Monday, June 16, 2008

The Way Things Were Done Then

Corruption charges abounded even in Ben Gurion's day

By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondent

Allocating land to political organizations in contravention of
regulations. Using military funding for non-security projects. Raising funds from rich American Jews for a sitting prime minister. Exploiting the residents of poor areas.

These activities may sound like they were ripped from the headlines, but they are not new trends. Recent research by historian Dr. Zvi Zameret indicates that all this dubious behavior can be attributed to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and dates back to nearly 50 years ago, when he worked to found an educational institution in the heart of the Negev that became Midreshet Sde Boker, a collection of about two dozen research and educational centers.

Ben-Gurion decided to found such an institution in Sde Boker in 1954, while he was on a 15-month break from politics and living on Kibbutz Sde Boker. He chose a spot a few kilometers from the kibbutz and announced that this was where "our Oxford" would be built. Ben-Gurion got his close friends to help fulfill the dream.

The first step to establishing Midreshet Sde Boker was taken in January 1960, after Ben-Gurion was back in government, serving as premier and defense minister, according to Zameret, who published his findings in the latest issue of the history journal Et-Mol. The journal is published by the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, which Zameret heads.

Zameret said the head of the Prime Minister's Office at the time, Teddy Kollek, made sure that 3,000 dunams of Negev land would be transferred to the Negev Fund, which was made up of Ben-Gurion's political cronies, without being encumbered by any planning or legal procedures.

Kollek then started raising money to fund the new buildings for the institution. He received the first quarter of a million liras from the Rothschild family, but he needed a lot more. In a letter to the United Jewish Appeal, Kollek wrote that American Jews should get ready to give Ben-Gurion "a serious gift" - $1 million - for his upcoming 75th birthday. The construction began a short time later.

In October 1961, Ben-Gurion convened a meeting in his office in the Defense Ministry to find out what the holdup was. Shimon Peres, who was deputy defense minister at the time, said there was a money problem, because the treasury was refusing to hand over the funds to the Education Ministry. Ben-Gurion demanded that classes begin within three months, Zameret recounted.

To meet the time crunch, Defense Ministry funds were used to build the institution's initial infrastructure, and a base of the Gadna youth corps was set up there, according to Zameret.

Ben-Gurion's political opponents were worried that he was establishing an
ideological center of his own in the guise of an educational institution, and accused him of trying to hide the program's details. One argument was that a document connected with the institute was classified as top secret.

Reports of covert activity in connection with the institution reached the Knesset. In February 1962, an opposition MK asked Ben-Gurion: "As is known, [Labor forerunner] Mapai, with the assistance of American donors, established an educational-ideological college next to Sde Boker .... Is the report about the college's acquisition by the Defense Ministry for the purpose of establishing a Gadna base correct?" Ben-Gurion issued a denial.

In November 1962, the first educational institution at the site opened a field school. A year later, after Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister, an official cornerstone-laying ceremony took place. "Think of me as a nut or an idiot, but I dream of a kind of Hebrew Oxford in the Negev, a kind of Hebrew Yavneh ... that will be a place of spiritual creativity," Ben-Gurion said.

A high school was subsequently founded on the site, along with a dormitory and a teacher-training college. Fearing that there would not be enough students in the school, the Education Ministry transferred all the high-school students from the low-income towns of Mitzpeh Ramon and Yeruham to Sde Boker and did not allow those towns to operate their own high schools.

Zameret, who was the principal of the Sde Boker high school at the time, said his students had to travel about an hour to get to school.

The establishment of Midreshet Sde Boker was "a story of corruption," said Zameret. "They used the army, they allocated resources without permits and they lied in the Knesset."

All the same, he said, no one kept any of the money raised for the institution.

"Ben-Gurion wanted to make the Negev bloom," said Zameret. "And at the time, that goal was above everything."