Kibbutz Sde Boker – the Field of the Herdsman –, located in the Negev nineteen kilometers south of the small city of Yeroham, was established on May 15th, 1952 by some veteran of the resistance movements against the British. It became famous the day David Ben Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel and the leader of its first government decided to settle there with his wife, Paula, to promote the colonization of the desert.

Ben Gurion, ex Green, was born in 1886 in Plonsk, Poland, which was under Russian domination. His father was a member of Hoveivei Zion – the Lover of Zion –, which, even before the appearance of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, advocated the return of the Jews to Israel. Ben Gurion was twenty years old when he disembarked in Palestine where he began working in the agricultural settlements of Petah Tikva and Rishon le-Zion. He then went to the Galilee with the intention of “redeeming the rocky ground”: the localities where he stopped over – Sejera, Ilanya, Kinneret, Milhamia… - would become as such landmarks in the history of the Jewish colonization of this region. Ben Gurion and his companions worked the land that had been abandoned for centuries, placing their salvation and that of their people in this hard labor of “reclaiming the land.” More particularly, they created an organization of guardians – the Hashomer – to assure the safety of the Jewish localities assaulted by the bands of Arabs.

An enthusiastic Socialist, Ben Gurion was actively engaged in the activities of the Poalei Zion and together with Isaac Ben Zvi, directed the organization’s newspaper in which he expounded his ideas. In 1911, he and a number of militants of the workers’ movement enrolled in a Turkish university where they intended to establish contacts with the circles of the Young Turks who had just come to power in Istanbul. When the First World War broke out, he, at first, supported loyalty to the Turks. But the latter will accuse him of conspiracy in order to establish a Jewish state in Palestine and will exile him to Egypt. From there, he will go to New York where he worked for the expansion of the pioneer movement of he-Halutz. Soon after the Balfour Declaration (1917), which advocated the creation of a national Jewish home in Palestine, Ben Gurion decided to join the ranks of the Jewish Legion created within the framework of the British Army. He had previously married his companion, Paula, with whom he maintained and would continue to maintain correspondence that restored the loving and at the same time stormy bonds that joined them.

A letter to Paula
The following letter, dated May 15th, 1919 is also addressed to their daughter, Geula:

A letter to Paula

Dear Paula, dear Geula,
I am writing to you from one of the new localities – moshavot – located some distance from Yaffo where I have managed to escape for a few days. The long and endless meetings in this city, the assemblies and the conferences did not leave me with more than an instant to myself. And as I must write a series of articles for a collective piece, I had to find a calm place to carry out this task without being disturbed.

Upon rereading your letters, I envision your two faces traced on the paper and my heart overflows with love and sinks with nostalgia. I don’t know what is happening to me; I have never known such confusion. Am I in the process of discovering a new weakness? Do you remember the short moments that we would spend together in the morning when setting aside my duties, I would come to look for you? You were often sleeping after a sleepless night of work and I would wake you up with a kiss or a caress on your naked arm and your eyes would not cease to implore me to stay a little bit longer. More than your eyes, my heart also cried out to me to stay and we would count the minutes that would pass so quickly. What joy and what happiness! What I wouldn’t give at this moment, my dear Paula, to experience similar moments, a short second and a furtive glimpse of you! I love you like a young adolescent, a mad first love, seeking your lips, looking for your hands, wanting nothing more than to hold you tightly against me, to take you in my arms, to go to your bed, to lean on you, to press myself on you and loose myself in your arms, forgetting everything that is not you, like then, and to know the happiness in the intimacy of your love – together, arm in arm, blending our voices, heart to heart, in your bed of youth that was sacred to me.

Our love will have taken hold so suddenly, falling in love with each other so quickly and the time that we spent together will have been so brief, leaving each other so soon to live separated from each other longer than we had lived together, thatthe same fire burns in my heart, the same love. No, not the same love, Paula, but a more profound love, stronger, more ardent and more sacred! My love for you, for my dear, dear little girl, my dear, dear wife, my dear mother. My dear, dear love, my one and only Paula, my dear, my unique, my unparalleled Paula. I miss you so and my heart overflows with so much love! When will I be able to shower you with my love? When will we meet again?

