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.
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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.
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The tension that bubbles underneath this adoring view is dealt with in the dialogues, which come at controversial points in Ben-Gurion’s biography. It’s as if Landau had to separate himself from Peres in these moments — exploring Ben-Gurion’s detached reaction to the unfolding Holocaust, or his harsh take-no-prisoners political approach — and put him on the stand as a character witness. In these brief departures from the narrative, we get the hints of a more complex portrait, which Peres continues to bat away.

Take, for example, Ben-Gurion’s introduction in 1948 of the so-called “status quo” agreements that still dictate the precarious relationship between state and religion in Israel. Ben-Gurion gave power over divorce and marriage to the chief rabbinate and exempted any full-time yeshiva students from military service. It was no coincidence that his first coalition government included the Religious Front, made up of a group of religious parties that included the non-Zionist Agudat Israel. Peres’s defense? At the time there were only a few hundred yeshiva bokhurs eligible for the exemption (today that number is 55,000), and anyway, as Peres puts it, Ben-Gurion’s “leadership was based on prioritization.” He could not fight every battle.

We get that he was decisive. It made Ben-Gurion a truly singular figure among a people that had, as he liked to put it, “a wealth of prophets and not enough statesmen.” But by glorifying decisiveness without looking at the implications of those decisions, we aren’t really getting the whole story.

This same problem plagues another recent biography by another unreliable narrator: Gilad Sharon’s book about his father, Ariel. Mostly he provides the transcripts of nearly every banal conversation that Sharon had with a world leader (Kofi Annan: “I understand you are traveling today”; Sharon: “I am going to Brazil”; Annan: “I have been there several times. A beautiful country. All the best”).

And when we do expect to hear some great insight into the decisions the great man made, these are hampered by a desire to present Sharon as incapable of making mistakes. There is no sense from Gilad Sharon that his father’s actions might have had bad consequences, even if unintended. So the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, though “difficult and painful,” was done with “great sensitivity and determination, with impeccable orderliness, and precisely on schedule” — no mention here of the opportunity this unilateralism presented to Hamas. And when it comes to Sharon’s greatest stain, the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps carried out by a Christian militia armed and trained by Israel on his watch, Gilad absolves his father of any responsibility. Lebanon and its history of ethnic violence are at fault, and the massacres “were not out of the ordinary in the blood-soaked history of this fractured land.”

Maybe this is the problem inherent when a son writes a biography of his father — or, in Peres’s case, of his adopted father. Peres says he was a Ben-Gurionist from a very young age, as soon as Zionism became his religion; he personally fought many of his mentor’s battles for him. It’s no wonder he has produced a hagiography. From a marketing point of view, having Peres write this book is a splendid idea, and one is moved by the extent of devotion and awe that he has for Ben-Gurion. But there is little added insight or complexity here, except for the realization that, in addition to Ben-Gurion’s critical decisiveness, one of his other virtues was knowing how to pick his disciples well.

Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s opinion editor.

Watch Ray Charles playing for Ben-Gurion in 1973 — “Heaven Help Us All”!


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