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Eminent historian delivers lecture about Israel’s founding father

Israel Prize winner Anita Shapira

Israel Prize winner Anita Shapira explored the life and political career of David Ben-Gurion in a recent keynote address inaugurating the new Israel Studies Lecture series.

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 theMiddle 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.

-By Greg St. Martin

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