Dear Paula, you reproach me for not writing often enough. I unfortunately do not find the time to do so. Bu if you knew how much I write to you without ink or paper, how full my head and my heart are of you! If only you could read my thoughts, read from far what I think and what I feel, you would not have enough whole days, you would no longer sleep throughout the nights, so numerous are my non-written letters to you. From where does so much love, so much yearning, come? Do they come to me from you? Do they come to me from our Geula – that remarkable grace and that extraordinary happiness that you have bestowed upon me. Rather from the two of you, together, my loves. How beautiful must our love be to have born such fruit!

Henceforth, I have but one desire: to bring you both, although it is a little difficult for me to consider you and the baby as two separate beings since I considered you more like a single being, and, moreover, a part of my being, my heart and my soul.

Unfortunately, I do not know when that will be possible. My present status is far from clear. I am still in the army. It is possible that before long – it has not yet been decided – we will be released and we will be able to be together again.


Yours always,
D. Ben Gurion, Letters to Paula

After the war, Ben Gurion founded a new party, the Achdut ha-Avodah (the Labor Union) and in 1920, a trade union – the Histadrut – that was to become one of the instruments of the Jewish settlement of Palestine. In the thirties, he led a campaign against the Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, the opponents of the Socialist stream within the Zionist movement. The labor parties, united under his leadership were, moreover, to secure control of the Zionist Organization and of the Jewish Agency. As president of the second institution, Ben Gurion will in fact assume the leadership of the Jewish community of Palestine – the yishuv – from 1935 to 1948. In 1939, he will propel the wave of protests that the publication of the White Paper that limited Jewish immigration to Palestine by the English will receive, nevertheless, resigning himself to collaborating with them throughout the Second World War. He declared: “We must support the British in this war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war.” After the war, he resumed the fight against the English, encouraging illegal immigration and giving the green light to sabotage their operations.

The Scroll of Independence

During the years preceding the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben Gurion worked hard to set up the military apparatus that was to assure the defense of the yishuv, hastening, in particular, the purchase of arms in the prospect of a war against the Arabs. And on May 14th, 1948 he insisted on proclaiming the independence of the State of Israel in spite of the wavering of his colleagues, the leaders of the yishuv, and of numerous sources of international pressure. During a solemn ceremony, Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel with a quavering voice pierced by an emotion nourished by two thousand years of exile and hope. This declaration will form the constitutional charter of Israel:

The Scroll of Independence


The Land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People. Here their spiritual, religious and national character was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of both national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world.

Exiled from Palestine, the Jewish People remained faithful to it in all the countries of their dispersion, never ceasing to pray and hope for their return and the restoration of their national freedom

Impelled by this historic association, Jews strove throughout the centuries to go back to the land of their fathers and regain their Statehood. In recent decades, they returned in their masses. They reclaimed the wilderness, revived their language, built cities and villages, and established a vigorous and ever-growing community its own economic and cultural life. They sought peace yet were prepared to defend themselves. They brought the blessings to all the inhabitants of the country.

In the year 1897, the First Zionist Congress, inspired by Theodore Herzl’s vision of the Jewish State, proclaimed the right of the Jewish People to national revival in their own country.

This right was acknowledged by the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 and reaffirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations, which gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection of the Jewish People with Palestine and their right to reconstruct their national home.


The survivors of the Shoah [perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe], as well as like the Jews from other lands, proclaiming their right to a life of dignity, freedom and labor, and undeterred by hazards, hardships and obstacles, have tried increasingly to enter Palestine.


It is, moreover, the most natural, self-evident right of the Jewish People to be a nation like other nations in its own sovereign state.

