By Bradley Levin
This originally appeared in the Simon Wiesenthal Center newsletter via The Jerusalem Post. You can view it here.
One of Israel’s most well-known and influential founders will be coming back to life next spring, this time on the big screen.
“He was the man. Without him, had he not declared statehood, nobody knows what would’ve happened,” academy-award winner Rabbi Marvin Hier said of David Ben-Gurion. While sitting under the awnings of the historic King David Hotel on Thursday afternoon, Hier – who had just come from the Bahrain summit – divulged information on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s upcoming biographical documentary. The project traces the fascinating life of Israel’s legendary founder and will reveal facts and footage that have never been seen before.
Almost four years ago, Richard Trank – The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s academy-award winning director and executive producer – began work on the film. But he and his team took a break from the Ben-Gurion project when they were approached by the Peres Center for Peace, which asked if they would work on a film about Peres’s life. When Peres passed away during production, “it changed the entire landscape of the piece,” according to Trank; he worked on the film for another year until its completion. The Peres biographical documentary Never Stop Dreaming, narrated by George Clooney, is set to be released very soon in theaters worldwide.
Trank, Hier and the rest of The Simon Wiesenthal Center have since returned to working on the documentary about Ben-Gurion who, in many ways, can be seen as a “prophetic” figure.
“When Herzl died in 1904, Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to his friend… saying he felt that either God or nature had selected him to be the alter-ego of Theodor Herzl and to deliver the goods. Forty-four years later, he does exactly that,” Rabbi Hier explained. Ben-Gurion, who altered history by leading the effort to create the Jewish state, is undoubtedly a household name. However, not many people recognize how game-changing his actions were for every Jew born since the 1940’s. Ben-Gurion’s impact is what Trank hopes to get across in the film.
“People in the US know Ben-Gurion is an airport they fly into, they know a face with a crazy hairdo – but they don’t really know about this man: his perseverance and his vision, and how essential that was to the creation and building up of the state,” he said. According to Trank, the film will reveal Ben-Gurion’s incredible foresight, modest lifestyle and self-educated learning style. “This was a man who was in many ways self-taught. He taught himself Greek, to read French, German, Yiddish; obviously Hebrew. The library this man had was unbelievable – everything from Jewish religious texts to Greek mythology; he just had an unbelievable breadth of knowledge.”
THE UPCOMING documentary could prove to be instrumental in educating American youth on Jewish history. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films division is known for its ability to recruit stars – such as George Clooney, Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman – to narrate the documentaries they produce. While Trank would not reveal who would narrate the Ben-Gurion film, he did say that the person was a “big, big name in Hollywood,” and that word would be out within the next few weeks.
“The reason we do these films is for the younger generation today, because they don’t know that history [of the Jewish people],” Hier said. “And if someone doesn’t tell them, then the people we need to be pro-Israel in the non-Jewish world also don’t know. They don’t know what a struggle it was or [how right] the cause was… A young generation is born, they don’t know that history, and they are very easily attracted to short versions of that history. We don’t believe the solution [to dealing with an increase in worldwide antisemitism] is just to yell; we believe part of the solution is to educate.”
Interestingly enough, none of the big Hollywood stars that have worked with The Simon Wiesenthal Center have ever accepted payment for their work. The center’s relationship with “A” class actors began when Frank Sinatra, one of its original board members, made an introduction between Rabbi Hier, Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Wells. The latter two narrated Genocide, the center’s academy award winning documentary on the plight of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
TRANK AND his team have been filming all across Israel. They were up North in Sejira, an agricultural settlement where Ben-Gurion lived; in the lower Galilee, at the original Carmel winery in Rishon Lezion, one of the first places where he worked; and out in Sde Boker in the Negev, his home where he retired. They have interviewed many noteworthy people, such as former prime minister Ehud Barak, and they still hope to interview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his travels, Trank has discovered more than he could have ever imagined about Ben-Gurion. The mythical figure encompassed so many of the qualities we see in historical world leaders. He took risks, stood strong for his beliefs and left no man behind.
“There was a lot of pressure to restrict immigration until they got the economy together,” Trank explained. “Ben-Gurion’s point of view was ‘no, we have to be the place where any Jew who wants to come here: The doors need to be open.’”
When asked how Ben-Gurion might view Israel in its state of affairs today, Trank responded: “Mixed. He would be incredibly proud of the advances – medical, scientific, hi-tech – that Israel has pioneered, because he was all about science. He would be blown away by the way Tel Aviv or Jerusalem looks today. [But] I think there would be a part of him that maybe wouldn’t be so happy about materialism, and the pervasiveness of the media. He would probably be happy to see the creature comforts people have now that they didn’t have then, but I also think he’d be disenchanted with the emphasis on the material and the elusiveness of peace. At the same time, he was a man that believed in a strong Israel.”
Without David Ben-Gurion, there would be no strong Israel. Israel would not be one of the world leaders in technology. Israel would not have one of the world’s strongest militaries. Israel might not even exist at all. Soon, the world will be able to watch and learn how one man created a powerhouse nation.
The documentary will also be released theatrically, as well as on all streaming platforms next spring.