I followed the elections for the ninth president of the State of Israel holding my breath. I let out a sigh of relief only when it was a fait accompli that Shimon Peres had finally crossed the line between the political realm, where he had spent most of his adult life, into the sphere of the symbolic and the ceremonial. Had he failed to be voted in yet again, it would have been very unpleasant indeed.
But when I followed him during his first steps as president-elect, I started to fear that the rarefied air of the heights to which he had finally ascended had started to take its toll. Again, I found breathing not easy - but this time, from astonishment.
As far as I know, the Knesset is an institution where wearing a skullcap is not obligatory. Peres is not known for observing traditional Jewish practices like praying daily or eating kosher food. But as he stepped up to the microphone at the post-election ceremony in the Marc Chagall room in the Knesset, there was a white yarmulke perched on his silvery mane of hair. He started his acceptance speech with a quote from Psalms, thanking and praising the Lord. When toasts to his health were proposed, he whisked the skullcap off, folding it into his pocket.
Following the short celebratory ceremony at the Knesset, Peres proceeded straight to the Western Wall, this time with a dark skullcap on his head, where he inserted a little note in the cracks, presumably with some wishes scribbled on it. If memory serves, he has never "talked to the Wall" before making any of the momentous decisions he has taken during his illustrious political career. Based on his record as a candidate, it would have been reasonable had he done so prior to the recent vote on his presidency. Observant Jews who take themselves, their religion and their Maker seriously tend to scorn such somewhat superstitious - albeit popular - practices.
From the Wall he went to visit Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, presumably to give credit where it is due (unless one believes that it was the Almighty who guided the rabbi), because the Shas sage had ordered the party's MKs to support Peres' candidacy. Peres put on a skullcap there as well, neither black nor white, but rather dark-green leather, which according to my sources he carries in his pocket and the same one that was on his head at the Wall. I can accept that. In the unlikely occurrence of being invited to the revered rabbi's house, I too would don a yarmulke out of simple good manners.
So that adds up to three gestures toward the religious electorate and our God, and I'm fine with that. I personally would have appreciated it if Peres - on his way from the Old City to Rabbi Ovadia's house - had made a short detour and a brief symbolic, presidential appearance at the Hebrew Book Week stands in Jerusalem. Or a short stop at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. Usually Peres is so keen to preserve and enhance his image as a voracious reader and a man of culture. But as president-elect he apparently assumed that that image - unlike his newly found reverence for religious symbols - should be taken for granted.
In his acceptance speech at the Knesset, he singled out his "mentor and leader David Ben-Gurion." That mentor and leader maintained that the demand to wear a head covering is not based on anything written in the Torah, and he adamantly refused to wear a skullcap even when attending traditional Jewish funerals. He refused to put one on even while conducting weekly studies of the Bible in his home (so I read in the recently published, five-volume opus entitled "New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age, an Encyclopedic View," Vol. 2, in Hebrew). All this did not deter the nation's first prime minister from agreeing to maintain the status quo with the ultra-religious parties, resulting in legislation forcing all Israelis - religious and secular alike - to marry, divorce and be buried according to the strict principles of halakha (Jewish law).
And now to the subject of the latest presidential pledges, especially the following: "The president's role is not to deal with politics and partisanship, but to represent what unites us in a strong voice ... A president must represent the people's desire to be a united nation. I will work to unify the nation."
Strong words, indeed. Peres' mentor and leader was quoted once as saying: "I don't know what the people's desire is, but I do profess to know what their needs are." But even if Peres disagrees with B-G on this, too, and not just on the matter of wearing a yarmulke, how did he come to the conclusion that the desire of the people - that is, of Jewish Israelis, although he presides over Arabs, Druze and Circassians as well - is to be a united nation? Successive elections and polls have made it abundantly clear that roughly half of the country's citizens want to be united in one way, while the other half would prefer to be united in another. They are perhaps expected to stand as one whenever the state is at war, for example, but a series of recent wars have exemplified that even in such a situation, Israelis are far from being united.
Even assuming that the multi-yarmulke President Peres (that has such a pleasant alliterative sound) believes in "unity," I - a concerned secular and humble citizen - beg to differ. Unity as such is meaningless. There have been those who've rallied citizens with the cry "One nation, one state, one leader," and the God of Israel is, of course, the one and only God. But unity has value for a nation only if its inhabitants unite behind something that is, preferably, a worthy cause.
Apart from this, is it possible that the so-widely-read Peres is unaware that the flavor of the month right now is being multicultured, multilingual and interdisciplinary? How can one survive in our multifaceted world if one preaches a single point of view?
I would have been much happier had president-elect Peres pledged to work toward making the nation more tolerant, understanding and aware of the plight of its sisters, brothers and various "others." But as a secular citizen who has grown accustomed to be being part of a silent (silenced?) minority, I've learned to accept my lot and not to aspire to things unreachable. So I'll just sign off with warm wishes for a long life and the best of health to our newly elected President Peres. And may he prosper in his never-ending and untiring service to our state. Amen.
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