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David Ben-Gurion in his study, circa 1965Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/Getty Images
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Prime Ministers of the Book

Israel’s three most significant leaders were also dedicated readers

by
Tevi Troy
November 21, 2022
Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/Getty Images
David Ben-Gurion in his study, circa 1965Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/Getty Images

With Bibi Netanyahu’s forthcoming ascension to the Israeli premiership for the third time, it is clear that he now ranks, along with founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, as one of Israel’s three most important and influential prime ministers to date. Since 40% of Israelis between the ages of 16 and 65 read at least one book a week, it may not be accidental that, in addition to their enormous roles in shaping the modern state of Israel, all three men shared a prodigious, perhaps even obsessive, love of books.

Ben-Gurion was the first and perhaps the most creative reader. His library had books in multiple languages, and he had a well-cultivated appetite to read books in the original language. As far back as 1922, Ben-Gurion had a library of 775 books, in English, German, Hebrew, French, Arabic, Latin, Russian, Turkish, and Greek. He even worked on Spanish so that he could read a book on Spinoza in Spanish, a project he undertook with his friend Yitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president. The two men apparently enjoyed the project so much that they then took up the reading of Cervantes’ Don Quixote together in Spanish as well.

Nor was Ben-Gurion’s appetite for reading books in their original languages limited to Spanish. Ben-Gurion also worked with Navon on reading Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed) in Arabic with Hebrew characters, which is how Maimonides wrote it. The Hebrew characters were easy for him: He started a Zionist Hebrew speaking club at age 13 in his native Poland. The Arabic vocabulary, however, required extra effort.

Ben-Gurion was reluctant to have television permitted in the early days of the state because, he believed, “Jews should continue to read books.” Fortunately for fans of Fauda and other popular Israeli TV shows, Ben-Gurion did not get his way.

Ben-Gurion’s collection eventually reached 18,000 books. Although he was known as a frugal man, his main indulgence was in both buying books and having them shipped to Israel, an expensive proposition in the early days of the state. He particularly loved the wisdom of the Greeks and read Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War a reported 16 times. With a Greek dictionary at hand, he also read the Septuagint version of the Book of Genesis.

In 2009, a law professor named Orly Lobel reviewed the books in Ben-Gurion’s collection at his Tel Aviv apartment, concluding that, “In a pre-Internet, pre-TV, low-tech era, Ben-Gurion read everything, in Hebrew, English and Spanish. Plato, Kant, Mill and Gandhi; biology and Jewish thought, economics and poetry, physics and philosophy journals. In the middle, an entire wall is covered with books on Buddhism, yoga and Zen thought.”

As much as Ben-Gurion loved books, he hated the revisionist Israeli politician Menachem Begin. He loathed Begin so much that he refused to say his name, generally referring to him in the Knesset as “the gentleman sitting to the right of Mr. [Yohanan] Bader.” The enmity Ben Gurion had for Begin was a shame, for both men shared a serious love of books. According to Yehuda Avner, Begin “loved to read.” Begin told Avner that “history and political biographies are my favorite topics, and these I generally read in English.” Begin biographer Avi Shilon wrote that, while growing up in Poland, young Begin “spent most of his time reading books with his thick spectacles.” Begin’s hero and mentor Zev Jabotinsky was also a literary man, known for his skillful translations of Poe’s The Raven and some of Dante’s Inferno and for his novels Samson and The Five. Begin biographer Daniel Gordis observed that, “There is no understanding Begin without understanding Jabotinsky.” (The famed Altalena, the ship that was bringing weapons to Begin’s Irgun faction and was destroyed on the orders of Ben-Gurion, was actually named after Jabotinsky’s Italian pseudonym from his days as a writer.)

Begin’s reading interests were more narrow than either Jabotinsky or Ben-Gurion, focusing mostly on history and biography. Philosophy, poetry, novels and art were not part of his reading diet. He was, however, a huge consumer of news. According to Gordis, Begin regularly read “every major Israeli newspaper, as well as the Times of London, Le Monde, TIME, and Newsweek.” There was a practical element to his reading. In advance of the Camp David summit, he read Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s autobiography. In subsequent years, he also read the autobiography of Jehan Sadat, Sadat’s widow, in addition to books by American journalists like Bob Woodward and William Safire.

Netanyahu shares a revisionist political outlook with Begin and a love of books with both Begin and Ben-Gurion. Bibi’s link to books began in his youth. He and his brother Yoni both read obsessively. Bibi would also carry around a notebook in which he would write down unfamiliar words he read so that he could look them up later. Yoni adopted the same practice.

Yoni influenced Bibi as well, recommending Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which became a favorite book of Bibi’s. As Bibi described his association with reading, “When I was a kid I would read, and later, as a young man, I read more, and as an adult I read even more.” As Bibi biographer Ben Caspit described Netanyahu’s adult reading, “Bibi spent much of those years reading all the histories and biographies he could lay his hands on, as well as collections of the important political and economic essays of the day.”

