No Room For Small Dreams / Rabin / My Country, My Life (Very Long Post)

The First Book of the Week is “No Room for Small Dreams–Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel” by Shimon Peres, published in 2017. This is the autobiography of the late prime minister (in the mid-1980’s) of Israel.

Born in 1923, Peres spent the first decade of his life in a shtetl on the Russia/Poland border. In 1934, his (Jewish) family moved to Palestine seeking religious freedom. At fifteen years old, he put his natural leadership skills to good use at the kibbutz Ben-Shemen. The institution was like boarding school, but it emphasized the teaching of skills for agriculture and use of weaponry more than academic subjects.

In 1941, Peres moved to Kibbutz Alumot, where he herded sheep amid olive and date groves. The youths there lived in tents lacking electricity and indoor plumbing.

After WWII, when the Jews were pushing for statehood, Peres became a disciple of David Ben Gurion. He favored a partition between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. In 1947, Ben Gurion recruited him for the Haganah, one of the intelligence services of Palestine. However, his lack of fluency in the English language was a handicap. This was remedied in June 1949, when he began to attend the New School for Social Research in New York City. Three years later, he and his family moved back to Israel, where he took a position in the Defense Ministry, and assisted with the founding of El Al Airlines.

In the early 1950’s, neither Great Britain nor the United States was in the mood to sell arms to Israel. Peres found an unexpected supplier in France. In addition, in the summer of 1957, France allegedly mentored Israel in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In connection therewith, Peres claimed that he planned and organized the construction of a top-secret corporate village in the Negev desert near Beersheba to give the world the impression that Israel was a superpower.

In 1959, the author was elected to the Knesset and also kept a position in the Defense Ministry. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Egypt and Syria limited the spoils of their victory to territory they lost in the 1967 Six-Day war. According to the author, in the 1973 war, Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat refrained from attacking Israel’s central cities for fear it would retaliate with weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, threat of retaliation was not a deterrent to small-time terrorist groups, such as the PLO, who intermittently killed the Jewish state’s citizens, a few at a time, for decades.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Peres’ brilliant political career (according to him) as an economic genius and peacemaker with Jordan and the PLO. Yet, Peres admits he played the former role thanks to Israel’s cozy relationship with the United States. Yassir Arafat could not really guarantee and did not take responsibility for, violence perpetrated by the organization he headed; foolish Peres failed to take heed of the following cliche: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Second Book of the Week is “Rabin, Our Life, His Legacy” by Leah Rabin, published in 1997.

Born in April 1928 in Prussia, Leah Rabin met her husband Yitzhak in Palestine’s co-ed military intelligence service– the Palmach– in the 1940’s. The group was actually a secret society because it was deemed illegal by the British authorities.

In Palestine, the author and her beloved lived in a kibbutz or a tent and did farming, herding, hiking and jogging. And firearms training, not to mention military-attack drills. In the summer of 1946, due to Leah’s sixth sense about imminent danger, she avoided getting arrested by the British, but Yitzhak was caught. However, the weaponry hidden in the women’s body cavities went undiscovered because frisking of females by the authorities was chivalrous in those days.

In 1948, after spending more than four months in jail, Yitzhak became a commander in the Harel Brigade, one of three newly formed Palmach divisions. The group became part of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF)– the Israeli military– in 1949. Ten years later, Yitzhak was chief of operations of the IDF.

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel (which achieved its independence in spring 1948), belonged to the Mapai (Labor) party.  Yitzhak didn’t, and therefore Ben-Gurion favored other men over him when he staffed his government and formulated military policy.

In November 1963, the Rabins made a diplomatic visit to the United States. Just after they returned to Israel, they learned that President John F. Kennedy was dead. “Yitzhak… had just completed an intensive study of state-of-the-art defense and security practices from the most powerful nation in the world, and suddenly we learned that this country’s chief executive was slain by a lone gunman.”

Shortly thereafter, Yitzhak took a break from military matters to become a social butterfly– an ambassador to the U.S., from Israel. Such a lifestyle involves having cocktails, attending parties, making small talk and gossip mongering. In 1973, Yitzhak tried his hand at elective office. He won a seat in the Knesset in the Labor party, and an appointment as Minister of Labor.

In April 1974, Golda Meir felt obligated to resign as Israel’s fifth Prime Minister due to the mishandling of the Yom Kippur war, which had occurred about six months prior. Yitzhak was voted in as her replacement. He was battered about by political contentiousness and decided after three years to resign his Prime Minister post. He remained a member of the Knesset, though. Political comebacks are not uncommon in Israel. Yitzhak staged his in the autumn of 1984. He became the Minister of Defense.

