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Eminent historian talks Israel’s founding father

Earlier this month, eminent Israeli historian Anita Shapira opened her lecture at Northeastern on Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion by describing what she called a “low-key ending to a turbulent life story.”

Shapira noted that the people of Israel, who were suffering from the Yom Kippur War, paid scant attention to Ben-Gurion’s passing in December 1973. She said Ben-Gurion had created a national mausoleum in Jerusalem for Israel’s leaders, but he chose instead to be buried atop a cliff overlooking the Negev desert. His grave, she said, is inscribed with only three facts: his date of birth, his date of death, and the year (1906) that he’d immigrated to Israel.

This seemed fitting for the humble leader who understood his historical importance but was a “man of simple manners” who dressed simply, lived modestly, and was accessible to everyone.

“No mention of his deeds on his gravestone was intended to say his name is sufficient, and the rest will be told in the history of Israel,” Shapira said.

Shapira, who won the prestigious Israel Prize in 2008, explores this history in her new biography, Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel, in which she examines the complex leader who would become the face of the new Jewish nation. It focuses particularly on the period immediately after which Ben-Gurion established the State of Israel in 1948, but also tells of his personal life and the factors that defined his political leadership.

In her campus lecture on Jan. 15, Shapira described her book and lengthy research on the Zionist leader who became Israel’s first prime minister. The event, which was held in the Alumni Center, served as the inaugural Israel Studies Lecture and was presented by the Jewish Studies Program and the Middle East Center with the Department of History and the International Affairs Program.

Shapira is a professor emerita in Jewish history and founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel. In her talk, she noted the man who would “take Jewish history by storm” was a leader who combined political wisdom with military daring. But she also emphasized that her book strived to depict a man whose greatness was complicated by his many shortcomings and faults.

During a Q-and-A, Shapira was asked about Ben-Gurion’s private life. In response, she said some of the most moving documents she encountered in her research were his diary entries during World War II expressing his deep emotions over the Holocaust. The leader rarely expressed his feelings openly in public, but Shapira acknowledged her fault in previously thinking that Ben-Gurion was not sensitive to the Holocaust.

“One cannot say what I and others have thought, that he did not pain over the Holocaust,” she said.

Northeastern professor Dov Waxman, a renowned scholar of Israeli politics and foreign policy and co-director of the university’s Middle East Center, introduced Shapira. He said Shapira has made a profound, long-lasting contribution to the field of Israel Studies, noting that she’s authored numerous books on Israel, the history of Zionism, and the Jewish community in Palestine. Her book, Israel: A History, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award.

Waxman noted that Israel Studies at Northeastern continues to expand, from academic courses to Dialogue of Civilizations programs to campus lectures. He said this new Israel Lecture Series is important because it will not only share the latest scholarship on this topic, but also “because this is a time when discussions of Israel on college campuses are often highly charged and polarized.”

“It is my hope personally that a lecture series like this one can help promote a more scholarly and more civilized discussion on college campuses,” Waxman said.

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