Since today is October 16, 2019, David Ben-Gurion’s birthday, we thought it only right to speak of how his visions for the Negev and Zionism impacts participants of Birthright Israel and how it plays out in our educational framework.
To begin, Birthright Israel is an opportunity to discover one’s Jewish roots in a place that has been the root of the Jewish story for 3000 years. And one cannot tell this 3000-year-old story without mentioning the idea of Zionism, a return of an indigenous nation to its homeland, and of course Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Essential to the Birthright Israel experience is taking part and exposing participants to the meaning of this return home, and how as a Diaspora Jew, no matter one’s beliefs, views, or denomination, the value of the land of Israel is integral to their personal Jewish story. This is why today, we’ll be diving into how the Negev is essential to this story, both the past, present, and future, and how it meets the educational requirement of a Zionist heritage site.
Understanding the Zionist narrative is a key educational element for each Birthright Israel group. The learning does not stem from merely visiting a Zionist heritage site, but from what insights are gained and how those insights add value to a participant’s personal Jewish journey. For example, participants may visit Sde Boker in the Negev, Ben-Gurion’s home.
David Ben-Gurion believed without the Negev, most specifically populating it, the State of Israel simply could not survive. The story goes that while he was on the road on the way back to the center of the country after a visit to Eilat, he saw a group of young pioneers building a new community, which was to become Kibbutz Sde Boker. Inspired by their vision and work, Ben-Gurion decided that such pioneering was key to the building of the new country, and if he did not follow these pioneers lead, how could he expect others in the country to.
So, he resigned as Prime Minister, left his home in Tel Aviv, and moved to Sde Boker to live out the Zionist idea of pioneering and building a country from the bottom up. While he was called back to be Prime Minister a year later, his permanent home remained Sde Boker until he died in 1973, where he is buried today with his wife, Paula.
Visiting Ben Gurion’s home and Sde Boker projects the importance of the Zionist story in the story of Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. It helps Birthright Israel participants conceptualize Jewishness in the context of a Jewish country as opposed to how many may identify Jewishly outside of Israel. But this insight of visiting the Negev, and most specifically Sde Boker, where one is exposed to Ben-Gurion’s personal example of Zionism as mentioned in the story above, embodies values that any Jew can relate to in today’s world.
When Birthright Israel participants visit Sde Boker, it is as if Ben-Gurion himself is speaking to them. Participants see the example he set by giving up his own ambitions and individual needs, like stepping down as Prime Minister, to set an example for the people of Israel. It demonstrates how, even in the craziness of life, it is important to commit to something bigger than oneself and how that gives us a greater personal meaning.
Even more so, Ben-Gurion’s move to the Negev shows the importance of taking Jewish destiny into your own hands. The Negev, over 55% of the landmass of the country, populated by less than 10% of the population, is vital for Israel’s security and economic future. A secure Israel means a secure Jewish future for all Jews, wherever they may live, for generations to come. Knowing that Israel, in all its amazingness and complexities, is there for Jews no matter where they are is key to the Zionist story, and recognizing the pioneering work of the Zionist movement before the establishment of the modern State of Israel through the achievements of the Start-Up Nation today, the story of the Jewish people, past and present, is a crucial insight gained by Birthright Israel participants.
The experience of Birthright Israel includes many aspects to touch on the fundamental values, narratives, and settings of the story of the Jewish people. But it is not so much in seeing the sites as it is for participants to gain insights into how their personal story fits into this larger picture. That is why every Birthright Israel participant travels to a Zionist heritage site while in Israel and why we, as educators of Jewish young adults believe these sites allow our participants to not only learn about Zionism but to appreciate the essence of the Jewish people’s determination to build their own destiny in their ancestral homeland. A visit to Sde Boker while on Birthright Israel is one small way this happens – a chance to bring young Jews together on personal journeys in the miracle that is Israel.