Film Review: Ben-Gurion: Epilogue

Rediscovered 1968 interview with State of Israel founder David Ben-Gurion serves as the core of this portrait, which throws little light on the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict but stuns as a contrast to today’s shrill leaders.
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With so much continuing turmoil surrounding the Middle East problem, especially with Israel’s right-wing expansionist Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm, how refreshing to have this intimate profile of David Ben-Gurion, regarded as one of history’s greatest leaders. This doc, written and directed by Yariv Mozer, arose after long-lost audio accompanying the interview’s visuals were discovered. While Ben-Gurion here is very up-close and personal, archival material, including newsreel fragments and stills, creates context and broadens the picture.

Born in Poland in 1886 as David Grün, Ben-Gurion, 82 at the time of the interview in 1968 (he died in 1973), allowed this exchange for reasons unspecified with Dr. Clinton Bailey, a recent Jewish immigrant from America who had chosen to live near him at Sde Boker, a remote kibbutz in the desert near Israel’s southern tip that served as the subject’s longtime home. A Zionist of the mild kind, he oversaw the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and served at the top of its early government before “dropping out.”

Ben-Gurion comfortably comes across as a prototypal leftie socialist, even hippie, who, warm and socially inclined, could hobnob with the likes of Albert Einstein, Ray Charles, Burmese statesman U Nu, post-war German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

A serial dropout (from his Eastern European homeland and, in 1963, from government service with his sudden, unforced bolt back to a more quiet, solitary life) and an independent thinker, he belonged to no party, didn’t like big cities and was happy to live and remain in the remote desert. As a self-proclaimed fatalist, he’s inclined to go with the flow, but as an idealist, he’s a believer in Israel continuing as a democracy that can one day even be “an exemplary nation.” In the ’60s spirit, he was a “people power” person, saying it is people, not the single individual, who bring change.

While interviewer Bailey remains off-camera (the doc is mostly in English) and little is shared about him, it’s Ben-Gurion who appropriately comes alive with a gentle, thoughtful, forthcoming manner. A true pioneer and loner (he lost his beloved wife Paula only four months prior to the interview), he lives in his modest desert home with only a few bodyguards nearby.

As a willing interviewee, he talks personal matters: not fearing death (it wouldn’t change anything), missing his beloved wife (“I’m now only half a man”), being human (he admits to having made mistakes and gotten “drunk with our Sinai victory”) and observes that every human can be good and bad. He is a longtime passionate reader (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a favorite when he was very young) and prefers peace to expansionism. He has the highest regard for the prophet Jeremiah, but it’s Moses he dubs as “the greatest Jew.”

He cautions that “history is not moral,” a judgment no doubt emanating from his visits to all of the camps right after World war II. Also regarding the war, Ben-Gurion disputes notions that the Jews could have better defended themselves and believed Churchill blameless in the matter of the camps’ ongoing operations till war’s end.

As a Jew, his notion of turning to God is “thinking deeply about something.” He expresses his interest in Buddhism, but meditation he deems too “selfish.” He also owns up to controversies, including his acceptance of post-war German reparations for Germany’s crimes against humanity, a kind of monetary apology many Jews would not accept.

Archival material also reveals Ben-Gurion as a good negotiator (with Adenauer, Palestinian leaders, et al.), a revered statesman (Israel’s Knesset legislative body honored his 85th birthday with leaders Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan in attendance), a good sport (he’s seen in a headstand contest with Menuhin), and television-friendly as Edward R. Morrow interviews him and U Nu.

Ben-Gurion: Epilogueis being shown in theatres as a kind of companion piece to another doc, The Settlers, a superbly detailed, archival-rich examination of the tangled history and opposing sides surrounding the controversial and seemingly insoluble issue of the Jewish Israeli settlements that are blocking the path to peace.

As a look back, the Ben-Gurion doc has few answers to that problem. For instance, if the Jewish people deserve a homeland, why don’t the Palestinians? And, if at an early age kids are taught to share, why can’t adults? And why do greed and fear and nothing more continue to block the way? And if the Bible, far from any reasonable person’s idea of accurate history, says something, why must one believe it?

But this doc does something really powerful and probably unintended: It underscores a shocking contrast in who our leaders are and how they lead, making what we have today, especially in the U.S., all the more stinging.

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