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If you like Shimon Peres's story, you might also like:
Ehud Barak,
Mikhail Gorbachev,
John Hume,
Albie Sachs,
Desmond Tutu
and Elie Wiesel

Shimon Peres can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Shimon Peres's recommended reading: Crime and Punishment

Related Links:
Peres Center for Peace
Nobel Prize
Shimon Peres

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Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres
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Shimon Peres Interview (page: 3 / 5)

Former President of Israel

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  Shimon Peres

Talk a little bit about Ben-Gurion. What he was like?

Shimon Peres: Let me tell you how I met him. I admired him before I met him. Once day, I was informed that Ben-Gurion would give me a ride from Tel Aviv to Haifa. At that time, it took two hours to do it. Imagine how excited I was! Here was my hero, my legendary man, and here was an unknown boy from nowhere. I thought, "My God, I'm going to have two hours with this man." It was a wintery day. I went to the car, and to my unpleasant surprise, he put on his coat, turned his back to me, and forgot about me.

Shimon Peres Interview Photo
I was sitting, so disappointed, up to the point we reached Haifa, very close to the place, and all of a sudden, he turned to me and he said, "You know, Trotsky was not a statesman." How did Trotsky arrive in the car at the last moment? I didn't know, but me being so much interested in having conversation, I said, "Why?" He said, "What do you mean why? What sort of a policy is that? No peace and no war? Either peace and pay the price, or war and take the risk. Otherwise it's a Jewish invention. It's not a political decision." And he said Lenin, who was intellectually inferior to Trotsky, became the leader of Russia because he made up his mind.

That was my first lesson from Ben-Gurion. Then I saw him making peace, and I saw him making war. He mobilized me before the war. The man was a very rare combination between a real intellectual and a born leader. There is a contradiction between the two.

Intellectuals are very slow to make up their minds, and even when they do it, they leave some room for skepticism and question. Not Ben-Gurion. He was never an intellectual bachelor. The minute he knew something, he has had an opinion. He was married with an opinion! But his talents were outstanding. I never saw a man with such a powerful memory like him. I can tell you stories upon stories to the depth and outstanding quality of him. He was a person that was always curious, learning, reading. There wasn't a day without him reading. He learned new languages, including ancient Greek. He was curious, for example, about Buddhism. I'm not so sure that they could understand him, because of this tendency to decide. Buddhism is not necessarily a religion made of decisions. On the other hand, he was a leader. Namely, he was decisive, had a strong will. Fearless, honest, and he all the time thought that the greatest degree of wisdom is the moral code. "Never be cynical. Never forget that every war is being fought twice -- once in the battlefield and then in the books of history." Don't forget the books of history. Don't do things that history will never forgive you. History means posterity, and it's the young generation.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

He was very organized. For example, one day he told me that he started to learn Hebrew when he was three or so. I told him, "Ben-Gurion, why were you waiting so much? You wasted three years. You should have started from the first day." He took it very seriously. He wouldn't waste time on small talk. He wouldn't waste time on jokes. He wouldn't waste time, for example, on eating properly. All those things were unimportant. So either he wouldn't refer to them, or minimized them. What was important is to think, to read, to decide, and to be courageous.

Shimon Peres Interview Photo
All told, in my judgment, he was a genius, because a genius, more than is just a matter of having outstanding talents, it's a matter of having an outstanding character. He was never afraid to be alone. He was never satisfied with a known answer. His priority was to put the right question, and he questioned everything he knew, fearlessly.

One day, he came to the conclusion that the story of Exodus is misinterpreted. The problem is "How many Jews left Egypt, 150 families? 150,000?" Because in Hebrew, eleph is both "thousand" and "family." And he came to the conclusion that it's 150 families. So he made a press conference. Television from the whole world attended, and he made a very lengthy expose to explain it. No other person would do it.

There was also another thing that I liked very much about him in the way of behavior. He never referred to the rank of a person, but only to his position. He would argue as seriously with a policeman as with a head of state. The other thing I liked is when he said "I" and when he said "we." Winning was "we," losing was "I." Taking responsibility. He was not an easy person. He wasn't a man of pleasantries. He was always organized, tough, serious. But for me, I worked with him 18 years, every day was a holiday, and I learned from him as much as one can from another person.

One of the things he (Ben-Gurion) said -- and I liked very much -- he said, "All experts are for things that happened. You don't have experts for things that may happen" -- which means, as he said, "If you really want to learn something, it's not enough to be up-to-date; you have to be up-to-tomorrow." That would be my first lesson, to look for the tomorrow. And eventually, I lost partly my interest in history, and I devoted most of my intellectual energies to the future. To this very day, I believe to imagine is more important than to remember. I don't believe in memories anyway, because memories in a way is to remember what to forget. You hardly remember the things that were not easy or were not right, and yet people think it is more important to remember than to think. That was my first lesson. My second lesson is, "Your best friends are not only human beings, but books." To read books is like going to swim in a sea of wisdom, endlessly fascinating. And there are so many wise people all over the world, throughout history, and you can have it free, for nothing. And reading must become a daily habit. It's not that you can read once a week. I read day in and day out, and you make acquaintances with books. After a few pages, you know with whom you are dealing. Serious, unserious, far-sighted, repetitive. That was my second lesson. My third lesson was, "Never forget there is nothing wiser than a moral choice." And the fourth point: "Don't be afraid to be alone." Future is always in a minority. So, if you want to be popular, go and praise the past. If you want to serve the future, don't be afraid to belong to a minority.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Could you tell us about the War of Independence and your role in it?

Shimon Peres: I joined the army as a private. I was offered a rank at that time, but I refused. I preferred to remain a private. First of all, I wasn't taken by ranks, and before I knew it, they put me in the most sensitive positions anyway. I thought if I should be a colonel or a general, there would always be somebody above me, but if I should be a soldier, nobody will command me. I shall be totally independent, and that's what happened. I was a private, but sitting in the heart of the Haganah, later in the army.

Israel was shocked to discover that once the United Nations has decided to enable the establishment of a Jewish state, and before we have had a state, we had a war, and all of a sudden, we are alone. We are outnumbered, outgunned. We saw then end of everything with our eyes. We knew the truth, that we don't have arms, we don't have people, and we may lose the war, which would be like losing the Jewish history. It would be the end of Jewish history. We couldn't understand it, even when we came to the United States. Truman, President Truman, recognized the State of Israel, yet refused to give us arms, rifles, for our self-defense. There was an embargo. And then, Ben-Gurion said, "Look, without rifles, we can do nothing." And he put me in charge to break the embargo and see what can be done.

Later on, there were some problems with our navy, so he made me the head of the navy -- all things that I hardly knew anything about. I was basically an ignorant young man.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 21:48 EST
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