Ben-Gurion the Archivist
In 1950, the State of Israel was only two years old and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, was facing monumental, existential challenges. The fledgling state was still imperiled by enemies, a struggling economy, and even food security. Yet Ben-Gurion, widely acknowledged by historians for his prescience as well as his ability to seize historic opportunities, locked in on one particular idea while vacationing in Tiberias: preserving Jewish manuscripts. In Ben-Gurion’s own words,
Our first duty is to save Hebrew literature. There are thousands of Hebrew manuscripts lying idle in various libraries. Many of them have vanished in the darkness of the past or have been destroyed by the wrath of oppressors…It is the duty of the State of Israel to acquire and gather those exiles of the spirit of Israel dispersed in the Diaspora. 
Thus began Ben-Gurion’s ambitious project: to establish an Institute of Manuscripts in order to microfilm and catalog every single Hebrew manuscript in existence. The Prime Minister, who had also served as Defense Minister, had already created the military archive two years prior. In this same letter to his Finance Minister, Ben-Gurion requested an allocation of £50,000 for the project, “without delay.” Ben-Gurion, whose own home was crammed with books, and who would set out to write a history of Israel upon his retirement, had made a decision that was rooted in philosophy. In his studies of military history, Ben-Gurion noted, “decisive and constant victory is that of spiritual power.” According to Ben-Gurion, the source of spiritual power for the Jewish people in their new country would be their ancient literature. Once returned home to its roots, these manuscripts would provide the spiritual sustenance needed to overcome the very material challenges the Jewish people now faced, and serve as the nucleus from which to study and preserve the corpus of Hebrew literature.
Ben-Gurion’s project was also the natural continuation of Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein’s dream of the founding of a Jewish university in Jerusalem. Indeed, the microfilm project was a partnership between the state and the Hebrew University. In 1925, at the inauguration of the Hebrew University, Weizmann (who would serve as the country’s first President), acknowledged the asymmetry of a country with existential issues establishing a university:
It seems at first sight paradoxical that in a land with so sparse a population, in a land where everything still remains to be done, in a land crying out for such simple things as ploughs, roads and harbors, we should be creating a center of spiritual and intellectual development. But it is no paradox, for those who know the soul of the Jew. It is true that great social and political problems still face us and will demand their solution. We Jews know that when the mind is given fullest play, when we have a center for the development of Jewish consciousness, then coincidentally, we shall attain the fulfillment of our material needs.
Ben-Gurion, who spent many days at the New York Public Library between 1915 and 1917, where he met his wife, Paula, also understood the importance of enabling Jews to access the world’s cultures and literature. “Everything human is not foreign to us–and everything human must be provided for us in our language,” the Prime Minister asserted, as he took the first steps to launch the Hebrew series Masterworks of World Literature. Ben-Gurion, perhaps uncharacteristically, let the series committee decide which works of literature to translate into Hebrew, though he did request that they include a particular passion of his: Indian philosophy.
Ben-Gurion’s prescience and ideals concerning making far-flung Hebrew manuscripts accessible is today echoed in the near-universal effort of digitizing manuscripts for the public. The result of Ben-Gurion’s vision of making Jewish materials from all over the world available to anyone, anywhere, can be seen in the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv website, where many of the Hebrew manuscripts are on view.
- For more on Ben-Gurion’s ideas about the relationship between the Hebrew language and the modern state of Israel, see Anita Shapira, Ben-Gurion, Father of Modern Israel, pp. 182-183