Bibi’s favorite subject was American history, an interest that continues today. And, like Begin, he reads mostly in English. But he is more like Ben-Gurion in his varied interests. According to Ronit Vardi, “Netanyahu is very well read in a wide range of subjects (art, history, and business) loves to quote (usually accurately) from books that he has read, and has a tendency to support his own views with those of outstanding historical figures.”

Bibi also has a huge appreciation for Winston Churchill. Caspit found that Bibi sees himself as a modern-day Churchill, “a man who doesn’t go with the flow, is not afraid to speak his mind, identifies the dreadful dangers lurking in wait for his nation, and declares war on them no matter how unpopular it is.” Caspit also claims, perhaps implausibly, that “Bibi read every work Churchill wrote and every book written about him.” Given that there are an estimated 80 million words written by and about Churchill, it seems unlikely that anyone could have accomplished this feat. In any event, the fact that Caspit can even make the claim is revealing of the extent of Bibi’s Churchill obsession.

Like Churchill, Bibi combines his intellectual interests with his political career. Bibi does this in numerous ways. After he read Michael Makovsky’s book on Churchill and Zionism, Churchill’s Promised Land, he invited Makovsky in for an hourlong conversation. Michael Oren, an historian who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington under Bibi, attributes his position to Bibi’s having read his work. According to Oren, “Netanyahu, it turned out, had read my book Power, Faith and Fantasy and was impressed by my knowledge of American history in the Middle East. He regarded understanding the past as the key to interpreting the present. This was perhaps the main reason I even merited an interview.”

Bibi’s first book, Terrorism: How the West Can Win, was apparently read by Ronald Reagan on Air Force One. Bibi has subsequently used books as gifts for politicians in order to send a variety of messages. He gave Pope Francis a history of the Spanish Inquisition. Even though Bibi is known to choose these gifts carefully, sometimes they can alienate. He gave Barack Obama a mint condition copy of Mark Twain’s book, Innocents Abroad, which could have been taken as a dig at Obama’s political inexperience. Another time he gave Obama a copy of the Book of Esther, using it to remind Obama that, as with the Iranian nuclear program today, there had been previous Persian efforts to destroy the Jews.

Bibi’s habit of gifting books has been noticed and reciprocated. On his 2016 visit to Beijing, he was given a Chinese translation of Sefer Yad ha-Hazaka (The Book of the Strong Hand) by Maimonides. The book came on a nanochip, which Bibi enjoyed.

Bibi will also deploy his lifetime of reading to win over audiences as appropriate. In 2015, when he won the Irving Kristol award at the American Enterprise Institute, he made clear to the assembled crowd that he had read the works of Irving Kristol and appreciated that in Kristol’s works, “political correctness was thrown out of the window,” a phrase that was catnip for that particular crowd. He also made it clear that he had read Kristol’s wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, as well as former U.S. Ambassador to the UN and AEI fellow Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

Bibi’s heavy reading continues to this day. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman recalls in his recent book, Sledgehammer, that even when Bibi had just small windows of time while flying on a helicopter, “instead of closing his eyes or gazing out the window, his staff always had on hand a massive tome of historical nonfiction that he poured over studiously until landing.”

In a new podcast interview with “Call Me Back’s” Dan Senor, Bibi spoke of his upbringing with his professor father, Bentzion Netanyahu. Living with professor Netanyahu meant that he was effectively “Born and raised in a library.” Bibi added that he had read “voraciously,” especially what he called “My guide, history books.” Bibi also recalled a conversation in which he asked his father about the most important quality a leader has to have?” Professor Netanyahu’s response: “One word: education, a deep and broad education.”

So what can we learn from all this reading of Israel’s most influential prime ministers? First of all, it’s by no means clear that all Israeli prime ministers have been readers. Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, for example, did not have such reputations. Neither did Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert.

Second, it is interesting that all three of the big readers, Ben-Gurion, Begin, and Netanyahu, seem to lack a certain level of comfort with other people. About Ben-Gurion, Tom Segev wrote, “The books could also take the place of friends he did not have.” Begin was particularly close to his wife, Aliza, and became a near recluse after she passed away. And Bibi is almost legendary for the way in which he has driven away friends and proteges. When Bibi alienates former colleagues, they seem to develop an almost unhealthy level of hatred towards him, often to the point where they make politically damaging decisions based on their intense dislike for their former mentor.

This assiduous book reading also shows that each of the men thought deeply and intentionally about the history of the Jewish people. Bibi loves to read biographies of Zionist leaders, including Ben-Gurion, despite their many political and ideological disagreements. In addition, while all three men came from distinctive ideologies, Ben-Gurion on the left and Begin and Bibi on the right, each made his mark as a pragmatist who proved adaptable to different political and geopolitical circumstances. Perhaps reading helped.

The great thing about reading is that it helps you learn about the past and make comparisons to the present. As Bibi ascends to premiership for the third time, perhaps he will absorb new and powerful lessons from history from past leaders, many of whom, including Begin and Ben-Gurion, stayed on the political scene past their expiration dates. One great lesson from history that Bibi should consider for this next stint is that it’s always best to go out on top.

Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute. He is a former White House aide and the author of four books on the presidency, including, most recently, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.

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