‘Do you know what I’m supposed to do here?” It was May 1947 and Shimon Peres had arrived at the “Red House,” the Hagana headquarters located on Gordon Beach in central Tel Aviv.
The night before, the secretariat of the kibbutz where Peres lived in the Jordan Valley had held a vote and decided to send the 24-year-old to join the war effort.
But when he arrived, no one knew what to do with him. Wandering through the building, Peres bumped into an old acquaintance and asked if he had any tasks for him.
“No,” his friend replied. “We really don’t have anything.”
Peres slightly panicked. What would he tell the kibbutz secretariat when he returned home after just a day? But his friend told him not to worry.
Something will come up. In the meantime, he suggested that Peres take a seat in a nearby room. It was the office of the future IDF chief of staff Yaakov Dori, who was home sick.
Peres took a seat behind Dori’s large wooden desk.
Bored and curious, he opened one of the drawers and started sifting through its contents. He found a letter inside addressed to David Ben-Gurion, soon to be the country’s first prime minister, opened it and received the shock of his life.
In the letter, a Hagana general explained why he was turning down Ben-Gurion’s request to serve as the underground army’s chief of staff. While he was flattered by the offer, the general said that he could not responsibly lead a military that had only 6 million bullets in its arsenal.
“We will need 1 million bullets a day in a war and I am not willing to be chief of staff for just six days,” the general wrote.
Peres had heard that the situation was tough but he did not realize it was so dire. His shock though didn’t last long. There was work to do. Soon, he found himself at Ben-Gurion’s side, helping the new prime minister lead a war and run a network of agents spread out across the globe tasked with doing everything possible to get weapons and ammunition for the fledgling State of Israel.
That day shaped Peres’s life and set him on a course that would shape the history of a nation. It was Peres who came up with the idea in the early 1950s to establish Israel Aerospace Industries which would go on to become an international aviation conglomerate and the developer of some of Israel’s most advanced and sophisticated weapons and drones.
His hunt for weapons took him on adventures around the world – to Cuba, Colombia, Canada and the Far East. He never rested, always searching for new ways to get Israel a weapon that would help it survive.
In 1955 he made what might be his greatest contribution to Israel’s military might when he flew to Paris and succeeded in creating the connections needed to get France to start supplying arms to Israel. Those relations led a year later to France’s agreement to sell Israel a nuclear reactor. The deterrence the Dimona “textile factory” created with its construction in the 1950s resonates throughout the region still today.
All of those experiences taught Peres that Israel needed a qualitative military edge, and he dedicated his life to ensuring that Israel retained the upper technological hand over its adversaries.
What made Peres unique was his ability to see opportunity where others saw doom and peril. Peres arrived in Paris during one of the French Republic’s most chaotic periods, and Israeli government ministers were sure that Peres’s efforts to establish a strategic alliance with France would fail. But what some saw as a weakness, Peres viewed as an opportunity.
He realized that in the face of instability and disorder, he could navigate between the different government offices and establish the personal ties needed to make arms deals happen, no matter which party was in charge in Paris.
This constant search for opportunities and ways to advance Israel played a role in Peres’s transformation from the man who helped found the settlement movement to the architect of the Oslo Accords.
Peres believed – some will say naively – that peace with the Palestinians was possible. Until his last day, Peres searched for ways to restart the peace process. He fervently believed that the establishment of a Palestinian state was in Israel’s strategic interest and that failure to do so would lead Israel to disaster.
Peres’s life work lives on today in the IDF, the Israeli defense industry and throughout Israel’s universities. His refusal to give up and surrender to personal political losses, and his insistence on continuing to plow forward, helped create a culture in Israel that made it one of the world leaders today in technology, weapons and cyberwarfare.
Peres never gave up. Not when he was hunting for weapons, and not when efforts to make peace with the Palestinians failed. For many people, Peres’s death is the end of an Israel that once was, an Israel they hope will return one day.
Taking nothing away from Peres’s legend, I disagree.
Israel still has the vibrancy that Peres and the other founding fathers capitalized on when building the state in its early years. Israelis still have the insatiable hunger to renew and to innovate.
Can that be translated into the vision of a new Middle East as Peres dreamed? It depends on us.
ON SUNDAY, Jerusalem Post
readers will receive their newspapers with a copy of our special supplement listing who we – the committee that compiled the list – believe to be today’s 50 most influential Jews. The list is naturally subjective. There are those who will love it and those who will hate it. As the famous joke goes, put two Jews together and get three opinions. Now imagine a list with 50.
That is exactly our intention. We want to spark discussion and debate and most important – get people thinking how they too can influence the world.
Working on a list such as this takes time – to consider candidates, rank them and then of course, write the reasons behind their selection. I took the opportunity to give thought to what my own personal list would look like. Who would top the list in my life? Who have been my influencers? Last week, ahead of a conference I attended in Washington, I flew to Chicago for a day to visit my 88-year-old grandfather, Charles Lipshitz.
My grandfather was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1928.
He became bar mitzva in the Lodz Ghetto and was on one of the last transports to be sent out as the ghetto was liquidated in the spring of 1944. The next year was spent moving between various concentration camps – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Altheimer, Dachau – and the Death March, until the British liberated him from Bergen Belsen in April 1945.
His family, except for his older brother, was wiped out in the war. His parents and sister, alongside countless aunts, uncles and cousins, were gone.
But he didn’t give up. My grandfather didn’t surrender to the death that engulfed him. He pushed forward, moved to the US, started a family and built a successful business. Still today, at the age of 88, he spends hours a day on the computer, including trading stocks and options.
Seeing my grandfather, tenacious as ever, reminded me of Peres. Here were two men born a few years apart, raised in different circumstances but who both refused to fall into the trap of pessimism. They both rose above the ashes of destruction, hardship and wars to build a new and better world.
On the eve of Rosh Hashana that is my wish for us all. The world is an increasingly dangerous place. But alongside the challenges, there are always opportunities. It is up to us to find and take advantage of them.