Shimon Peres Looks Back

Benny Morris’ interview of Shimon Peres in Tablet has to be one of the most interesting and refreshing reflections upon history that I have read in quite a while, yielding much insight into the personalities of Israel’s elder statesman and those with whom he interacted. With all his faults, he emerges far more heroic than before, and serves as a reminder of the days in which those who toiled to found the State – for all our ideological differences with them – were made of stronger stuff than the self-serving bureaucrats of the present.

Benny Morris is himself an intriguing character. As one of Israel’s New Historians, he was the darling of the left for challenging the mythic orthodoxies of Israel’s early days, particularly the War of Independence. He argued that in fact not all of Israel’s Arabs had fled on their own; some had been pushed out. (This position peeks out at us in the course of this interview.) Arab civilians had been killed as well. He then stood his findings on their head by concluding that while such incidents had occurred, they were the exception, and quite within the range of behavior of other armies. Moreover, he argued, they were justified in retrospect!

I found two vignettes especially interesting. The first concerns his reasons for championing draft exemptions for bnei yeshiva.

I ask Peres about Ben-Gurion’s agreement to waive the conscription to military service of the ultra-Orthodox, known as haredim, and to subsidize their Torah studies in yeshivas. Was this not a mistake, given today’s reality of massive exemptions from military service and the social crisis caused by massive government subsidies of the haredi tendency to have disproportionately large families and not work?

Peres: Ben-Gurion appointed me to negotiate the [exemption from service] with them. I think it was in 1951. I saw in my mind’s eye my grandfather. I was not a neutral observer. At the time, we were talking about 100-150 yeshiva students altogether. The ultra-orthodox leaders said: If there is no exemption, the yeshivot will be established in other countries. [I thought:] Israel without yeshivot?

Peres implies that he is averse to today’s mass exemptions. He adds that he—and perhaps Ben-Gurion—expected the haredim to change over time and become productive members of society.
Peres: To be a haredi is not eternal.

Morris: It seems to be.

Haredi women are beginning to go to work; haredim are going to the army.

Morris: We’re still talking very small numbers.

Another vignette might make Rav Yisrael Salanter proud. One of the three prongs of Rav Yisrael’s formula for mussar growth was understanding kochos ha-nefesh, or what we would call astute comprehension of human behavior. According to President Peres, he achieved a key objective in crucial negotiations because his understanding of the Arab psyche in general – and that of Yasser Arafat in particular – was more important than what was written in the playbook for diplomatic maneuvering.

Morris: How did you speak?

In English. His English was poor. He was embarrassed [by it]. But in private he spoke freely in English. Let me tell you a story. About Hebron. We wanted to retain [part of] downtown Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the route to Kiryat Arba. In the end, it was decided Arafat and I would sit, alone, until there was smoke [i.e., until there was agreement]. I felt he was very nervous. He started talking in French, which he didn’t know. And he started tapping with his foot, what he always did when he was nervous. [Peres demonstrates.] I called him “rais” [Arabic for headman or president]. He called me “your excellency.” I said to him, “Rais, we can’t reach an agreement.”

I returned to my room. There, IDF head of Central Command, Gen. Ilan Biran, said: “This is catastrophic.” [He was referring to the fact that Arafat had not agreed to leave a small but crucial area of downtown Hebron in Israeli hands.] I go back to Arafat, knock on his door.

Arafat: “You all right?” Peres: “You got what you wanted. I didn’t. I left your room depressed. You are a general, I’m not. You are a president, and I’m not. You are an engineer, I’m not. You are a religious leader, I’m not. It’s no wonder that you got what you wanted and I negotiated like a fool.” Arafat: “Let me look at the map.” And then he agreed to what we wanted. He had received our respect, recognition. It worked.

Peres understood one of the most important principles of mediation. People’s stated goals are not always their real goals. Often, they are not fully aware of the real goals themselves. An experienced rebbe or rav or mediator can draw from experience and recognize what disputants really want and need, and solutions can be implemented when the other side can provide it.

(Thanks to Dr. Saul Newman for the tip.)

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9 Responses

  1. lacosta says:

    given that not all the heder-educated leadership were inherently anti-tora, one wonders had the haredi attitude to the zionist establishment been different between say 1880-1945 , one wonders if the face of the State could have looked different—ie the playing down of the Hashomer Hatzair aspects, maybe denuding the eidot hamizrach of their religious heritage could have been avoided…..

    but of course the Minchas Elazar, Rebbe Rashab , Satmar Rov represented the mainstream response of the torah world; and that violent theological interplay between Tora and State , and what they represent , will struggle until at least Mashiach comes , if not longer….

  2. aron feldman says:

    Happy to see that Benny Morris has done teshuva (at least intelectualy)

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    I found this sentance to be pivotal “I saw in my mind’s eye my grandfather. I was not a neutral observer.” to understanding why people of that generation had a soft spot for chareidim.

    In the full article he comments on how Bruno Kreisky was publicly very negative but privately helped Israel. Golda Meir had a very negative run in with him and found him to be very unhelpful. In the end, the future won’t come from assimilated Jews who don’t pass on any meaningful Jewish observances to the next generations. By the way, a “lone soldier” from the US was chosen to observe the Pesach Seder with Shimon Peres. He reported that it was a traditional orthodox seder with Peres leading it as the grandfather.

  4. dr. bill says:

    lacosta – you write “but of course the Minchas Elazar, Rebbe Rashab , Satmar Rov represented the mainstream response of the torah world.” If they represented the torah world, forget Rav Kook or the Rav ztl, but the likes of RSZA ztl have been excluded as well. What is sad about your comment is the desire by some to paint the chareidi world as uniform; it is not and neither the three rabbis mentioned or the remainder of the torah world are anything close to uniform. your major point about what might have been if the likes of Rav Kook or even many moderate chareidim held sway, is an interesting area for conjecture.

    and you write: “maybe denuding the eidot hamizrach of their religious heritage could have been avoided…..” Have you had significant interaction with the yemenite community in Israel? The many modern, frum members of that community who have integrated into Israeli society as productive and Torah observant, are, last i checked, fully clothed! Were families lost? ertainly. But the community is a vibrant part of the State of Israel

  5. Bob Miller says:

    We ought to at least try to be objective in our evaluation of the old guard secular Zionist leaders. Swinging from extreme to extreme in our assessment should be avoided.

  6. pk says:

    I don’t understand how you can write such a positive article about Shimon Peres. With his sponsorship of the Oslo Accords (which he pushed with all his might including lying about the change in the PLO charter), he is responsible for the death of over 1000 Jews. We will never forget that.

  7. Dov says:

    We see in recent parshios that Moshe Rabbeinu’s greatness is not diminished by the fact that he made a big mistake in striking the sela. Perhaps we can conclude that the greatness of an individual is in accomplishments, and is not diminished by well-intentioned mistakes. Well-intentioned mistakes are punished, but people appear to be judged by their accomplishments.

    Yes, le’havdil elef alfei havdalos. Le’havdil bein kodesh le’chol. But maybe it’s still a point worth thinking about.

  8. pk says:

    I don’t think that Shimon Peres’ mistakes were well intentioned. I think they were the result of his tremendous ego and desire for honor and glory in the non Jewish world. For this he was prepared to sacrifice the lives of many Jews (up to 1,500 men, women and little children). Jewish History will not be kind to him.

  9. Tziki says:

    pk and others…though SP is very responsible for oslo , he couldn’t have done w/o rabbinical help…like the golden calf needed aaron hacohen…

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