I interviewed Shimon Peres a few years ago in connection with my new biography of Golda Meir (to be published next September). At his insistence I first read a eulogy he had delivered about Golda, filled with praise. I knew from my research that their relationship had not been all that smooth, and when I wondered out loud at our meeting whether there had been difficulties between them, the floodgates burst open.
Among other things, Peres said, they had been fiercely competitive when she was Israel’s foreign minister and he director general of the defense department. He developed close ties with France — at a time when the United States was not particularly friendly to Israel — that led to Israel’s purchase of much-need arms and its first nuclear reactor. And he worked — schemed, from Golda’s viewpoint — behind her back, which she resented greatly, as she did the intimacy he established with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s legendary head of state.
According to Peres, he and Golda reconciled in her later years. But reading about him after his death on Sept. 28, I was struck by the contrast between his many outstanding accomplishments and the tensions that ran through his life: his rivalry with Golda and his more public and intractable competition with Yitzhak Rabin; the respect he received outside Israel, and the disdain he frequently suffered within it. And he was not the only one of Israel’s founding generation to experience rivalries, tensions and clashing temperaments. They were an intense, often difficult lot, those early founders. Ben-Gurion, for example, lashed out furiously at Levi Eshkol, his successor as prime minister, and broke with Moshe Sharett, once a close partner.
But here is the thing about that group: Whatever their differences and faults, they were single-mindedly devoted to their goal of creating an independent state for the Jewish people. They invariably put that goal and their love for their nation ahead of everything else. Even in the midst of harsh quarrels, they could rise above the immediate and keep the ideal before them.
Peres’ death and the election we face in a few weeks have set me thinking hard about what leadership means and what qualities his generation, and others before it, had that lie at the heart of what we need to look for in a leader. I think back even to ancient times, to Moses, arguably the greatest leader in Jewish history. Moses had his flaws — the Bible never hides its heroes’ weaknesses. He was quick-tempered. He killed an Egyptian whom he saw beating an Israelite, without considering the consequences. He smashed the first set of tablets God gave him, enraged at the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf. Later, defying God’s command, he struck a rock to get water, thus forfeiting his place in the Promised Land. Yet, in his great love for his people, he rejected God’s offer to destroy them and create a new nation under his leadership. If God won’t forgive the Israelites, “Erase me then from the record you have written,” Moses says, putting the people’s well-being ahead of personal ambition, even ahead of his own life.
I think of Deborah, who led the Jews during the period of the Judges. She may have been a bit boastful in the song she sang after Israel won a great victory, but she could lead the nation to that victory because she understood the danger it faced. Deborah had years of experience sitting under a palm tree peacefully serving as a judge. But she knew when military action was required and she risked her life to lead Israel’s general, Barak, into battle. And I think of King David, perhaps the most flawed of all the nation’s leaders. He messed up his family life, remaining silent after one son raped his daughter, and excessively mourning another son who actually tried to overthrow him. Yet David won the nation’s love because of his humanity and his vision. David was a dreamer who looked ahead, always striving for what might be instead of being fixed on what was. He turned Jerusalem, then an undeveloped town, into the capital of Israel; he pictured building a temple to the Lord, a task his son would later fulfill; and he united a country bitterly divided between north and south into one nation.
No leader encompassed every key leadership trait, but the best in both modern Israel and ancient times shared fundamental qualities of experience and good judgment, a vision of a better future and, above all, devotion to their people. In the fraught presidential election ahead, both candidates certainly have flaws, but only one has the experience and judgment, a clear-cut view of what the nation needs, and years of devotion to public service. Only she is qualified to be the next president of the United States.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her biography of Golda Meir will be published by Schocken Books in 2017.