Shimon Peres was the last of his kind

Oct 02, 2016 Published under Israel, Loss, Middle East

Shimon Peres was the last of his kind

By Ari Shavit

Unlike other Jews who succeeded him in power, Peres always knew that to be a Jew also meant to be universal and moral; to be on the correct, enlightened side of history.

True, he founded Israel Aircraft Industries (1953), made the decision about the Entebbe Operation (1976), saved Israel from hyperinflation (1985) and got the army out of most of Lebanon (1985). He tried the London agreement (1987) led the Oslo process (1993), and succeeded in turning himself from a controversial politician into a beloved president (2007).

But the real contribution Shimon Peres made to the Jewish state was the amazing work he did in Paris in the mid-1950s that led to the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

Against powerful counterforces, David Ben-Gurion’s sorcerer’s apprentice succeeded in spreading the strategic security net that assured Israel’s existence. Against all odds, the 34-year-old kibbutznik erected above us that invisible glass dome that allows us to lead almost sane lives in this crazy place.

But Peres was never really a kibbutznik. He was a child of the Jewish Diaspora who arrived from Europe before the disaster to the Ben Shemen Youth Village and tried all his life to become an Israeli. He was the beloved grandson of the grandfather killed in the Holocaust, and all his life he tried to flee the past into the future.

That’s why he was so devoted to tomorrow. He was always stubbornly hopeful. That’s why he couldn’t stand problems; he searched for solutions. He was always en route to the next computer, the next car, the next missile or the next nano that would bring scientific succor to the pains of a small, isolated and persecuted people. He was always a Jew, who did everything he did as a Jew, on behalf of the Jewish people.

But unlike other Jews who succeeded him in power, he always knew that to be a Jew also meant to be universal and moral; to be on the correct, enlightened side of history.

During the past year he asked that we write a book together. Peres knew that the many books he had written hadn’t succeeded in capturing the incomprehensible drama of his 93 years. Before it was too late, he wanted to put one last book on the shelf that would tell the story of his life as the story of Israel’s life.

Unfortunately, the book never got written. But his story is our story; the last-minute escape from the inferno, the descent to the sun-swept beach of promise, the attempt to believe in utopia and to achieve it.

Then there was coping with the reality of the conflict. The work with Ben-Gurion on arming the state before it was established, and on strengthening it after it was established. The understanding that our lives were dependent upon a combination of military prowess, high technology and international legitimacy. The knowledge that we must always balance building our strength with upholding justice.

And yet there was his sophistication, maneuverability and cunning. His ability to raise our eyes to the skies even as our feet were in the mud.

Then, when he was 70, there was the touching attempt to bring the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy to a happy end – and its failure; its collapse in the face of messianic nationalism.

But he refused to give up. He had perseverance, resourcefulness and initiative. He had a lust for life and loved life. He had great vitality and the almost religious belief of a secular person that despite everything, here we could make the impossible, possible.

Shimon Peres was no saint. He had plenty of human weaknesses. He had an endless hunger for love, and a need to charm and be charmed.

But he was a strong man who knew how to fight for what was his and what was ours.

He kept at it, rising after each fall and recovering from every blow to move on. He was a true patriot who was prepared to stick his hand into the muck to pull out some diamond.

And he was the last of them. The last of the Zionist leaders who personally experienced all the phases of the Zionist revolution. The last of the Israeli leaders who participated in the state’s establishment. The last of the Jewish giants who built the Third Temple with their own hands.

It was only the third such stately funeral held atop this majestic Jerusalem summit. The first was on August 17, 1949, when the bones of Theodor Herzl were interred by the nation he had envisioned, just one year after its founding. The second was on November 6, 1995, when the body of Yitzhak Rabin was laid to rest, two days after the beloved prime minister was assassinated by a Jewish zealot. The third was last Friday, when the coffin of Shimon Peres was brought to Mount Herzl, 17 days after he suffered a massive stroke and two days after he passed away at the age of 93.