That was when the Mapai and Likud (Conservative) parties merged in order to form a major voting bloc. The new entity was called the National Unity Party. In 1985, Yitzhak helped supervise the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Jordan. He became Prime Minister again in 1992.

In the first half of the 1990’s, Yitzhak Rabin sat down at the negotiating table with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. Many people thought Arafat was a terrorist who led a terrorist group and would never be trustworthy, and Yitzhak was being way too nice.

Further, U.S. president Bill Clinton, the mediator of the peace talks, had a credibility problem. So– it was kind of like a diplomatic charade because sincerity wasn’t a strong suit of at least two of the three parties there. Further, regardless of the ulterior motives of the three parties involved– history had already shown grave doubts as to whether durable agreements could be reached between the two centuries-long rivals.

Israel had previously had a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists such as Arafat and had refused to meet with them under any circumstances. However, Rabin believed in appeasement of the Egyptians and Jordanians as well. He was willing to hear them out and sign documents that were supposed to foster peace in the Middle East. In this way, he garnered a lot of political enemies. Ironically, he was shot at a peace rally.

Read the book to learn the details of what transpired, the aftermath (especially the aftermath– through Leah’s eyes) and many more details of Israeli history and Rabin’s role in it.

The Third Book of the Week is “My Country, My Life– Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace” by Ehud Barak, published in 2018.

Born in 1942 in one of the early kibbutzim– Mishmar Hasharon– the small village north of Tel Aviv, Barak pursued a military career from the 1960’s into the 1980’s, alternating it with his education. He led special forces on secret missions. He eventually earned a degree in physics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a master’s degree in operations management from Stanford University.

Barak seemed a bit resentful about Israel’s dependence on the United States for its very existence; for, when describing the Yom Kippur War, he omitted the inconvenient fact that the United States sent weapons to Israel when the nation’s ability to defend itself was in serious doubt.

Barak began his political career in summer 1995 when he joined Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet. At his first vote, he abstained, holding onto his belief that Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories pursuant to the Oslo agreements was the wrong thing to do.

However, during peace talks with Syria, Barak thought the major question was whether, if Israel were to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it could still have a secure border. As a former (military) chief of staff, he argued in the affirmative.

In late winter and spring 1996 during election season, the terrorist group Hamas tried to reduce Shimon Peres’ chances of an election victory by killing tens of Israelis in terrorist attacks. It and Islamic Jihad viewed him as a traitor for conducting negotiations with Yasser Arafat. Peres was forced to retire at 73 years old.

In June 1996, Barak was elected leader of Israel’s Labor Party. It seemed Barak changed his tune and wanted to comply with the Oslo accords in the next couple of years. He got angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for delaying Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. Netanyahu was desperate for power, and withdrawal was politically unpopular.

In summer 1999, Barak was elected prime minister. In May 2000, he ordered the departure of Israeli troops from Lebanon, despite the shenanigans of the PLO in its territorial / recognition / non-belligerence discussions with the Israelis. He rambled on for page after page, detailing the summer 2000 back-and-forth with Arafat, still moderated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Arafat turned out to be a tease for two weeks (before Barak realized he’d been played for a fool)– not budging an inch, not counter-offering any concessions while Barak bent over backwards to offer the Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a large portion of the occupied territories and the holy sites.

Barak lost his reelection bid in 2001, so he retired. Read the book to learn more about Barak’s life, his views on various political issues, the current situation regarding the Israelis and Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s leadership.

ENDNOTE: A distracting grammatical error that is becoming more and more widespread was made repeatedly throughout the book (the word before the gerund should be possessive):

“Though I wasn’t sure about legal provisions for officers leaving the army…” [It should be officers’ leaving the army]

“What were the prospects of Arafat reining in Hamas and Islamic Jihad?” [It should be Arafat’s reining in …]

Nikita Khrushchev

The Book of the Week is “Nikita Khrushchev, and the Creation of a Superpower” by Sergei N. Khrushchev, published in 2000. This is the Soviet leader’s biography, written by his younger son, born in 1935. 

Born in April 1894 in Kurskaya, Nikita possessed excellent survival skills as a politician until the mid-1960’s. In the 1930’s, his growing family’s living standards were almost comparable to that of the West, considering they received government-provided housing and food.

During WWII, in March 1943, Nikita’s older son’s (vulnerable Soviet) warplane (of inferior quality) was shot down and he was killed (a not uncommon occurrence). The Soviet government arrested his widow and charged her with spying for Britain or Sweden (also a not uncommon occurrence). The author’s mother (Nikita’s wife) spread propaganda for the district party committee, and cared for the author’s young cousins whose older relatives were doing war work or who had been killed in the fighting. Those who Americans would call “draft dodgers” consisted of privileged family members of government officials, who did “theatre administration” stateside.

