Ben-Gurion archives bloom in the desert &mdash and go online

Down a worn, dusty road in Sde Boker, nearly dead center in Israel’s Negev desert, lies the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism. It is literally the middle of nowhere, so quiet you can hear your heart beating in your ears. The building’s exterior is painted white and yellow, fading perfectly into the brown tones of the Negev.

It’s exactly how one imagines the desert-dwelling prime minister would have wanted it.

Inside the archives, there are no hospital bracelets, family photos or old report cards. Instead, a long set of filing cabinets is the centerpiece of the main archive room, and in the basement, metal bookshelves stacked with cardboard boxes line the walls.

The archives, which are part of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, hold more than 3 million documents, including all of David Ben-Gurion’s letters, speeches and articles about him — as well as one of the library’s greatest treasures, the former prime minister’s personal journals.

Even on his busiest days, Ben-Gurion was a diarist to rival Bob Graham. But he wasn’t always particularly effusive.

In one diary, made available for public viewing as a remarkably convincing copy, Ben-Gurion notes simply, “At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we declared independence.” It is the last entry on the last line of the last page.

The next diary elaborates further: “At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the state was established. Our fate is in the hands of the defense forces.”

Natan Aridan, a researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute and Archives, explains that the archive was set up by an act of the Knesset in 1976, three years after Ben-Gurion died. The goal was to commemorate Ben-Gurion’s memory and perpetuate his heritage through the institute.

“It’s not an archive just about Ben-Gurion,” Aridan asserts. He notes that not only was Ben-Gurion the first prime minister, he was also a leader in the Histadrut (Israel’s labor federation) and the Jewish Agency for Israel, as well as minister of defense.

“So if you want to learn about the history of the state of Israel, Ben-Gurion is a prerequisite. You cannot understand the state of Israeli without understanding it through Ben-Gurion.”

People come to the archives from all over the world and from all walks of life, Aridan says. Yet he is quick to point out one of the most innovative features of the Ben-Gurion archives: the fact that you don’t have to go to Sde Boker to view them.

So far, more than 500,000 pages from the archives have been scanned into computers and digitized via optical-character recognition software developed by a Tel Aviv company, which converts the image to searchable text.

The documents and their text are put online, and all it takes is a computer and Internet connection to have Ben-Gurion’s life at your fingertips.

The inspiration came from Tuvia Friling, former chief archivist of the state of Israel and the head of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute at the time the project began. “He realized and understood the importance of electronic media and archives,” Aridan says. Friling secured the initial funding and manpower to begin the scanning of documents.

Today, documents are scanned by trained archivists under the direction of archivists Hana Pinshow and Neli Oren and a number of student computer programmers. The archives can be accessed at


“You need to have people who can understand the materials,” Aridan says of the difficulty of scanning Ben-Gurion’s documents. “They have to be able to recognize Ben-Gurion’s handwriting, to understand who the letter is to, who the letter is from, to put it in some sort of context.”

The Internet-age gadgetry seems somewhat ironic for someone like Ben-Gurion, who resisted even bringing television to Israel (the first Israeli TV station wouldn’t come until 1966) because he thought it would dumb down the populous.

Other former prime ministers, including Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, have centers dedicated to their memories in Israel. But because of Ben-Gurion’s longevity in Israeli politics and the vast amount of information available on him, he is the only prime minister to receive such an elaborate setup, Aridan notes.

Aridan says that while the archive won’t necessarily reveal anything about the late Ben-Gurion that people don’t already know, it might benefit the current government to take a trip to the dusty desert to learn a little something about the past.

“It is important that people understand how decisions were made, the thought process that goes in — to know that there was policy,” he says, adding wryly, “unlike today.”

Rachel Freedenberg visited Israel in February on a media mission sponsored by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.