The 1949 Herzl cortege was a quietly jubilant affair: a solemn celebration of the newly founded state. The 1995 Rabin procession was tragic: it signified the collapse of peace and the rise of Israeli extremism. The 2016 Peres ceremony was neither jubilant nor tragic. It symbolised the T-junction at which  Israel now finds itself: torn between hope and despair. And it surpassed the two previous historic events by bringing to the Promised Land more than 60  world  leaders and dignitaries, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Prince Charles and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

In the mid-morning of a crisp autumn day  they gathered to salute what Peres personified: a congenial, civilised and peace-seeking Jewish democratic state. The Israel the world loves to love.

Israel’s former defence minister, foreign minister, finance minister, prime minister and president was a titan. In many ways he was larger than life, politics or history. He was the leader who built the Dimona nuclear reactor, modernised the Israeli economy and championed the nation’s scientific and technological excellence. He was a hawk turned dove who first built settlements, and then tried to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by initiating the audacious 1993 Oslo accords. He pulled the Israeli army out of Lebanon, rescued the country from catastrophic hyper-inflation and became the face of a compassionate and forward-looking Israel. But this iconic Israeli was much more than that.

By insisting that Israel must always maintain its military superiority, technological prowess, international legitimacy and unwavering moral compass, he captured the hearts and minds of countless politicians, writers, scholars, artists, entrepreneurs and stars. They all seemed to feel that when Peres walked into a room, so did the modern Jewish saga and the riveting Israeli adventure. And it did. It really did.

The story of the 12-year-old boy who escaped Poland a few years before the Holocaust and became the head of state of a nuclear power encapsulates the Jewish journey of the past 70 years. The vitality of this life-loving, future-obsessed nonagenarian represented the very best of the Israeli spirit. Peres was the last great Jew born before the Jewish state, who nurtured his country and saw it grow into a successful member of the OECD, bursting with innovation, creativity and dynamism.

But Peres saw the dark side, too. In recent years this eternal optimist had become more and more concerned about the future of the nation he helped to build. He was appalled by the continuing  occupation of the West Bank and the incessant spread of settlements. He was terrified by the rise of dark forces within Israeli society and the political arena, trampling over its democratic values and institutions. He was deeply frustrated by what he saw as Binyamin Netanyahu’s failure to project a Zionist vision that is both just and hopeful.

The conversations we held during the last year over glasses of white wine were conversations of light and shadow. On the one hand, Peres was always Peres: eager for the next Israeli breakthrough in genetics, neuroscience or IT that would bring honour to his people.

But on the other hand, for the first time in his life, there was a certain melancholy to him. He found it difficult to understand an Israeli leadership lacking the courage to dream big and a Jewish leadership devoid of commitment to universal values and justice. At times he expressed fear that his country, which had always been on the right and enlightened side of history, would find itself on the wrong and dark other side.

This is a fear shared by many of the world leaders who came to Jerusalem  to pay their respects to the last Israeli giant. This is also a fear shared by many of the enlightened Israelis and liberal Zionists who gathered around the freshly dug grave. In his eulogy Obama quoted some of Peres’s most poignant words: “The Jewish people were not born to rule another people. From the very first day, we are against slaves and masters.”

The author Amos Oz asked: where are the leaders who will continue in Peres’s footsteps and turn Israel into the two-family home of Israelis and Palestinians? Silently, ominously, a discomfiting question hovered over the mountain top: what direction will this country that has just lost its last forefather take?

The struggle for Israel’s soul has been raging for more than 50 years — since the seventh day of the Six-Day War. Today it is manifestly clear that if a profound change does not occur soon, Israel’s democratic and moral identity will be in grave danger. When Israel buried its enlightened leader last Friday, did it also bury its enlightened self? Did it not only part from the man but from his dreams and his legacy? Shimon Peres would not countenance such despondent musings, such glum thoughts. Were he able to speak at his own funeral, he would beseech his mourners to join together and embark on the battle for the future. To do what he always did: make the impossible possible.


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