, who were Ashkenazi, were worried that they would be bringing in people with no modern education and no material wealth. There would be nothing to help them become absorbed, and the worry was that they would become welfare cases.
“There were 650,000 Jews living in Israel when Ben-Gurion declared it to be an independent state. The notion was that 650,000 people could not absorb a million people from Yemen and Morocco and Iraq.
“Also, Holocaust refugees were — quite rightly — the country’s priority.
“But Ben-Gurion said no. He knocked on the table and said no. He said ‘We have to open our gates to every Jew we can bring in. This is in the ingathering of the exiles.’
“Under his leadership, the operation to rescue Yemini Jews was done by the JDC and the Jewish Agency. The operation was secret, but the king of Yemen was heavily bribed to keep at least one eye closed.”
Mr. Ozery’s family settled on a moshav near Jerusalem. “We wanted to be farmers,” he said. “Growing up, Ben-Gurion was the closest we could imagine to a messiah.”
When he was in high school, Mr. Ozery went to a boarding school in Jerusalem, Boyar, that was created as a result of Ben-Gurion’s work. “Ben-Gurion felt that the gap between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi Jews had to be closed, so he initiated the Society for the Advancement of Education, which then established boarding schools, and gave kids like me the opportunity.
“So I decided that I would write to him.
“Usually at that time it would take about a month for a letter to be delivered, but a week after I wrote to him I go to my room and I see on my bed an envelope with a Ben-Gurion stamp on it. I open it and I see that Ben-Gurion responded to me.”
Mr. Ozery got 12 hand-written letters from Ben-Gurion. The prime minister continued to care deeply about integrating Jews from around the world into one Israeli society; to that end, he said at one point that he’d like his chief of staff to be Yemini. Mr. Ozery told Ben-Gurion that he’d prefer to be a doctor, and Ben-Gurion wrote back saying “that I do want a chief of staff of Yemini origin, but I suggest that you aspire to be a doctor because being a chief of staff is political. But as for now, please focus on your studies.”
Mr. Ozery wrote his apologies to Ben-Gurion for bothering him, and “he writes back to me that no, your letters are not a bother, they are a pleasure,” Mr. Ozery reported.
Mr. Ozery invited Ben-Gurion to visit his school, and Ben-Gurion unexpectedly took the student up on his offer. “In February 1966, he called the principal and said that a child in your school has invited me to visit, and the principal — I’m quoting him — said ‘I hung up on him. I thought someone was kidding me.’
“It was only after the second call that he believed him.
“Ben-Gurion asked ‘Is it okay if I visit this afternoon?’ and they said to call me to make sure I was in school. He came to my room and then we went to the school, and I introduced him to the school and the school to him. He didn’t give us a lecture; he just said a few words about his belief in education and told us that we were the future leaders of the country. And then he asked us questions.
“He asked us what we thought would best secure the country’s future. People said that it would be a strong army or a strong economy, and he said no. Those were important things, he agreed, but the two most important were science and education, and the other was being moral. We are an am segula,” a treasured nation. “If we are not an example in terms of our social justice and our egalitarian system, which gives everyone the opportunity to have their basic needs met, if we are not guided by values of justice and honesty, then there is no future for our state.
“He was the kind of leader that I think everyone who cares about the state of Israel wishes we could have. A new Ben-Gurion.”
Mr. Ozery went on to the IDF, where he reached the rank of captain — “I didn’t become chief of staff,” he said — and fought with the armored forces in the Yom Kippur war. He earned an undergraduate degree and a masters in public administration at the Hebrew University, became a Jewish Agency shaliach in St. Paul, Detroit, and London, and then began his work in nonprofits. He and his wife, Kathy, an American who made aliyah, are the parents of two children and have two grandchildren. They live part-time in Michigan and part-time in Moshav Givat Yearim.
Mr. Ozery is passionate about Ben-Gurion University, which he thinks carries on its namesake’s farsighted work in science. “He believed in developing the Negev,” the southern desert where the university is housed, he said. “It was prophetic. Most people thought that the Negev was too arid, that you cannot build significant settlements or have agriculture there. Today, thanks to Ben-Gurion, Beer Sheva,” the city where the school has its headquarters, “is a powerful engine for the development of the Negev.” The work on water conservation going on there already has proven to be an important tool to confront the world’s worsening water shortage. The school, Mr. Ozery thinks, is a fitting memorial to the man whose name it carries.
So, “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue.” “It shows Ben-Gurion as a very down-to-earth person, a private citizen, no longer prime minister, working in the barn, attending to the sheep and lambs.
“He was unassuming, and talking very candidly about his thoughts, looking at the Zionist experiment that he had a major role in shaping; reflecting on what was good and what went wrong, and also talking about the future.
“I have seen the film many times, most recently at a meeting of the board of governors of Ben-Gurion University, with about 200 people from around the world, from the United States and Europe and Australia. People came out of the film with tears in their eyes, with longing for the kind of leadership that he offered the State of Israel.
“I am not taking any political sides, but people are longing for this type of leader, who doesn’t wait for opinion polls and then shapes his words and actions, but who rather has a vision of what is good for the country and the people and makes that his primary agenda.
“What also was unique about him was his simplicity. He didn’t live in a penthouse in Tel Aviv. There is now talk of building a prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, a tower that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. He would not have wanted that.
“He insisted on a one-bedroom house with an office on the side in Sde Boker, and in his will he asked to have it kept as it was, so now it is a museum.
“You go there and look at what leadership looked like then, and you come out longing for the kind of leadership that he offered,” Mr. Ozery said.
Who: Yefet Ozery, senior philanthropic advisor to the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University
What: Will speak at a screening of “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue”
When: On Sunday, October 14, at 8 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Avenue, Teaneck; the film is a joint presentation by Rinat and Congregation Beth Aaron, also in Teaneck.
How much: It’s free and open to the community.