After WWII ended, the USSR’s government featured a “…morbidly suspicious Stalin surrounded by backstabbing and cutthroat courtiers jockeying for position.” In 1950, the Khrushchev family moved from the Ukraine to Moscow. Nikita had to choose his friends carefully, even when taking a walk with a comrade outside his vacation house (dacha), as they were closely tailed by gossipy bodyguards. As a Politburo member, he rode in an armored limousine.

Nikita made various policy changes after Stalin’s death in 1953. In connection with weaponry, in order to keep up with the United States, he ordered his country to make nuclear submarines, which required less exorbitant spending than cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers. He also felt that ballistic missiles were the wave of the future.

In early 1956, a Central Committee secretary found documentation on Stalin’s purges and show trials. Like any good bureaucrat, the secretary felt obliged to draft a memo on the heinous crimes described therein. A few of the many disturbing lines included: “During 1937-1938 alone, 1,548,366 people were arrested, 681,692 of whom were shot. Top level leaders in republics, territories, and provinces were arrested; then their replacements were arrested, and so on. Of the 1,966 delegates to the Seventeenth Congress of the all-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), 1,108 were arrested, 848 were shot, and so on.”

Soviet dissidents– victims of Stalin’s arbitrary human rights abuses but faithful to Communism– who were still alive, were soon to be released from the gulag. They could potentially present a public relations disaster for Nikita. Thus, Nikita formed a “truth and reconciliation” commission of sorts, to air their grievances, and put all the blame on Stalin for past totalitarian policies. However, no compensation was forthcoming for the victims and no punishments were imposed on the offenders.

In October 1956, just prior to the bloody suppression of protestors in Hungary, Soviet spies were led to believe that the Poles were planning to break away from the Union, and get Westernized. So the Soviets conferred with the Poles and the other Soviet satellites Romania and Czechoslovakia to keep them in the Soviet fold. Tito, the Yugoslavian leader, was still on speaking terms with the Soviets, but he had declared his territory’s independence from the USSR some time before.

In the following weeks, Nikita certainly did not want the Poles, Romanians and Czechs to copy Hungary’s rebellious action; that might lead to their defecting to the hostile, imperialist capitalists. He gave the order to send tanks to Budapest because “… the imperialists threatened to oppress the people, the workers and the peasants.” Fortunately, no violence ensued elsewhere, as Nikita struck a deal with the Poles. They would no longer receive reduced-price coal from Silesia, but their substantial debt to the USSR was canceled.

By summer 1957, political enemies of Nikita were starting to plot against him in the USSR’s two governing bodies, the Central Committee and the Politburo (Presidium). However, Nikita was able to hang on to his power in a vote that resulted in demotions and exiles of the perpetrators.

By late August 1957, the Soviets had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially hit any place on earth. However, expensively, the army (which possessed no experience in weaponry) rather than the aviation industry, was the governmental entity producing it. Two years later, Nikita formed an entity that made only strategic missiles.

The author spent many, many pages recounting the details of the Cuban Missile Crisis. All through the summer of 1962, Nikita had actively pursued an aggressive military mission: secretly, actually shipping Soviet missiles from the Union to Cuba for the purpose of “defense.”

For, the United States had launched a (botched) clandestine military operation at the Bay of Pigs to try to destabilize Cuba. It had nuclear weapons at the ready in Turkey and Italy, that could reach the USSR; in previous months, it had been sending a few U-2 spy planes over Soviet territory– a violation of the Union’s airspace. Not that the Soviet government hadn’t launched sixteen surveillance missions over France by 1960. And installed listening devices in private homes throughout the USSR. Pox on everyone’s houses.

Anyway, the possibility of actual mutual assured destruction reared its ugly head when, in the third week of October 1962, American intelligence officials discovered that the Soviets had assembled twelve nuclear missiles and more were on the way. Shortly thereafter, the United States declared an embargo on Soviet ships heading toward Cuba because presumably, they were carrying weapons parts. The Soviets didn’t take kindly to that, but the embargo was never actually strictly enforced.

Nevertheless, Nikita had an ally in Fidel Castro, who allowed the weaponry to be assembled and potentially launched from his nation’s soil in Cuba.

There were indications from Nikita’s conversations with Castro that Castro was a sociopathic hawk, spoiling for a fight with the United States. Castro was almost looking forward to becoming a martyr by preemptively taking out major American cities via the weaponry. He had heard from his intelligence agents that America was going to send ground troops to his country within two days.

Five days into the crisis, when Nikita realized Castro meant what he said, Nikita told American President John F. Kennedy that he was willing to withdraw the missiles on certain conditions. The United Nations hammered out the details. Castro was furious at Nikita.

So according to this book, Castro’s saber-rattling was why Nikita reconsidered his own aggressive stance with the Americans, not because Kennedy stared him down.

The development of nuclear missiles in the USSR was not without trials and errors; many costly errors. In October 1960, there occurred a rocket-testing accident in which nearly 150 tons of fuel and oxidizer burst into flames of three thousand degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing 74 people in the vicinity. There were a lot of very important spectators at the test, so safety procedures were neglected in the rush to launch the rocket.

Read the book to learn of the power and ideological struggles among members of the Soviet government during Nikita’s reign, the serious problems suffered by East Germany, Nikita’s ouster, and much more.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

The Book of the Week is “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” by Crystal Zevon, published in 2007. This is a biography of singer/ songwriter/ guitar player, Warren Zevon, written by his ex-wife.

Born in 1947, Zevon started partying like a rock star in his teenage years. He and fellow musicians partook of a variety of controlled substances, including marijuana, acid and hash. Warren later became addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Philandering was a lifelong part of Zevon’s persona. Nevertheless, he was well-versed in what developed nations consider “the classics” in literature and in classical composers. As an adolescent, he was afforded the opportunity to meet Igor Stravinsky.

The many people interviewed for this ebook who drifted in and out of Zevon’s life all said he was immensely talented at writing imaganitive song lyrics. However, the reason most of them had a relationship with him that was rocky, or permanently severed, was due to his temperament when he was drunk, or his taking offense at a remark they made. He would ignore their communications for weeks or months.

At times, Zevon could utter witty lines, such as a) the title of this ebook, and, b) in the author’s recollection, “I can’t eat on an empty stomach.’ He’d down a little more vodka and we’d go have breakfast. Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge…” Sometimes, his self-destructive tendencies were insane, such as when she observed him playing darts in his bedroom; absent a dartboard. “There were all these holes in the wall… they were knife holes. He was lying in bed throwing a knife at the wall.” He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, for which he received no treatment. Various of his residences were a disaster.

The songs Zevon became most famous for include “Werewolves in London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Read the book to learn about a) his music career making albums; b) his composing music for movies; c) playing in the band on a prominent TV show as a fill-in musician; and d) whether he was able to turn his life around and repair his severed relationships with his family, friends and colleagues.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

The Book of the Week is “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson”  by Paul Robeson, Jr., published in 2001.

This is a biographical account of Paul Robeson from his birth until the start of WWII, written by his son. At times, it is like a soap opera. This ebook is mostly commentary on the diary entries, letters and notes of Robeson and his wife, Essie, and covers the following topics:

  • Robeson’s runaway success as a scholar and athlete in the nineteen-teens in the United States
  • how Robeson came to choose his ultimate career of professional actor and singer, starting in the mid-1920’s
  • how Essie’s identity was dependent on Robeson’s because she gave up her own career to manage his career
  • anti-black discrimination the couple encountered
  • his extramarital affairs
  • the intimate details of their relationship
  • Essie’s health problems
  • Robeson’s on-and-off presence during his son’s early childhood years
  • Robeson’s philosophy on life and international political activities

Robeson took up the cause of fighting for civil rights for African Americans, but his son writes, “He lived a pampered, aristocratic life, far from the radical humiliations endured daily by even the highest-ranking blacks in the United States.” In the 1930’s, the Robeson family was living in the Soviet Union because the country showed no racism, colonialism or fascism; thus, Robeson was able to overlook the atrocities committed by Stalin at a time when the behavior displayed by other nations was ugly.

Also in the 1930’s, Robeson decided he did not want to act in theatrical or movie roles that portrayed negative black stereotypes. His mythic status, which eventually brought him great wealth, afforded him flexibility in deciding the course of his career.

Read the book to learn all you ever wanted to know about Paul Robeson up until WWII.

Against Medical Advice

The Book of the Week is “Against Medical Advice” by James Patterson and Hal Friedman, published in 2008. This book discusses the struggle of a teenage boy (Friedman’s son) with various psychological disorders; obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome among them.

Cory tried to live a normal life, but by his teen years, he had fallen woefully behind socially and educationally. He had friends, but they were misfits like himself. At one point, he tried checking into an institution but found his life was not improving. However, the law required him to stay there a certain number of days, unless his parents signed a document stating he was refusing to accept the judgement of professionals about his treatment.

A last-ditch effort saw Cory enter an extremely radical program– a survival camp, of sorts– in which kids were forced to cooperate with each other in a harsh environment, or literally face death.

Read the book to learn how Cory fared.