Accordingly, we, the members of the National Council, representing the Jewish People in Palestine and the Zionist movement of the world met together in solemn assembly today, the day of the termination of the British Mandate for Palestine, and by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish People and of the resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called the “State of Israel”.


The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion and will promote the development of the country for the benefit its inhabitants. It will be founded on the principles of liberty, justice and peace taught by the prophets of Israel. It will guarantee the fullest equality to all its citizens without discrimination on the basis of religion, race or gender. It will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture. It will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and holy places of all religions and will respect the principles of the United Nations’ Charter.


We extend our hand in friendship, peace and good neighborliness to all the neighboring states and to their peoples. We invite them to cooperate with the sovereign Jewish nation for the common good of all. The State of Israel is prepared to contribute to the peaceful progress and development of the entire Middle East.

We call out to the Jewish People throughout the world to rally to our side in the endeavor of immigration and the development of the country and to assist us in the great struggle in which we are engaged to realize the dream cherished from generation to generation: The Redemption of Israel.

With faith in the Eternal, the Omni-Potent, we sign this declaration on the ground of our homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, during this session of the Provisional Assembly of the State, held on the eve of Shabbath, the 5th of Iyar 5708, the 14th of May, 1948.

The return to the desert [ëåúøú îùðä]
Ben Gurion filled the positions of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense in the provisional government of the State of Israel as well as in the government that he formed the day after the first legislative elections. In 1953, he decided to leave politics to settle in Sde Boker, inviting his citizens to settle down to the task of reclaiming the desert. He recounts the circumstances of his decision in a passage of his memoirs where he emphasizes the importance that the settlement of the Negev would assume for the revival of the Jewish civilization in Palestine, the desert representing the setting where the Hebrew nation is born and where it can recover its gifts and its original virtues:

The return to the desert

One day, when I had occasion to drive to Eilat on official business as Prime Minister, I told the driver to leave the main road onto a dirt path in the desert. I wanted to break away from my busy schedule and to take a few moments to plunge myself into the vast stretches of the desert, to renew myself by experiencing the awesome effect of these open spaces, which will never be diminished in my eyes, with their double message of the insignificance of man in an infinite universe and about the hope that animates him.

We drove along the path for some time and suddenly we saw a gathering of people and a few wooden shacks before us. We stopped and I descended the embankment to inquire about the young people there: “What are you doing here?” They said that in their own manner, they were leading a battle for the independence of Israel by reclaiming the desert. As that was what I had been urging the Jews to do since I had entered politics, I did not hide the pleasure that this reply gave me…

I had always regretted having abandoned the life of the pioneers even if it was for the sake of representing their interests within the current Jewish political movement. But I always knew that one day or another, I would try to return to their way of life that I considered to be the most satisfying to a Jew. These young people had discovered by themselves what I had tried to communicate to our people: that the Negev was our path and our future, that the fight for true independence had only just begun and that it could only be won in the desert. So I proposed to them: “May I join you?” They were flabbergasted but made no objection. This is how I finally took a leave of absence from the government to settle in Sde Boker in 1953.

My first days at the kibbutz were especially difficult. My physical condition left much to be desired. But I was determined to dissuade my comrades from according me special treatment. For this, I had to keep pace with the best of them. During those first weeks, I was exhausted and how I struggled with myself to hide it!

The kibbutz practiced the rotation of duties. A list of duties with the names of the persons scheduled to do them was pinned on the notice board. The first time that I looked at it, I discovered that they had assigned Mr. Ben Gurion to sheep shearing while the first names of everyone else appeared on the list. I immediately went to see those responsible to declare that it was not Mr. Ben Gurion who had joined the kibbutz but rather David, simply David. And from that day forward, I did not cease to check the notice board to find out what David was to do.

