Secrets of Ben-Gurion's Leadership

Shimon Peres Takes Look Back at Israel's Pragmatic Idealist

Pragmatic Idealist: David Ben-Gurion was driven by ideology to create the Jewish state. But Shimon Peres writes in a new book he was more interested in concrete achievements, even if it meant difficult sacrifice.
getty images
Pragmatic Idealist: David Ben-Gurion was driven by ideology to create the Jewish state. But Shimon Peres writes in a new book he was more interested in concrete achievements, even if it meant difficult sacrifice.

By Gal Beckerman

Published December 05, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Ben-Gurion: A Political Life
By Shimon Peres and David Landau
Schocken, 240 pages, $25.95

Shimon Peres
getty images
Shimon Peres

The most revealing conversation that Shimon Peres ever had with his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, was perhaps his first. Peres was a young activist in Ha’Noar Ha’Oved, the Labor Zionist youth movement, when he asked the powerful and charismatic chairman of the Jewish Agency for a lift up the coast to Haifa from Tel Aviv. They spent most of the ride in silence, but then, just as they were approaching their destination, Ben-Gurion decided, out of nowhere, to tell the young man why he preferred Lenin to Trotsky. This was, for sure, a surprising admission. Trotsky was the fiery Jewish revolutionary filled with ideological fervor to match that of the Zionists of Ben-Gurion’s youth. “Lenin was Trotsky’s inferior in terms of intellect,” Ben-Gurion explained. But Lenin had a quality that Trotsky never possessed: “He was decisive.”

The secret of Ben-Gurion’s leadership was, as legions of mythologizers have pointed out, his willingness to be — to borrow a recent leader’s inelegant but apt expression — the decider. In that conversation with Peres, Ben-Gurion revealed that his annoyance with Trotsky stemmed from the revolutionary’s position on the Brest-Litovsk peace talks between the Russians and Germans to end their part of the fighting in World War I. Trotsky wanted to implement a policy that was known as “no war-no peace,” storming away from negotiations but also declaring an end to fighting. This waffling approach was, Ben-Gurion told Peres, “not statesmanship. That’s some sort of Jewish invention.” Lenin pursued peace, accepting its price in much lost territory, but he got to build his communist paradise. In short, he cut his losses and moved on — which is also not a bad way of describing how Ben-Gurion approached the building of the Jewish state. Ideology drove him, but he was more interested in putting stakes in the ground, even if they involved difficult sacrifice.

It is this vision of “the old man” that Peres offers in his new biography, written together with David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz. For Peres, Ben-Gurion’s life can be reduced to “the decisions he made at critical junctures in Israel’s history” — chief among these being his acceptance of partition and the concept of two states, a serious compromise that Peres believes ensured Israel’s founding.

Not long after that conversation in the car on the way to Haifa, Peres became the most eager and devoted of Ben-Gurion’s young acolytes — so much so that today, as president of the State of Israel at the age of 88, he still unabashedly refers to himself as a “Ben-Gurionist.” The book is filled with frequent dialogues between Landau and Peres, interludes that break up the story of Ben-Gurion’s life and save the narrative from a certain conventionality. In one, Landau asks Peres if he was ever “in private, critical of Ben-Gurion’s policies.” “No!” Peres answers, perishing the thought. “That’s almost impossible,” Landau responds in exasperation. “You’re a critical person by nature. You couldn’t have abnegated your entire personality.”

In this book, at least, Peres is quite willing to do that. He says nothing negative as he takes us through the stations of Ben-Gurion’s well-known life: his Polish origins in Plonsk; his first years in Ottoman-ruled Palestine; the building of a powerful political party for the Labor Zionist movement, through which he eventually ascends to the leadership of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency; the epic battles with Chaim Weizmann and Vladimir Jabotinsky (and then Menachem Begin), and the tough decisions of war and peace that came with the state’s founding, from securing arms for the War of Independence to German reparations to the pyrrhic victory of the Sinai Campaign and the exhausting Lavon Affair.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.