At the age of 88, Shimon Peres, the astonishingly productive president of Israel, has written yet another book. This one is called “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life,” and it is about the man Peres went to work for in his early 20s — David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a man who was both a little guy and a towering figure. Peres calls him a genius.
Not surprisingly, Peres has a surprising definition of what constitutes genius. It is not the working of some awesome cranial hard drive — not solely a matter of intellect. “Being a genius is a matter of character no less than of intellect, of being unafraid to ask questions, to take new positions, to ignore conventions,” Peres writes.
The book, written with David Landau, a former editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is a tender account of Ben-Gurion’s life. Peres comes right out and says there would never have been an Israel had it not been for Ben-Gurion: “I truly believe that without Ben-Gurion the State of Israel would not have come into being. I cannot think of anyone else who could have done what he did.”
What he did, aside from helping to create the state and fight some wars, was imbue the new country with a humanity that it violates only occasionally and then always shockingly. He accorded the Arabs, his enemy, respect, and he was aware that Israeli democracy would be endangered if it seized too much land and, in the bargain, too many Arabs. Such a state would be “a dictatorship of the minority,” Peres quotes Ben-Gurion as saying.
Ben-Gurion was one of those figures — Nelson Mandela is another — who had a hard life of hard decisions and yet somehow did not become a hard person. Like many of Israel’s leaders, he lost loved ones in the Holocaust. He had to face and deal with an evil that is incomprehensible. He was almost incessantly at war, and he came of age as a leader in an era when population transfers and expulsions were not only common but acceptable. Nonetheless, Peres writes that he never heard Ben-Gurion talk about expelling Arabs from what would become the State of Israel
“That would have been against our fundamentals ideology,” he writes, “and I don’t think Ben-Gurion would have countenanced any ideological compromise in this matter.” The upshot is that to this day, Israel is about 20 percent Arab — Israel proper and not the West Bank. In the end, Ben-Gurion’s “genius” may turn out to be a considerable problem.
Peres clearly idolized Ben-Gurion. Still, he acknowledged that the man had his prickly side, and the plain fact of the matter — although Peres reverts to a whisper when he brings the matter up — is that Ben-Gurion was ugly to his wife, Paula. He could be headstrong and vindictive and when provoked was a remarkable hater. Still, his true genius was not just in what he did and what he accomplished but in the moral legacy he left the country he helped found.
I once introduced Peres at a forum by listing all his government positions — prime minister, defense minister, etc. — and saying the only thing he has not been is Miss Israel. “You forgot agriculture minister,” he deadpanned. There, it’s been corrected. He is a man of awesome accomplishment — a Nobel Peace Prize winner, by the way — but his most important accomplishment is how he has come to personify the ethic that David Ben-Gurion represents. His book is well worth your time. It was mine.