Introduction — Voyage of Destiny
David Ben-Gurion was a mythic figure, the founding father of Israel and a modern-day prophet, but he was also a real man who stormed through history on human legs. It was my great privilege to know him and work with him for many years. This book is not a memoir of my time with Ben-Gurion, but it is inevitably shaped by my time with him. Since his death in 1973, I have thought a great deal about the sort of leader he was: visionary and pragmatic, steeped in Jewish history and yet forward looking and unsentimental. He is our Washington and our Jefferson, and yet in some sense our Lincoln too, for the War of Independence in 1948 brought with it a danger of civil war. He seems to me now to be an emblem not only of the energy that created the State of Israel but also of the sort of leadership that the country so desperately needs if it is to find its way to peace and security. Not all of his assumptions have been borne out by events. But his historic decision to accept the partition of the Land of Israel in order to secure the State of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state shines forth today as a beacon of statesmanship and sagacity.
In order to understand Ben-Gurion, it is necessary to return to the shtetl in Poland where he was born and which stamped him deeply with Jewish feeling, Jewish history, and Zionist fervor. But the place to begin this book is with a boat ride I took from Palestine to Basel in 1946 to attend the first Zionist Congress after the Holocaust. Moshe Dayan and I were among the delegates from the Mapai political party in Eretz Yisrael, though we were much younger than all the others. I represented our youth movement, Ha'noar Ha'oved.
We set out from Haifa on a Polish ship. I found myself sharing a cabin with Mapai veterans Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Lavon. They were old hands at this sort of seafaring, and they insisted that we draw lots for the best bunk, the one right under the porthole. As bad luck would have it, I won. I immediately offered the bunk- with-a-view to Eshkol. He kindly but ﬁrmly refused. "No," he said. "You won it fair and square. It's yours." I was all of twenty- three years old and until recently had been used to sleeping on a camp bed in a tent in our ﬂedgling kibbutz, Alumot. When our ﬁrst child, Zviya, was born a few months earlier, my wife and I graduated to a hut with solid walls. Eshkol, then ﬁfty-one, was a senior and respected ofﬁcial in the Mapai-dominated Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. At the time of our voyage, he also served as secretary- general of the powerful Tel Aviv Labor Council and as a ranking ofﬁcer in the Haganah, the Yishuv's clandestine defense force. Ben-Gurion regarded him as a trusted lieutenant.
I was still weakly remonstrating when Lavon chimed in, "Well, if Eshkol won't take it, then, um, I suppose . . ." Lavon was forty-two. As a young man in Polish Galicia, he had founded the pioneering Zionist youth movement Gordonia. He had served as co-secretary- general of Mapai and was widely seen as one of the party's brightest hopes. Eshkol turned on him with all his bass-voiced vehemence. What kind of Gordonian values were these? What kind of socialist was he if he blithely proposed to rob me of what was mine by right? And on and on. I listened, silent and aghast, to these luminaries of our movement berating each other in the name of our most hallowed principles.
Although still formally a kibbutznik like Eshkol, Lavon was a bit of a dandy. He always left the cabin elegantly and fashionably turned out. I grew ever more aghast as the voyage wore on. I owned two pairs of trousers: khaki work trousers for weekdays and flannels for Shabbat. Interestingly enough, considering what was to happen among us all later, it was Lavon who got me the job as director-general of the ministry of defense in 1953. As a cabinet minister without portfolio in Ben-Gurion's government, Lavon had occasion to fill in for Ben-Gurion at the defense ministry. (In addition to being prime minister, Ben-Gurion was also defense minister.) I was at the time acting director-general. Lavon said he wanted to give me the permanent appointment.
"I want to appoint Shimon," he told Ben-Gurion.
"Appoint him what?"
"Appoint him director-general."
"But he is director-general."
"No, he's only acting director-general."
Ben-Gurion called me into his ofﬁce. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.
Excerpted from Ben-Gurion: A Political Life by Shimon Peres, in conversation with David Landau. Copyright 2011 by Shimon Peres. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.