Part of the Jewish Encounter series
Israel’s current president gives us a dramatic and revelatory biography of Israel’s founding father and first prime minister.
Shimon Peres was in his early twenties when he first met David Ben-Gurion. Although the state that Ben-Gurion would lead through war and peace had not yet declared its precarious independence, the “Old Man,” as he was called even then, was already a mythic figure. Peres, who came of age in the cabinets of Ben-Gurion, is uniquely placed to evoke this figure of stirring contradictions—a prophetic visionary and a canny pragmatist who early grasped the necessity of compromise for national survival. Ben-Gurion supported the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, though it meant surrendering a two-thousand-year-old dream of Jewish settlement in the entire land of Israel. He granted the Orthodox their first exemptions from military service despite his own deep secular commitments, and he reached out to Germany in the aftermath of the Holocaust, knowing that Israel would need as many strong alliances as possible within the European community.
A protégé of Ben-Gurion and himself a legendary figure on the international political stage, Shimon Peres brings to his account of Ben-Gurion’s life and towering achievements the profound insight of a statesman who shares Ben-Gurion’s dream of a modern, democratic Jewish nation-state that lives in peace and security alongside its Arab neighbors. In Ben-Gurion, Peres sees a neglected model of leadership that Israel and the world desperately need in the twenty-first century.
Voyage of Destiny
David Ben-Gurion was a mythic figure, the founding father of Israel and a modern-day prophet, but he was also a real man who stormed through history on human legs. It was my great privilege to know him and work with him for many years. This book is not a memoir of my time with Ben-Gurion, but it is inevitably shaped by my time with him. Since his death in 1973, I have thought a great deal about the sort of leader he was: visionary and pragmatic, steeped in Jewish history and yet forward looking and unsentimental. He is our Washington and our Jefferson, and yet in some sense our Lincoln too, for the War of Independence in 1948 brought with it a danger of civil war. He seems to me now to be an emblem not only of the energy that created the State of Israel but also of the sort of leadership that the country so desperately needs if it is to find its way to peace and security. Not all of his assumptions have been borne out by events. But his historic decision to accept the partition of the Land of Israel in order to secure the State of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state shines forth today as a beacon of statesmanship and sagacity.
In order to understand Ben-Gurion, it is necessary to return to the shtetl in Poland where he was born and which stamped him deeply with Jewish feeling, Jewish history, and Zionist fervor. But the place to begin this book is with a boat ride I took from Palestine to Basel in 1946 to attend the first Zionist Congress after the Holocaust. Moshe Dayan and I were among the delegates from the Mapai political party in Eretz Yisrael, though we were much younger than all the others. I represented our youth movement, Ha’noar Ha’oved.
We set out from Haifa on a Polish ship. I found myself sharing a cabin with Mapai veterans Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Lavon. They were old hands at this sort of seafaring, and they insisted that we draw lots for the best bunk, the one right under the porthole. As bad luck would have it, I won. I immediately offered the bunk- with-a-view to Eshkol. He kindly but ﬁrmly refused. “No,” he said. “You won it fair and square. It’s yours.” I was all of twenty- three years old and until recently had been used to sleeping on a camp bed in a tent in our ﬂedgling kibbutz, Alumot. When our ﬁrst child, Zviya, was born a few months earlier, my wife and I graduated to a hut with solid walls. Eshkol, then ﬁfty-one, was a senior and respected ofﬁcial in the Mapai-dominated Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. At the time of our voyage, he also served as secretary- general of the powerful Tel Aviv Labor Council and as a ranking ofﬁcer in the Haganah, the Yishuv’s clandestine defense force. Ben-Gurion regarded him as a trusted lieutenant.
I was still weakly remonstrating when Lavon chimed in, “Well, if Eshkol won’t take it, then, um, I suppose . . .” Lavon was forty-two. As a young man in Polish Galicia, he had founded the pioneering Zionist youth movement Gordonia. He had served as co-secretary- general of Mapai and was widely seen as one of the party’s brightest hopes. Eshkol turned on him with all his bass-voiced vehemence. What kind of Gordonian values were these? What kind of socialist was he if he blithely proposed to rob me of what was mine by right? And on and on. I listened, silent and aghast, to these luminaries of our movement berating each other in the name of our most hallowed principles.
Although still formally a kibbutznik like Eshkol, Lavon was a bit of a dandy. He always left the cabin elegantly and fashionably turned out. I grew ever more aghast as the voyage wore on. I owned two pairs of trousers: khaki work trousers for weekdays and flannels for Shabbat. Interestingly enough, considering what was to happen among us all later, it was Lavon who got me the job as director-general of the ministry of defense in 1953. As a cabinet minister without portfolio in Ben-Gurion’s government, Lavon had occasion to fill in for Ben-Gurion at the defense ministry. (In addition to being prime minister, Ben-Gurion was also defense minister.) I was at the time acting director-general. Lavon said he wanted to give me the permanent appointment.
“I want to appoint Shimon,” he told Ben-Gurion.
“Appoint him what?”
“Appoint him director-general.”
“But he is director-general.”
“No, he’s only acting director-general.”
Ben-Gurion called me into his ofﬁce. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
The Basel Congress of 1946 was the scene of high drama, great rhetoric, and fateful decisions. But for me the most memorable moment was when Ben-Gurion’s wife, Paula, ﬂustered and fuming, strode into the basement of the convention hall where Mapai was holding its caucus. She marched over to Arieh Bahir of Kibbutz Aﬁkim, a loyal Ben-Gurionist, and said in Yiddish, “Arieh, er is meshugge gevoren!” (Arieh, he’s gone mad!)
“Where is he?” Arieh asked.
“In the hotel,” Paula said.
Bahir turned to me. “Come on, let’s go,” he said.
