Sad but Stoic, Israelis React to the Death of Shimon Peres

The death of Israel's 9th president dominated the news cycle, even if there were few visible signs of the nation mourning on Wednesday. 'I feel like I’ve known him forever,' one Israeli says.

Shimon Peres, 1996.
Alex Levac

Israelis woke up Wednesday morning to a world without Shimon Peres, and although the news had been expected, it was still a jolt to the system.

Television stations immediately interrupted their regular broadcasts for special programs devoted to the former president and two-time prime minister, who died in the early-morning hours at age 93 following complications from a major stroke. Sad Hebrew songs, usually reserved for memorial days, dominated the radio waves.

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Israeli schools were instructed to devote the first hour of classes Wednesday morning to the legacy of the elder statesman, who was a fixture on the country’s political and diplomatic landscape since its earliest days.

The Clinton-Trump debate, new revelations in Israel’s hottest corruption scandals, and end-of-Jewish year sum-ups – were completely overshadowed by Peres’s death. Not that it came as a surprise: Most Israelis went to sleep bracing for the news, following the announcement Tuesday evening that Peres had taken a turn for the worse.

Early Wednesday morning, there were few visible signs in the street of a nation in mourning. No ad-hoc vigils, no sounds of sirens, and no slowdown in the usually hectic pace of daily life.

Among the passengers pouring out of Tel Aviv's Hashalom train station on their way to work was Victoria Peretz from Lod. Although she didn’t embrace Peres’s dovish views, she still considered him one of Israel’s great leaders.

“It was a shame that he didn’t serve as our prime minister for longer,” she lamented. (Peres served as prime minister as part of a rotation agreement from 1984 to 1986 and then for seven months after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995.)

Her father, said Peretz, who had immigrated to Israel from Turkey at age 14, liked to joke with the family that Peres was their uncle because of the similar-sounding last name. “My father, unlike me, was a leftist and simply adored Shimon Peres,” she said.

Galina Serebriany, who moved to Israel from Ukraine in 1991, said that Peres had been a presence in her life from her dissident days back in the former Soviet Union. “I feel like I’ve known him forever,” said the Petach Tikvah resident, “because we would always listen to the BBC and other stations to keep up with what was happening in Israel.” Although she did not agree with Peres’ politics, Serebriany said she was deeply saddened when he lost his first bid for the presidency the first time around in 2000. “It was outrageous to me that Moshe Katzav won over him,” she said.

Still, Serebriany felt a sense of relief when she heard the news of Peres’ death this morning. “I had feared that he would end up in a coma for years, just like Arik Sharon,” she said, referring to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died in 2014, eight years after a massive stroke. “Thankfully, that didn’t happen.”

Hurrying to work, Ze’evik Melamed had little time for philosophizing. “Everyone has his time,” he asked when asked for his response to the news. “This is a person who contributed a lot to the state and was definitely not young. So we should remember him but also move on.”

Straight off the train from Netanya, Sandi Sebag was already catching up with her boss on the phone as she headed to the office. Naturally, they could not ignore the breaking news of the morning. “We were just talking about the fact that he had donated his cornea,” said Sebag, recounting their conversation. “And we both said how lucky that person who will get it is.”

Just before being drafted into the army, Ori Ben-Tzvi, 18, had come to spend a day in Tel Aviv with a friend from Herzliya. Although Peres had reached the height of his political career before he was even born, Ben-Tzvi said he felt “a great personal loss this morning.”

“I know that I’m pretty young, but his was a name that everybody knew,” he said, “and all you had to do was listen to Obama’s speech about him to understand what a special person he was.”

Throughout the morning, television programs in Israel played and replayed clips of the high points in Pere’s long political career, interwoven with commentary from political analysts. Former aides, ideological allies and foes, were invited to the studios to share personal anecdotes and recollections.

Both the official family announcement concerning his death, delivered at the hospital, as well as the special cabinet session, were broadcast live.