December 13, 2018

Open to Interpretation

Three years ago, the BBC decided to make a television documentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1956 Sinai campaign, which pitted Israeli, British and French troops against the forces of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The filmmakers were soon stymied in their search for one top-secret document: the Protocol of Sevres, in which leaders of the three temporary allies coordinated their plans to seize the Suez Canal, five days before the actual attack on Oct. 29, 1956.

One copy of the protocol went to each of the three participating countries. The BBC first tried to get the British copy, but was told that the document had been burned almost as soon as it was signed. Next, the French said their copy had been “misplaced” and could not be found. Finally, the BBC researchers turned to the Ben-Gurion Archives, and, within hours, the staff produced a photocopy of the original protocol.

It was all in a day’s work for Tuvia Friling, director of the Ben-Gurion Research Center and Archives, located on the Sde Boker campus of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

At the archives’ core are David Ben-Gurion’s diaries, meticulously kept throughout the 60 years of his public career.

“Ben-Gurion was a historian’s dream,” Friling says of Israel’s first prime minister. He made notes on every meeting he ever held, however insignificant, chronicled his decisions and reactions, and even kept carbon copies of the huge number of letters he wrote.

At the time of his death, in 1973, Ben-Gurion left behind 750,000 papers. The center now houses 5 million documents, including holdings from foreign archives that bear on the history of the nascent Jewish state from 1917 to 1967, as well as on Israel’s relations with other countries and Diaspora communities.

The mass of material, largely computerized and partially accessible on the Internet in Hebrew and English, yields a fascinating picture of the man at the center of Israel’s creation.

For instance, on May 14, 1948, when Ben-Gurion declared Israel a sovereign nation, Jews cheered and danced in the streets of Tel Aviv. But the architect of independence recorded in his diary a profound sense of sadness. Ben-Gurion knew full well that the Arab states would invade Israel. Until the last minute, Washington was exerting pressure to postpone statehood. And his army chief of staff, Yigal Yadin, reported that Israel had only a 50-50 chance of survival.

“Ben-Gurion, better than anyone else, knew what a heavy price Israel would have to pay in the coming battles,” says Friling, 45, a historian and authority on Ben-Gurion’s still-controversial role in rescue efforts of European Jewry during the Holocaust.