I base this column on “Shimon Peres: The Biography,” by Michael Bar-Zohar (2007), parts I and II.
Bar-Zohar writes in the introduction: “To many, Shimon Peres was an enigma… He was different from all the others who worked at his side. A son of Israel whose roots were in a faraway land; a master of the Hebrew language, yet with a foreign accent; the ultimate defense expert of Israel, who had never worn a uniform; a mediocre politician, yet a statesman with a splendid vision; a kibbutznik without a formal education, yet abounding in culture… A complex man of many faces and contradictions.”
Shimon was born in Poland in 1923. Shimon’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Zvi Meltzer, a graduate of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva. Shimon was his favorite grandson.
One day a traveler came to Poland from Palestine. He held in his hand a golden orange. Shimon wrote: “I’ll never forget our town Jews gaping with feverish eyes at the small orange that symbolized for them their most precious hopes and dreams. And for the first time in my life I felt, almost physically, what was Eretz-Israel.”
Shimon’s childhood passed with almost no contact with gentiles. He would often quote the French-Jewish philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch: “Jewish life in the Diaspora was similar to a voyage in the subway—you travel underground, you don’t see the scenery, and nobody sees you in the train.”
When Shimon was nine, his father, Getzel, immigrated to Palestine by himself. After three long years, the immigration certificates came for the rest of the family. On the station platform, his grandfather instructed him: “Be a Jew, forever!” These were the last words he ever heard from his grandfather. The bearded face of his grandfather became for him the symbol of Judaism; whenever he saw a bearded rabbi, he would remember his beloved grandfather!
“My goal in life is to serve my people. The most important service to the people of Israel is building the country [by] working the land.” Thus wrote 15-year-old Shimon on his arrival at the youth village of Ben-Shemen. When he arrived in Ben-Shemen he looked like a child from Eastern Europe. But when he left, two and a half years later, he was a kibbutznik, active in Working Youth, a worker of the land, and deeply rooted in the Labor movement.
The young Shimon Persky changed his name to Peres, and eventually met Ben-Gurion (who had changed his name from Gruen). Peres was appointed assistant defense secretary for navy affairs. “So there I was, a 26-year-old kibbutznik…running complex defense programs, and then, on top of everything, becoming the acting secretary of the Navy. My naval experience consisted of a moderate proficiency at breaststroke and one childhood attempt to build a raft and launch it off the coast of Tel Aviv.”
His big mistake was choosing not to fight in the War of Independence. A poet quipped that Peres belonged to those “who heard gunfire only on the telephone.”
After the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion sent him to New York and appointed him deputy director of the Ministry of Defense so that he could work during the day and study in the evenings. He also went to Harvard management school for a few months. That is where he learned to dress in a suit and tie!
He was devoted to his work for the Ministry of Defense in New York. His job involved taking risks, as the mission used illegal methods to buy weapons. Peres and his team bought torpedo boats, Mustang, Mosquito and Harvard aircraft; tanks; communication equipment; and spare parts.
While in New York during the winter of 1951, Peres received an urgent request for cannons for the IDF. He found out that the Canadian Army was selling 30 cannons from their Second World War surplus. Peres was told that he could get the cannons for $2 million. But the director general of the treasury, Pinhas Sapir, sent a special message to New York, telling him he would not get a penny from the budget. Peres decided he would raise the money himself. He traveled to Montreal and went to see Sam Bronfman. Together, they drove to Ottawa and spoke to the weapons minister. Bronfman was able to cut the price in half. He then asked Peres: Who will get you the million? Peres replied: You!
Bronfman was stunned. But when he recovered, he dictated a guest list of 50 to his wife. Bronfman’s guests responded warmly and raised close to a million dollars.
In 1952, Peres returned to Israel with his family. At the age of 29, he was appointed deputy director of the Defense Ministry. He said: “I know how to build a force and Moshe [Dayan] knows how to use it.”
Israel found support in France in important sections of the army and the right wing, which regarded Britain as France’s traditional rival and identified with Israel’s struggle against the British mandate. In addition, Socialist Party leaders considered Mapai a sister party, and former Resistance fighters and political figures who survived Nazi atrocities felt a deep identification with the Jewish people. The struggle of Israel, a small and enlightened nation, against the fanatic jihad of millions of Muslims fired up the imagination of many Frenchmen.
An early story is that Peres flew to Paris and phoned the French deputy prime minister who immediately received him in his office. They started a negotiation for the purchase of 155-mm. cannons. Peres finalized the deal with an aging colonel in the Ministry of Defense. But Peres had no idea how one government paid another. He suggested that Israel deposit one million dollars in the bank account of the French Ministry of Defense, and they would settle their bills later. “To my surprise, he agreed to that suggestion, and the cannons started to move.”
Peres stated: “I came as an uneducated kibbutznik, who had no idea about France.“ But Yossef Nehemias, the defense ministry’s envoy to Paris, tutored Peres on French culture and table manners. During his flights to and from Israel, he would study French with diligence. Many of the secrets of French grammar still eluded him, but he achieved a basic knowledge of the language.
For Peres, the 1956 Sinai campaign had an unexpected result. He suddenly emerged from the shadows as the real architect of the French alliance. Now the veil was lifted slightly, enough to crown him with laurels. Peres was incessantly shuttling between Tel Aviv and Lod airport, welcoming or sending off delegations of senior French officers, past and present ministers and deputy ministers of defense, air and armaments.
The French press was full of enthusiastic reports about “brave little Israel.” “France is ready to sell Israel all the weapons she needs,” declared the president of the French parliament’s Defense Committee. France stood by Israel at international forums, first and foremost at the United Nations. Researchers and scientists of both countries worked together on joint projects. Israeli officers trained at French academies and military schools.
In both France and Israel a league was created to work toward achieving a formal alliance between the two nations. Some of the most eminent French leaders joined the league. One statesman declared at a meeting in Paris, “If a party of national unity could ever be created in France, its name would bear the initials I.S.R.A.E.L.”
France’s pro-Israel policy stemmed from its vital interests at the time. But if Peres had not been able to detect those interests and harness them to the needs and goals of Israel, the alliance between the two nations might never have even been born.
Peres objected to the theory that Israel should “integrate in the Middle East.” He maintained that the connection of Israel to that part of the world was geographical only, and that Israel should ignore the area and seek permanent association with Europe. “I don’t need music records from Yemen or books from Egypt…We should follow the world’s big blocks and the only natural place for us…is Europe.”
In 1958, there was a coup in Iraq. Thereafter, subversive groups revolted against King Hussein and besieged the royal palace in Amman. With Ben Gurion’s consent, an airlift over Israel’s territory carried 2,000 British troops to Amman. The prompt British operation saved the king. This turmoil made the U.S. realize how important Israel could be. Gradually, the American suspicion toward Israel changed into growing cooperation.
P.S. I bought Bar-Zohar’s book a few years ago for a small price. Then when Peres died, the price greatly increased!
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. Now he thinks about a new field: gambling on purchasing biographies of elderly statesmen!