Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu began a recent speech with words that are not
too common coming out of the mouths of modern leaders: “I recently read a
hundred-page book by a wonderful American historian who passed away nearly 50
The historian was Will Durant, and Netanyahu referenced
Durant’s Lessons of History to make the point that Durant generally believed
greater numbers would triumph over lesser numbers, except in the case where the
lesser numbers had attained a rare state of “cultural unification.”
Netanyahu’s view, Israel’s survival in its tough neighborhood could be
attributed to its successful cultural unification, something that Israel must
continue to maintain in the years ahead.
This reference is far from the
only instance of Netanyahu’s steady reading. Before his hernia surgery this
summer, Netanyahu read Michael Makovsky’s Churchill’s Promised Land, a history
of Winston Churchill’s ambivalent relationship with Zionism.
was sufficiently taken with the book that he invited Makovsky to his office for
an hour-long talk about it. This is somewhat reminiscent of the American
President Teddy Roosevelt, who would track down authors of books he enjoyed and
begin relationships with them.
More recently, The New York Times reported
that Netanyahu read Niall Ferguson’s 2011 book Civilization: The West and the
Rest on a flight to New York.
Books are not just an intellectual exercise
They have diplomatic and policy implications as well. He
gave President Barack Obama a copy of the Book of Esther as a not-so-subtle
reminder of the time in history when elements of the Persian government tried
unsuccessfully to wipe out the Jewish people.
Haaretz even ran an article
detailing the books Netanyahu might be reading as he was making the decision
whether to launch a preemptive strike on Iran.
On the domestic front,
Netanyahu’s referred in a cabinet meeting to his reading of A Brief History of
Humankind, by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, adding that book taught him that “animals
are more conscious than we thought, which is bothering me and making me think
twice” about the issue of animal rights.
In a classic only-in-Israel
moment, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir objected to the book reference,
offering: “I’ll give you a book with a converse agenda.”
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni took Netanyahu’s side, saying, “I’ll give you
Jonathan Safran Foer’s book [Eating Animals], which strengthens this
IT SHOULD come as no surprise that the political leaders of the
“People of the Book” are immersed in the printed word. The founders of the State
of Israel were extremely heavy readers, who were also apt to quote books they
read and brought insights from books into their policy agendas.
Weizman, Israel’s first president, had an odd tendency to read anti-Semitic
works to convince himself and others of the need for a Jewish homeland. In 1932,
he had read Mein Kampf and, correctly believing Hitler meant what he said,
encouraged Jews to get out of Germany. He also read material he found in
abandoned British offices, including The Protocols of the Elders of
Weizmann’s reading went beyond anti-Semitic works, of course. His
home in Israel remains lined with his many books, in multiple languages. He
shared this tendency with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime
Ben-Gurion was a stickler for reading books in their original
languages, even learning Spanish so that he could read the works of Baruch
Spinoza and then later Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Ben-Gurion also read Maimonides’
Guide to the Perplexed in Arabic written in Hebrew letters, as Maimonides had
originally composed it.
Ben-Gurion even initially opposed allowing
television in Israel, making the novel and yet not incorrect argument that “Jews
should continue to read books.”
TV did come to Israel, of course, but
Ben-Gurion’s successors continued to read, especially Menachem Begin. Yehuda
Avner’s portrait of Begin in The Prime Ministers centers on the fact that Begin
“loved to read.”
Avner also quotes Begin as saying “history and political
biographies are my favorite topics, and these I generally read in
As with most readers, Begin came by his bibliophilia in his
youth. Begin biographer Avi Shilon notes that the young Begin, growing up in
Poland, “spent most his time reading books with his thick
The Begin Center in Jerusalem today has over 5,200 books,
many of them from Begin’s personal collection.
In these reading habits,
Israel’s prime ministers are reminiscent of America’s Founding Fathers. The
Founders were heavy readers who incorporated their reading into their public
lives, and read important works in multiple languages.
Jefferson had a
library of over 6,000 books, while Adams had over 3,000 books in his collection.
Reading has not been as important a part of the lives of all of our subsequent
presidents, but it is telling that the American founders, like the Israeli
founders, read serious works that helped inform them on the key questions of
what makes for a just and fair society.
As for their successors, reading
has waxed and waned, but leaders aiming for greatness in either country should
note that all of the presidents who made it on to the American pantheon that is
Mount Rushmore – Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Roosevelt – were all serious
The writer, a presidential historian, is the author of What
Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in
the White House and a former deputy secretary of the US Department of Health and
Human Services and Acting Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy.