The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership by Yehuda Avner.
When I was in school (100 years ago?), I yawned my way through history class and tackled my homework via memorization of explorers, dates, and other arcane information which seemingly bore no relation to teenage me.
Fast forward 100 years (she wrote with a smile) and I have just finished reading The Prime Ministers- An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership by Yehuda Avner. I am now an avid fan due to Avner’s first person account of his association with these dynamic prime ministers of Israel, from Levi Eshkol to Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin.
Yehuda Avner grew up in Manchester, England and, as he writes, “though a mere school lad at the time, albeit close to graduation, I knew enough to know that Menachem Begin was the arch fiend of the British in Palestine.” Avner the Zionist became Avner the kibbutznik and, after a few consequential chapters in the book, Yehuda Avner in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “one of fifteen greenhorns sitting stiffly upright in straight-backed chairs listening to Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Israel’s most celebrated model of straight-laced probity.” Golda Meir shines as a woman “as plucky as Deborah, at times as witty as Wilde…as jovial as Jeremiah when pontificating about Labor Zionism.”
We are the proverbial fly on the wall as we join the author and two aides in the back seat of President Johnson’s jeep (“After an exchange of ‘Howdees’ the president squeezed his bulk into the driver’s seat, with Mr. Eshkol at his side…and drove at high speed across white-fenced fields and gunned his vehicle down rutted dirt tracks, causing us all to bounce crazily about.”).
We are with Golda Meir as she meets with the soldiers during the Yom Kippur War, soldiers who were “reservists, plucked from their synagogues on Yom Kippur to reinforce the desperately stretched line that was holding back the Syrians along the crest of the Golan Heights.”
We witness the deliberations and daring rescue of the hijacked hostages during the raid on Entebbe, listening to Menachem Begin address the Knesset and compare the brave armed forces to the “generation of the Maccabees.” And we witness a “shy and awkward Yitzhak Rabin” host “an exuberant American Jewish solidarity mission in the garden of his official Jerusalem residence”; the visitors then provided some unintentional comic relief as they registered their “feelings of solidarity and kinship in the prime minister’s official guest book”:
“Mr. Rabin, I think you’re doing a swell job, but next time it would be nice if you’d put on a proper yarmulke.”
“Yitzhak- because of what our boys did at Entebbe I upped my pledge to a couple of grand. I’ll up it again if you rub out Arafat.”
“Mr. Prime Minister, I run a big business, so if you’d like some help on how to run your little country I’d be happy to oblige free, gratis, and for nothing.”
And the romp through history continues- President Reagan resorting to index cards for cues on talking points with Begin, the author goaded into experiencing the inside of a tank, where he had the “sense of being inside a percussion instrument,” Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat- out of order in this review but all living and breathing in the pages of Avner’s book.
The author ends his chronicle with a quote from Menachem Begin, who, when asked how he would like to be remembered, answered, “As a decent human being, and a proud Jew.”
With many thanks to Yehuda Avner, I will remember all of the prime ministers, presidents, aides, and events (a place card at a White House state dinner seated one ‘Yeduha Avner’ at his table, at which point he became Yeduha to the president for the evening!) with a smile and much more enthusiasm and interest than I ever had for those circumnavigating explorers of old. As always, I now need to remove my signature fluttering yellow post-it notes, which I am happy to send on to those who want to join me as a fly on the wall to witness Israel’s vibrant personalities. Thanks once again, Mr. Avner- you’ve made history come alive!
Randy Rubinstein lives in Sharon, Massachusetts