My Afternoon with Shimon Peres

Pioneer from Heroic Times, and What He Said About Love

/ by Jacqueline Raoul Duval

Jérusalem. 1988.

The first thing I remember, aside from the date, 1988, is that Shimon Peres, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave me an appointment for a Sunday afternoon meeting in Jerusalem. The Israeli taxi driver went round and round, calling out to passersby who shook their head--nobody knew where the Minister of Foreign Affairs was. I begin to feel uneasy when the cab stops short in front of a gray, two-story building. “This is the place,” says the driver. At the door, a barely visible plaque, written discreetly in Hebrew and in English: “Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” In the doorway, a young man in shirtsleeves does not request any identification or ask to inspect my purse, swollen because of my tape recorder.

A narrow stairway, no carpet. On the first floor, an entire wall papered with black-and-white photos of heads of state and ministers. I only have time to recognize Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. Minister Peres himself, dressed in an elegant navy-blue suit appears in front of me, very slender, all smiles, “Shalom, shalom, come on in.” Surrounding him, a television, tape recorder, and teleprinter. Behind, a large Israeli flag. In front, two armchairs and a low, IKEA-style coffee table.

He speaks in English in a low voice. He outlines in broad strokes his life story, which I had studied the night before. It is in the Lithuanian village of Vichneva that, on August 21,1923 Shimon Persky was born. His Hassidic paternal grandfather sings, dances, drinks; his austere, intransigent maternal grandfather dedicates his life to studying the Talmud, but allows himself the company of Tolstoy a bit more than that of Dostoyevsky. It is this grandfather who teaches Shimon the Bible and the Gemara, who each morning and evening officiates at his little synagogue. It is there that, several years later, the grandfather will perish in flames, burned alive by the Nazis.

The mother of Shimon, Sarah is, without being aware of it, a feminist who transgresses all the laws. A librarian passionate about literature, she transmits to her son her independence of spirit and her literary tastes. The Minister adds: “I never saw hair as black as that of my mother, or skin as white and satin smooth. She was short, round. We all got quiet whenever she sang. She taught me a lot.”

Shimon, from his earliest years, speaks Russian with his peasant neighbors, Polish with the merchants, Yiddish and Hebrew with his community. All the Jews of Vichneva talk of nothing but the Promised Land. At age 10, Shimon writes poems to the glory of Zion. His first love is the Land of Israel. In 1932, his father, who is in the timber business, leaves to scout out the place. Two years later, his family joins him in Tel Aviv. Shimon, at age 11, discovers the sea, the light of the Mediterranean, vineyards, olive groves, the heady perfume of orange blossoms. “But in school, they make fun of my size. I am short, skinny, my skin is too white and delicate, my Hebrew ridiculous.”

From a very young age, he joins youth movements, attends political rallies, registers with the Labor Party, Hanoar Haoved. At 14, this brilliant student decides to leave school and his paternal home to join a kibbutz.

“What did your parents say?”

“More than anyone, it was my mother who supported me; she was a very calm, reserved woman who never called attention to herself; her primary virtue was self-control but, you know, at the time we were all living with the same fever, the same religion: to construct the country, to dedicate our life and all our strength to it.”

“What did you do in this kibbutz?”

“I learned to raise vegetables, to milk cows. I no longer wore a skullcap nor respected the Sabbath. We worked every day of the week, starting at dawn.”

Next door to the kibbutz lived Sonia, a teenager with blonde braids. In order to charm her, he reads her Das Kapital; He is 14. He is in love.

“What is it that makes a person fall in love?”

“I think it’s very hard to explain. The one you love may not have any of the qualities that you are seeking, but sometimes a single first glance is all that it takes. Love is indefinable and mysterious. You realize that you don't know everything about the person with whom you spend many years; men are, I believe, both aware and blind! It's an art not to see everything, not to analyze everything, to forget. It takes talent in order to feel, to love; at the center of each of us lies an enigma and all our interpretations remain incomplete.

Women have a very important role, they are a different sort of being. Engels used to say that each woman carries within herself a civilization. We learn more from women than we do from men. There are things that they, and they alone, can teach us. A sort of spontaneous, instinctive insight into human nature. One that we will never have.”

“Was Sonia interested in politics?”

“More in music and theater. But she supported me in whatever I undertook.”

1943. A decisive date. Ben Gurion asks to meet Shimon Persky, who is being talked about by everyone. Ben Gurion asks Shimon to accompany him to Haïfa. During the whole trip, he doesn't say a single word, with the exception, on arrival, of this sibylline sentence: "Trotsky was not a head of state." Shortly afterwards, Ben Gurion charges him with a secret mission: to draw up Military Ordnance Survey Maps for the Negev, a prohibited area controlled by the British. A group of 14, each from a different discipline, sets out together. Shortly before arriving at the Red Sea, they discover, in a hollow tree trunk, a very rare bird of prey. The zoologist of the group identified it as a pérès, and he proposes baptizing the head of the expedition. Shimon Persky will henceforth call himself Peres. 

At this moment in our interview, a young man in blue jeans and sneakers makes his entrance, carrying a cardboard tray, glasses of water, and cups of coffee that one would expect to find at the Boy Scouts. This detail moved me much more than the exemplary austerity of the place, the absence of protocol--this is a true country of pioneers, I said to myself, and I drank the water and the coffee with a feeling of extreme contentment.

My interlocutor reminds me of what happened at the end of this mission. Lord Asquit arrests the entire team, and throws them in prison in Beersheba. Shimon, who speaks Arabic, bribes the guard, swears to be absent only during the night, and to return to the prison at dawn. He dashes off to Tel Aviv in an old taxi, puts the Ordnance Survey maps that the team had made for the Negev in a safe place, and returns to the prison where he will stay for a month! A time to think more about Sonia, about their too-short meetings, about future plans.

“Has Sonia always been at your side?”

“Sonia has played a decisive role in my life, without her my career would not be what it is today. Sonia is a perpetual source of comfort. A person of exemplary discretion, she prefers to stay out of the limelight, her dream would be to live in the country, but she supports me in everything that I do. She accepts being only a part of my life--I have been, and I am so often, away from home for such long periods.”

The first of May, 1945 (a member of the Labor Party couldn't have chosen any other date), they marry, they were twenty, and lived in a modest kibbutz. During the years that follow, he is charged with traversing the world, buying canons, planes, tanks, rifles. Fake film makers pretend to be making a movie in Great Britain for which they rent planes which, once airborne, head straight for Israel.

In 1950, Shimon, Sonia, and their daughter Zvia leave for New York, so Shimon can learn English, complete his studies, find money to buy arms. Their first night in the United States is jail. Their passports are too new, and they're thought to be illegal immigrants. Two years later, they are back in Israel, and Shimon’s career takes off. He will be Minister of Trade, of Transportation, of Defense, of Immigration, of Communication, of Foreign Affairs, and three times Prime Minister.

To relive this moment in the office of Shimon Peres fills me with emotion. I find myself taking special notice of the extreme changes taking place in Israel on so many levels--social, cultural, economic, political, religious, territorial--since that afternoon.

It was a Sunday in the spring of 1988.

It feels like a century ago!

And Shimon Peres is no longer. The last of the pioneers has left us.

(Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney)

Jacqueline Raoul Duval
born Lily Khayat in Tunisia, was first professor of history and geography. Literary director for years in Paris, she wrote as a ghost-writer for others until the day she decided to write for herself. "Kafka, l’éternel fiancé"(Flammarion) has been translated in eleven countries. Her last one « La nuit de Noces »( L’Age d’Homme) is quite autobiographical.