The overly creased and still tender face of Shimon Peres looks like he has always been crying; he seems to carry centuries of Jewish suffering upon his strong shoulders. Still, there is some flicker of hope in the old man’s eyes; a stubbornness and a determination that his life’s work will mean something.
Peres wants what is best for Israel, is desperate to save it, perhaps even from itself. He speaks to reporters eagerly and is comfortable on the world stage, where he has spent almost seven decades, but on matters personal he is quiet. One senses a man concerned with his final legacy, and perhaps this is the genesis of his latest project, a book about his mentor, the founding father and future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion.
Peres wrote “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life” (Schocken: $25.95), the nineteenth title in the Jewish Encounter series from Schocken and Nextbook Press, with the assistance of David Landau, the former editor of Haaretz. Landau conducted extensive interviews with Peres over two years, asking him probing questions about Ben-Gurion and the founding of Israel, and from the book we learn a great deal about Israel’s early years, but ironically we also seem to learn just as much about Peres.
Landau cleverly prints verbatim some of his interviews with Peres and presents them to be read in their entirety at the end of various chapters. These dialogues sometimes border on confrontational and allow us to hear for ourselves how Peres thinks. He seems, for the most part, a reasonable and practical man prone to compromise and negotiation. He is not a warrior like Sharon, or single-minded in his vision like Golda, or angry and self-righteous like Netanyahu. Rather, he seems Obama-like, a man who rejects ideological passion in favor of the bigger picture that is present at any given moment. Until very recently, this mentality has lost him favor among the Israeli public. Finally now, in his old age and in his role as President and elder statesman, his popularity has soared.
Twenty years ago, Avishai Margalit wrote in the New York Review of Books that Peres has often been perceived by the Israeli public as unreliable. Margalit wrote that the facts prove otherwise. He pointed out that during one of Peres’ terms as prime minister, he was able to eliminate the obscene inflation rate he inherited from the Shamir government. He was also able to withdraw the army from Lebanon. Peres was acknowledged with a Nobel Prize for his work on the 1994 Oslo Accords and is regarded as the key figure responsible for Israel’s achieving nuclear capability. During critical times in Israel’s fragile history, he was able to secure armaments for his country from France and South Africa. In spite of all of this, Margalit maintained, it did little to help his reputation, explaining that “reliability in Israel politics does not depend on a commitment to tell the truth and honor agreements. Reliability means having an aura of authenticity which has much to do with toughness of manner. Shamir and Rabin are perceived as authentic, while Peres is perceived as slick.”
Peres himself has acknowledged that he has often been misunderstood. He once explained to Benny Morris that leadership is fraught with complications, stating “I told you Prime Ministers are not divorced from reality. Life is full of contradictions. Most prime ministers don’t do what they promise to do. More than prime ministers direct reality, reality runs them. Whoever thought Sharon would dismantle settlements?” Peres is not an ideologue. One senses that had the Holocaust, and the Jewish persecution that preceded it, not ripped open his heart, he would have been satisfied to remain living in the city of his birth.
Shimon Peres was born Shimon Persky in 1923 in a small Jewish shtetl in Poland, 37 years after Ben-Gurion. He studied Hebrew and immigrated to Palestine when he was only 10. His father was a lumber merchant and his mother a librarian. He met his future wife on a kibbutz, and they would eventually raise three children. He has always claimed an affinity for the Bible that fuels his Jewish identity and reveals that his beloved grandfather Rabbi Zvi Meltzer studied Talmud with him when he was a young boy. His own father’s home was not observant. All of Peres’ relatives who remained in Poland perished under Nazi brutality, including his beloved grandfather, Rabbi Meltzer, who was burned alive in the town’s synagogue.
Ben-Gurion chose Peres to be his trusted aide when Peres was only 23. He was soon assigned to be the director general of the Defense Ministry, from 1952 to 1959. He was enamored with Ben-Gurion’s strength of character and his vision. Peres tells us that after Ben-Gurion returned from seeing one of the Nazi death camps, he had “a more thorough understanding of how the reaction of the rest of the world had contributed to the fate of Europe’s Jews. Not only had the Allies failed to save them, not only had they failed to bomb the death camps or the railway lines, but British warships had kept the gates of Palestine shut to any Jews who managed to escape from the European hell. His conclusion was stark and unequivocal. We must have our independent state at once.”
Peres was always devoted to Ben-Gurion’s vision of a secure and strong Jewish state. He respected Ben-Gurion’s ability to take decisive action and his bold decision to break with Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Congress, who was still advocating patience. Peres also agreed wholeheartedly with Ben-Gurion about the Soviet Union. Both men had flirted with romantic notions about Bolshevism, but these dreams were quickly extinguished when Ben-Gurion returned from a trip to the Soviet Union. Ben-Gurion was horrified by the inherent anti-Semitism there, and the Soviet complete lack of human rights for all of its citizens.
Peres was always mystified by certain parts of Ben-Gurion’s personality that seemed unreachable. He explains that his mentor did not believe in the rabbinate and viewed it as an archaic hierarchical structure, but loved Judaism as a faith. Ben-Gurion embraced the vision of the biblical prophets and saw the Hebrew language as a living reflection of his belief. Peres believes Ben-Gurion’s unique powers stemmed from his ability to distance himself from the perceptions of others, something one detects Peres still has difficulty doing.
Ben-Gurion’s early life was marred by tragedy. He was born David Gruen in 1886 in Plonsk, a town in north central Poland. His father was an unofficial attorney who stopped wearing the traditional Jewish garb and instead chose to dress in a modern frock coat and winged collar, which other attorneys wore at that time. His mother died in childbirth when he was barely 12; it was her eleventh pregnancy. By 14, he was studying Hebrew and convinced that Jews should one day have a territory of their own. The czarist regime made it difficult for him to gain acceptance into college for engineering, and, by 1906, the 20-year-old Ben-Gurion arrived in Jaffa with his first love, the daughter of a prominent Jewish scholar.
This is a wonderfully intimate and important book about the brave men and women who created Israel against all reasonable odds after the devastation of the Holocaust. A desperate euphoria in these young Zionists fueled their abundant energies, a sense of mission and rage, as well as a glimmer of hope that is described eloquently by Amos Elon, who wrote about them in 1995, claiming they “were of that species of revolutionaries who lived in their own world of radiant expectations. The leftists looked forward to a perfectly just society. The rightists postulated the rebirth of the so-called ‘Muscle Jew.’ All upheld the need for assimilation on a collective basis: to become like all other people and peoples. Assimilation, as they understood it, did not mean that one ceased to be oneself. They did not intend to slavishly abandon their historical or ethnic identity, but rather to shed only the uniquely religious identity Jews had insisted upon during the Middle Ages.”
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.