November 17, 2018

Peres’ Memoir Also Tells the Story of Israel

Shimon Peres, one of the early and enduring leaders of the State of Israel, calls to us from the grave in his posthumously published memoir and manifesto, “No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel” (Custom House). His book is a timely reminder that Zionism calls for a strong back, a willingness to sacrifice and a generous heart, all of which Peres possessed.

Born in Poland in 1923, he made aliyah when he was 11 years old, joined the Haganah when it still was an underground army, served in 12 Israeli government cabinets, and held the offices of both prime minister and president of Israel. 

“Your father is like the wind,” his wife told their children, who contribute a foreword to the book. “You will never be able to stop him or hold him back.” 

His remarkable story starts when he first arrived in what he calls Mandatory Palestine in 1934. “We weren’t just living on the frontier of Jewish history,” he writes. “We were shaping it with our hands. With every seed we planted and every crop we harvested, we were extending the reach of our dreams.”

Even then, as a teenager working in the fields of an agricultural school called the Beth Shemen Youth Village, Peres was drawn to politics, a career for which he seemed to be destined: “I was blessed with an unusually deep baritone voice, one that lent my words the aura of authority, even when it hadn’t been earned.”

Soon enough, Peres was chosen by David Ben-Gurion, along with another promising young man named Moshe Dayan, to play a leadership role in Mapai, the progressive Zionist party that Ben-Gurion headed. From that day, Peres would go from strength to strength, but he always displayed the poise and restraint for which he came to be famous: “Ben-Gurion had shown me that listening is not just a key element of good leadership, it is the key, the means to unlock doors that have been slammed shut by bitter dispute.”

Peres, the man who signed the Oslo Accord on behalf of Israel, acknowledges the irony that characterizes his career. “For the past forty years I have been known as one of Israel’s most vocal doves, as a man singularly focused on peace,” he writes. “But the first two decades of my career were spent not in pursuit of peace but in preparation of war.” He was responsible for stockpiling smuggled arms in advance of the War of Independence: “I learned everything from the defects inherent in a particular type of rifle, to the fuel supply needed to carry a warship across the Atlantic.”

By the way, Peres celebrates Al Schwimmer, one of the American pilots who traveled from Los Angeles to serve with the Israeli air force during the War of Independence. “[O]f all the characters I worked with during those years, none was more fascinating, more boisterous, or more singularly invaluable than [Schwimmer].”   

Peres reveals that Schwimmer built the first aircraft for El Al at a secret workshop in Southern California and remained a key man in the Israeli aircraft industry, sometimes ferrying new planes to Israel on the treacherous polar route.

Most consequential of all is Peres’ account of the Israeli nuclear program, which began in 1956 and eventually elevated the infant state into a nuclear power. He recalls what he told John F. Kennedy when the president asked him about Israel’s nuclear capabilities: “Mr. President, I can tell you most clearly that we shall not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region,” Peres said. That deeply enigmatic sentence turned out to be a key element of Israel’s policy of deterrence: “For nearly fifty years, nuclear ambiguity has been Israel’s official position.”

Peres was a man of big ideas and big accomplishments, but what I admire most about “No Room for Small Dreams” is his ability to use his own life story as a biography of the Jewish state. I learned more than I previously knew about Peres, but I also felt that I was glimpsing the history of Israel through the eyes of one of its founding fathers and ultimate insiders.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the Jewish Journal’s book editor.