We made our way over to the Drei Könige Hotel, which was where Herzl stayed during the First Zionist Congress in 1897 and where that famous picture of him looking pensively out over the Rhine was taken. We climbed the stairs to Ben-Gurion’s room and knocked on the door. No answer. Bahir turned the knob and walked in. I followed gingerly behind.
“Shalom, Ben-Gurion!” Arieh said.
Ben-Gurion didn’t bother to turn round. He was packing his suitcase, determined to turn his back on Basel. Eventually he asked, “Are you coming with me?”
“Yes,” replied Bahir without hesitation. “But where are you going?”
“I am going to create a new Zionist movement,” Ben-Gurion said. “Nothing will come of this congress. The leaders are paralyzed by fear and inertia.”
I had incredible chutzpah. Ben-Gurion hardly knew me, but I said, “Yes, we’ll go with you. But I’ve got a request: Speak to the delegation this evening.” He agreed, and we went back with him to that tension-ﬁlled basement.
That congress in Basel was in many ways the deﬁning moment for Zionism and for Ben-Gurion. Our picture of the Shoah, as the Holocaust was called in Hebrew, was complete by then, in all its ghastly details. During World War II the information available had always been only partial and sporadic. We did not have a full picture, in real time, of the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen the Jewish people.
Soon after the war ended, Ben-Gurion had gone to visit the camps—both the Nazi death camps and the displaced-persons camps, where the survivors were being held by the Allied armies. As chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, he was escorted personally by General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander. Eisenhower made a very deep impression on him. All his life, and whatever the tensions that arose between them, Ben-Gurion never stopped praising him. He would on many occasions recall (as Barack Obama did in his speech at Buchenwald in 2009) how Eisenhower had forced the local Germans to visit the liberated camps and see for themselves the piles of corpses and the skeletal survivors. In his speech Obama quoted Eisenhower as saying at the time that he was concerned that humanity would forget what had been done in these places, and he was determined to never let that happen. Ben-Gurion was hugely impressed and moved by this act of Eisenhower’s, both for its humanitarian quality and for its historic significance.
Ben-Gurion returned to Jerusalem shocked to his core, both by what he had seen in the camps and by 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.
That was the underlying issue of conflict at the congress: le’altar, to establish a state immediately, as Ben-Gurion demanded; or to wait, as Chaim Weizmann, the venerable president of the World Zionist Organization, advocated. To Ben-Gurion, the Biltmore Program had meant partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. He was absolutely as clear as day about that. And now le’altar meant put this into effect immediately. But there lay the problem: Both the right and the left opposed partition. Today it is almost incomprehensible, but at that time Yitzhak Tabenkin, the leader of the left-wing Siah Bet, opposed the immediate establishment of an independent Jewish state on a portion of the British Mandate. He preferred an international mandate over the whole land. He thought the most important thing was to preserve shleimut haaretz (the integrity of Eretz Yisrael), even if we weren’t independent. In the meantime, he reasoned, we would bring in immigrants, build new settlements, and continue creating facts on the ground until a state came into being somehow, in the undeﬁned future. Ben-Gurion replied that without a state we would not be able to open the gates of Palestine to immigrants, including the Holocaust survivors clamoring to get in.
Tabenkin’s ideological orientation was to the “world of tomorrow”—meaning universal socialism, as preached by the Soviet Union. That’s also hard to comprehend now. He once assured me that Lenin was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. In some of the kibbutzim of the Hakibbutz Hameuchad confederation, there were pictures of Stalin hanging on the walls, as there were in some of the kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair, the Mapamafﬁliated pioneering movement. Mapam’s leader, Meir Ya’ari, preferred a binational, Jewish-Arab state to partition. Moshe Sneh, who was nominally a General Zionist and whom Ben-Gurion had installed as the commander of the Haganah, was also inclining toward Communism by this time. Sneh’s analysis was that Russia would win the Cold War and would ultimately therefore control the Middle East. The only one who got it right was David Ben-Gurion. He had said early on during World War II, better a state on part of the land than the whole land and no state.
But the opposition to Ben-Gurion wasn’t only from the political parties on the left and from the Revisionist and religious parties on the right. It also came from within his own party. The so-called Gush, the tough Mapai machine politicians, were with Ben-Gurion, including people like Shraga Netzer and his wife, Dvora. But many people in Mapai supported Weizmann, who still looked to Great Britain, despite everything, to support the Zionist cause. Eshkol, as usual, was in the middle. Golda Meir was initially against partition. It was she who had chaired that crucial session in that Basel basement. She ran it with an iron hand. But in the end she sided with Ben-Gurion. By dawn the party was with him.
The third and crowning phase of Ben-Gurion’s remarkable career of Jewish leadership was at hand. For thirteen years, from 1922 to 1935, as secretary-general of the Histadrut, he had built up and led the Labor Zionist camp in the Yishuv. For the next thirteen years, as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, he had led the ﬁght for immigration and independence, both at home and on the world stage. Now he was about to embark on thirteen extraordinary years of constructing and consolidating the Jewish state, in war and in peace.
Excerpted from Ben-Gurion by Shimon Peres in conversation with David Landau. Copyright © 2011 by Shimon Peres. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Shimon Peres has been president of the State of Israel since 2007. In 1947, at David Ben-Gurion’s request, he was recruited by the Haganah, and he was appointed head of naval services in 1948. Over a long and distinguished political career, he has held numerous cabinet-level positions, including foreign minister and defense minister, and served two terms as prime minister. One of the architects of the Oslo Accords, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
David Landau was editor in chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from 2004 to 2008. Before joining Haaretz in 1997, Landau was the diplomatic correspondent and managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism and worked with Shimon Peres on his memoir, Battling for Peace. He currently writes for The Economist.