Daniel Hillel, an Israeli soil scientist and geographer and author of over 20 books, has a seasonal faculty appointment at Columbia University. He spoke at Manhattan’s Congregation Ansche Chesed on the evening of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day.
As an oleh from the US in the early 1950s, Prof. Hillel was part of a group of ten young people who moved, entirely on their own initiative, to found Kibbutz Sdeh Boker in the middle of the Negev Desert. It was wild and dangerous: they suffered through a year of draught and a downpour that flooded their camp; two of the ten pioneers were killed by Arab raiders.
While still a barren site with a few tents and a ramshackle barn, they were visited one day, entirely by chance, by David Ben-Gurion, making an inspection tour of the South. Upon learning of their entirely apolitical and idealistic intent, Ben-Gurion temporarily resigned his job as prime minister (when he was replaced for about a year by Moshe Sharett) and joined them.
Daniel Hillel was given the daunting task of finding and supervising physical tasks suitable for the then 60-something political icon. He benefitted from visiting with Ben-Gurion every night to review his work assignment for the following day. These turned into long discussions about everything under the sun. Usually one-sided affairs with B-G lecturing his young supervisor, Daniel Hillel dared to reverse this pattern on one matter, and one only: he lobbied with Ben-Gurion to be more generous-minded toward the Arabs. These many years later, Prof. Hillel notes with satisfaction that after the 1967 Six Day War, B-G did indeed advise his successors, from his retirement abode at Sdeh Boker, to try to exit the newly conquered territories as quickly as possible.
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