My attitude, moreover, prompted the foreman to test me by assigning the heaviest and most difficult, irksome tasks. I concealed from him that I had guessed his intentions. In a word, I drew the greatest satisfaction from my scheme, for myself and for others, which I had not experienced in years. To me, the life of the settler represented happiness. To be at peace with oneself and to struggle to accomplish a task related to nature in which one believes, what more can you wish for in life?! Within a few weeks, I became so tough that I felt capable of enduring everything. It was then that I felt totally integrated in the group and that too was very gratifying. Working with young people preserves youth and guarantees that of one’s ideas. It brought me great pleasure to listen to the opinions of my young comrades and to discuss with them…

Each man must look within himself for his reason for living. For example, now that I am old, I am increasingly confronted with the prospect of death. Some time ago, a young man asked me if I was afraid to die. I resorted to the Talmud method that consists of replying to a question with another question: “What does it matter if I am afraid or not? I know that I must one day die, why then be afraid?” But I still have much to live for and that is what I have always lived for: my work. The Negev has given me the time and the perspective to reexamine the renaissance of modern Israel whose entire history has yet to be reconstructed by anyone. The young generations must learn about the past, which nourishes our present, in order to better understand the future and to place it within a broader context of greater horizons. The book that I am currently working on and which will take me at least seven more years to complete, provided that I live that long, is intended to present Israel as a continuous chain. In truth, as viable as our nation is, it is not yet fully established. We are only beginning – a good beginning. But to begin is not enough…

Nowhere else in the country, not even in Jerusalem, does the continuity with the past have as much significance as here. My idea of the role of the desert in the establishment of Israel greatly resembles that of Abraham, which he offers in his vision of the Promised Land and of the life of his people. Abraham crossed the Euphrates, entered Canaan and turned towards the south. He only went to Egypt forced by the famine, returning quickly to Canaan. “Abraham planted a tamarisk in Beersheva and proclaimed the name of God, the Eternal”, declares Genesis 21: 33. These simple words link the supreme concept of God, which underlies Judaism, to the act of cultivating this barren land. In other words, Abraham consecrates this land to his people and in this way, we are simply following his tracks….

The Negev, moreover, offers a field of experiences to urban planners. We could easily settle five million people here. Yes, five million! And in spaciousness, comfort, calm and beauty. We would house in small localities to preserve and maintain their communal spirit; no more than ten or fifteen inhabitants per settlement… When the people will arrive, escaping Tel Aviv to settle in this place, we will no longer have to worry about the Egyptians or anyone else threatening to exterminate half of our population by shooting missiles on a single one of our cities.

We need Jews, natives of the United States, Rhodesia, Iraq, Russia or elsewhere. We wish to see them come to us to live freely and fully both as men and as Jews as nowhere else. They will have to work hard in order to create a new civilization, something completely new. We want them to settle in the desert to make something different out of it than what we have known up to now on earth that is better adapted to the environment and that will be a source of inspiration to all humanity…

The desert provides us with the best opportunity to begin again. This is a vital element of our renaissance in Israel. For it is in mastering nature that man learns to control himself. It is in this sense, more practical than mystic, that I define our Redemption on this land. Israel must continue to cultivate its nationality and to represent the Jewish people without renouncing its glorious past. It must earn this – which is no small task – a right that can only be acquired in the desert.

When I looked out my window today and saw a tree standing before me, the sight awoke in me a greater sense of beauty and personal satisfaction than all the forests that I have crossed in Switzerland and Scandinavia. For we planted each tree in this place and watered them with the water we provided at the cost of numerous efforts. Why does a mother love her children so? Because they are her creation. Why does the Jew feel an affinity with Israel? Because everything here must still be accomplished. It depends only on him to participate in this privileged act of creation. The trees at Sde Boker speak to me differently than do the trees planted elsewhere. Not only because I participated in their planting and in their maintenance, but also because they are a gift of man to nature and a gift of the Jews to the compost of their culture.


