Israel's Last Founding Father

Israel's President Shimon Peres goes over his speech for the swearing-in ceremony of the new President, in his bureau at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, on his last day in office, July 24, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Shimon Peres spent the first half of his career helping develop the Israeli military and the country's settlements, but spent the remainder of his days advocating peace and reconciliation.

January-February 2018

Shimon Peres, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel (New York: Custom House, 2017), 240 pp., $27.99.

SHIMON PERES, who was present at the creation of the state of Israel and helped to determine its fortune for seven decades, was the author of no fewer than ten books, five of which, including his valedictory No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, were memoirs. This, his final volume, was completed only days before his death at the age of ninety-three in September 2016. The book is actually an extended essay; its subtitle hints at Peres’s sense of self and how he wishes posterity to remember him. It is about the man’s courage, and imagination, and his outsized role both in creation of the Jewish state and providing for its security. This, perhaps, should come as no surprise. As the veteran journalist Akiva Eldar wrote more than a decade ago, Peres “always nurtured an inclination for historical grandeur.”

Peres, who was born in 1923, grew up in Vishneva, a shtetl in what is now Belarus, near the Lithuanian border, but which was then on Polish territory. Jews accounted for about two-thirds of its population of less than three thousand. The Persky (or Perski) family, as they were known at the time, had lived in Vishneva for several generations. Some of their relatives had moved to America; one of them, who claimed to be Peres’s cousin, was a young woman named Betty Joan Perske, better known as Lauren Bacall. She claimed to be Peres’s first cousin, though Peres repeatedly asserted that he was unsure of the supposed family connection with the famous beauty.

Jews from the area where the Peres family lived were called “Litvaks,” presumably because the region was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Litvaks had the reputation of being rather stingy, dry, generally humorless intellectuals. Peres writes that he inherited his love of books from his mother, who loved to read and had trained as a librarian; he certainly cultivated the image of a cosmopolitan intellectual. He was a polyglot: the family spoke Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian at home, and he later learned both English and French. There was nothing dry about him, however. He possessed a sharp wit, and his book reflects his love of the bon mot. Yet he seems to have been something of a loner as a youngster; perhaps even then he was seen as someone who was something of a show-off. He acknowledges that his long-winded “fully formed addresses about the nature of Zionism” turned off his schoolmates: “It made me something of an outcast, the one so clearly unlike the others.” He adds, “What I was, in fact, was what I have remained: at ninety-three, I am still that curious boy, enamored of hard questions, eager to dream, and unbowed by the doubt of others.” His long-time antagonist, the former ambassador and defense minister Moshe Arens, characterized him in similar, but far less flattering terms: “Peres was . . . supremely confident in his own judgment, having little respect for the opinion of others. His blustering overconfidence had led him at times to recklessness in word and on occasion even in deed.”

Peres mentions no childhood friend by name. Indeed, almost all of the names that appear throughout the book are what might be called “boldface.” Of these, there are many; it would have been helpful if the book had an index.

The Peres family was not poor. The elder Peres, like his father before him, was a lumber merchant. But it was his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, whom the young boy adored, and whose influence led him to be more scrupulous about Jewish practice than his parents were. Peres claims that his mother was “brilliant” while his rabbinic grandfather studied at “the finest yeshiva in Europe.” He does not identify the institution, however, perhaps because others might not consider that particular institution as the Harvard of the yeshiva world, thereby implicitly calling into question his thinly disguised claim to his own inherited brilliance.

The Pereses were Zionists, inspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish national homeland as a solution to the ubiquitous anti-Semitism that confronted Jews in central and eastern Europe. Poland in particular was a difficult place for Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. Universities applied a numerus clausus to limit the number of Jewish students; those who successfully matriculated were forced to stand in the rear of classes. Jewish businesses also suffered. Faced with the destruction of his business due to the government’s imposition of crushing taxes, the elder Peres moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1932 and brought his family there two years later. They arrived in the second year of a major wave of Jewish immigration, called the Fifth Aliyah, that accelerated with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Among the Litvaks emigrating during that period was a young dropout from the University of Warsaw named Yitzhak Yezernitsky, who changed his name to Shamir, just as the family Persky changed its name to Peres upon arrival in Palestine.