Israeli leaders are readers

All of the presidents who made it on to the American pantheon that is Mount Rushmore – Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Roosevelt – were all serious readers.

A woman searches through books 370 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A woman searches through books 370
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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 years ago.”
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.”
In 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.
Netanyahu 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 for Netanyahu.
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.”
But vegetarian Justice Minister Tzipi Livni took Netanyahu’s side, saying, “I’ll give you Jonathan Safran Foer’s book [Eating Animals], which strengthens this insight.”
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.
Chaim 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 Zion.
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 minister.
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 English.”
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 spectacles.”
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 readers.
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.