D. Ben Gurion, Memoirs

Two years later, Ben Gurion returned to the government as Minister of Defense. In 1955, the new elections brought him to the presidency of the Council. In October 1956, the Israeli army invaded the Sinai, which served as a terrorist base while the French and the English seized the Suez Canal that the Egyptians had threatened to nationalize. In March 1957, the evacuation of the Sinai is completed under pressure by the United States and the Soviet Union. During the following years, Ben Gurion will make many trips overseas in order to consolidate the international standing of his country. He will meet, among others, the German Chancellor, Adenauer, the French President, de Gaulle, and the American President, Kennedy. In June 1963, he again quit the government to retire in Sde Boker where he will devote himself to writing his memoirs and receiving the official guests of the Hebrew State wearing trousers and a khaki shirt with the simplicity and the humility that the desert imposes upon men. Ben Gurion resigned for good from the Israeli Parliament – the Knesset – in 1970 and died in 1974.

The waters of discord

The pavilion of the Old Man today houses a museum. It seems that everything there is exactly as he left them: a copy of Michelangelo’s’ Moses, official documents, personal papers and his books. His intellectual passion ranged from the Bible to Buddhism. He was very interested in philosophy, especially that of Spinoza, the philosopher who was excommunicated by the Synagogue because of his heretic theses and who would not cease to call for his reinstatement.

The tombs of David and Paula Ben Gurion, dug side by side, are located on the hill that overlooks the desert of Zin where Moses performed the miracle that consisted of drawing water from a rock:

The waters of discord


The children of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the desert of Zin in the first month and the people sojourned in Qadesh. Miriam died and was buried there. And there was no water there for the congregation and they assembled together against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses saying: “Would that we had died with our brothers before the Eternal! Why have your brought the congregation of the Eternal into the desert? So that our cattle and we should die here? And why have you brought us up out of Egypt and led us to this evil place? It is a place without seeds or figs, or vines or pomegranates or even water to drink!” Moses and Aaron withdrew from the multitude to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell face down and the glory of the Eternal appeared to them. And the Eternal spoke to Moses saying: “Take the rod and gather the assembly together, you and Aaron, your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to bring forth water: and you will bring forth water for them from the rock and give it to the congregation and their beasts to drink.“ Moses took the rod before the Eternal as He had commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock and said to them: “Now listen, you rebels! Will we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Moses lifted his hand, struck the rock twice with his rod and the water came forth abundantly and the community and the beasts drank. But the Eternal said to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not believe in Me and you did not sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meriva because the children of Israel quarreled with the Eternal and He was sanctified by them.


Numbers 20: 1 –13


Henceforth, this place of discord has become a meeting place and a place for research. Many institutions are consolidated at Sde Boker under the double sign of the desert and of the cultural heritage of Ben Gurion. An Arid Zones Research Institute is entrusted with promoting models for the development of the desert. The Ben Gurion Institute, which is charged with the study and the dissemination of his writings, offers visitors a multi-media program about the man and his work. The Environmental Center includes a college and a high school where the curriculum emphasizes a concern for the environment.

The Ein Avdat spring flows in a luxuriant canyon of steep rocks. Badgers, gazelles and all sorts of birds frequent this oasis. The site of Avdat shelters a Nabatean city that dates back to the 3rd or 4th century, which was probably the regional capital of Eboda or Oboda named after a king, probably Oboda II (30 – 9 B.C.). Located at the crossroads that join Petra in Trans-Jordan to Eilat and to Gaza, it controlled the passage of the caravans from India and Arabia. Conquered in 106 by the Roman Emperor Trajan, it lost importance when the road between Eilat and Damascus was laid out. Seized by the Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century, it recovered some of its importance and prosperity. Conquered by the Arabs in 634, it was to be gradually deserted until it was completely abandoned in the 10th century. Today, Avdat is one of the most interesting Nabatean sites in the Negev as much for its archeological ruins from the periods of the Nabateans (sepultures, houses, etc.), the Romans (a fortress) and the Byzantines (thermal baths, churches, a monastery, a baptistery, etc.) as for the reconstruction of the agricultural methods practiced in the desert of Antiquity.

David Ben Gurion

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