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If you like Shimon Peres's story, you might also like:
Ehud Barak,
Mikhail Gorbachev,
John Hume,
Albie Sachs,
Desmond Tutu
and Elie Wiesel

Shimon Peres can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Shimon Peres's recommended reading: Crime and Punishment

Related Links:
Peres Center for Peace
Nobel Prize
Shimon Peres

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Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres
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Shimon Peres Interview

Former President of Israel

May 2, 2003
Washington, D.C.

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  Shimon Peres

Let's begin with your childhood, before you emigrated to Israel. What do you remember of your European childhood? Where were you born?

Shimon Peres: I was born in a small Jewish shtetl that -- during the two wars, the first and the second it was under Polish control -- but otherwise it was Belarus. Russians. And they hated the Poles. They wouldn't speak the language. The place I was born was a very small place, totally Jewish, and we were living neither in Poland nor in Russia. We were living in Israel from the day I was born, even before emigrating.

It was the dream of Israel?

Shimon Peres Interview Photo
Shimon Peres: It was the dream. I went to a Hebrew school. At our home, we spoke three languages: Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. In my family, we have had members of the Likud and members of the left. There was a very vivid argument going on all the time. I remember myself as a totally independent boy.

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Shimon Peres: Yes. I have a brother younger than me. My mother was a librarian, so from her, I got the taste to read. You wouldn't believe it, but by the age of nine, I had already read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. I couldn't sleep at night; it bothered me tremendously. I think I was living in my imagination much more than I was living in my realities. I was a reader. I was a dreamer.

What other books do you remember from that era?

Shimon Peres Interview Photo
Shimon Peres: Probably the most known is Sholem Aleichem, but there were others. There were many Hebrew books. There was one that Avraham Mapu wrote about the future of Israel. There were good boys and bad boys. The good boys were clearly Zionist. I was on his side, he was on my side. We had a total agreement. My grandfather educated me, basically. He studied in a yeshiva. You know what a yeshiva is? A yeshiva is sort of a rabbinical seminary, but not with all the formalities. They study the Talmud and the Mishnah and the Bible. My grandfather and my father were born in Volozhin, home of the most famous Yeshiva in Jewish life.

My grandfather studied together with our greatest poet, by the name of Chaim Nachman Bialik, who is considered our national poet to this very day. And from him, I learned the Talmud, the Bible. As a young boy, he taught me every day a page of the Talmud. I was under his spell. He was a rabbi. I was extremely religious when I was a young boy. It's only when I emigrated to Israel that I divorced my orthodox behavior and concept and changed my dress. I changed my eyes, I changed my outlooks, I changed my behavior. It was like moving from one world to another world, except for one thing, for the love of Israel, for the knowledge of the Hebrew language. That was my world.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Your town, your shtetl, what was it like?

Shimon Peres: Our shtetl was 100 kilometers south of Minsk, which is the capital of Belarus. There were, I think, a thousand Jewish families, no non-Jewish persons there. There were two synagogues, built of wood. There was a Hebrew school that we attended. There were Israeli political parties with branches there. Like it's common among the Jewish people, we were deeply divided, and we loved the division. Highly polemic and argumentative.

I came to Israel when I was 11 years old. I thought I was a prepared Israeli, but Israel was a total surprise. First of all, the place I came from had gray skies. I never saw a blue sky really in Belarus. It was half-wintery all year round. It had a river that I took for granted. The trees were high and powerful. We were surrounded by a forest. We never knew what was behind the forest. We know that behind the forest, there were non-Jewish people that don't like us.

Were there pogroms?

Shimon Peres: No, but...

There was one occasion when I was very young -- eight years or seven years old -- that Jewish businessmen went through the forest, and they were assassinated. And that was for the first time I saw in our paper where there were assassinations in our place. I saw the story of assassination. It bothered me greatly. We have had a happy childhood. My family was well-to-do. We didn't have electricity. We had a radio operated on batteries which I destroyed, because my parents used it on shabbat, on Saturday, and I was so religious that I would not permit it to happen.

You were more religious than your parents?

Shimon Peres: Oh, by far, by far. I was as religious as my grandfather, and they were already more secular, as were many of the others.

You started in politics when you were very young. What inspired you to get involved at such a young age?

Shimon Peres: I don't think I made a major choice to become a politician.

When I was a young man in Israel, our major goal ideologically and otherwise was to become farmers, members of a kibbutz. So I joined in a youth movement that sent me to an agricultural school where I got my main education. There, we organized a small nucleus of boys and girls to go and build a kibbutz, and we went to build a kibbutz, but while doing all this, at school and later on at the kibbutz, there was a great debate taking place in Israel on two major issues. One, who represents the world of tomorrow? The Socialists? The Communists? The Soviet Union, or the democracy, the free world? And what actually does stem from our ideology?

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Shimon Peres Interview Photo
My mentor was Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state, and he said, "I am not for an imported socialism. We don't need Marx, and we don't need Lenin, and we don't need even Léon Blum. Our ideologues come from the Bible. Basically two: Prophet Amos, with a social temperament and Isaiah, with a political temperament." I identified with Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion was very anti-Stalin, very anti-Communist. He called them the most terrible names. He thought, "They are dictators. They are killers." And that was at a time when the world had still many intellectuals who looked upon Russia as a promise.

That was before we knew all that Stalin was doing?

Shimon Peres: Yes. That was, say, in '38, '37, '39. And the second issue: What should be the future of Israel? Is the land the most important choice, and for that reason to keep the whole of the land at any cost, or to have a partition and build the Jewish state on part of the land? And the other part? "Leave it. Let's leave it to the Palestinians." Here again, I felt that I am with Ben-Gurion.

I joined in this youth movement, and I was elected to the secretariat of the movement. There were 12 members of the secretariat. I was the only one among the 12 who was on the side of Ben-Gurion; all the others were Marxist-oriented and were for the wholeness of Israel. Before I knew it, I found myself in a fight, and it took a little bit of time, but finally I won a majority in the youth movement. So before I knew it, I was in politics.

How old were you?

Shimon Peres: I was 15 or 16 years old. Then I went to the kibbutz, and worked on the land, but I continued my fight. I was very much engaged in it. It concerned me. After this very surprising victory in the youth movement -- nobody believed in Israel that this can happen - -all of a sudden, I found myself a very demanded person in the political life, and that's how it started.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 21:48 EDT
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