Barack Obama's Farewell to Shimon Peres Brought Us Back to the Roots of Zionism

'Justice and hope,' Obama reminded us, 'are at the heart of the Zionist idea.'

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Obama speaks during the funeral of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016.
Obama speaks during the funeral of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016.Credit: Nicholas Kamm, AFP

U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech at Shimon Peres’ funeral on Friday surpassed all other speeches. And not only because, unlike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he mentioned the presence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who came to the funeral despite harsh criticism being leveled at him.

In his remarks, Obama touched on all the important influences in Peres’ life: the Diaspora, the Holocaust, the kibbutz and the Haganah, politics and science, security and peace. But more importantly, when he compared Peres to Nelson Mandela he was hinting at an uncompromising struggle for justice and equality. And when he mentioned Queen Elizabeth II, he was hinting at the decolonization process her empire underwent. The points of similarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were clear.

“And just as he understood the practical necessity of peace, Shimon believed that Israel’s exceptionalism was rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision, the precepts of his Jewish faith,” Obama said.

He went on to quote Peres: “‘The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people,’ he would say. ‘From the very first day we are against slaves and masters.’” 

“Out of the hardships of the Diaspora,” Obama continued, Peres “found room in his heart for others who suffered. He came to hate prejudice with the passion of one who knows how it feels to be its target.” Obama added that Peres “insisted that as human beings, Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews, and must therefore be equal in self-determination. Because of his sense of justice, his analysis of Israel’s security, his understanding of Israel’s meaning, he believed that the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians, too, had a state of their own.”

“Justice and hope,” Obama said, “are at the heart of the Zionist idea.” 

Indeed, Obama presented himself and Peres as sharing not only a common historical fate with the nations they have led, but also a similar worldview that favors optimism and the pursuit of peace over sowing fear and intimidation. The coolness of Obama’s body language toward Netanyahu reflected his distance from the prime minister’s worldview.

In Netanyahu’s seven years in office, Obama and Peres managed to halt the premier’s adventurous intentions when it came to Iran. But they didn’t manage to spur him — and Abbas — to dare try to pursue the path of reconciliation and peace. Peres passed away. Abbas’ standing in the Palestinian community is on the wane, and Obama will be leaving office in about 100 days. The chances for a resumption of the peace process appear slim.

But the crocodile tears shed by Israeli right-wingers over Peres’ death, or Netanyahu’s attempts to blur his deep ideological differences with Peres, must not be allowed to linger. At the start of the new Jewish year, it is appropriate that Obama’s remarks about justice and hope, about an end to ruling another people and about granting the Palestinians sovereignty — an important reminder of the principles of equality and democracy upon which Zionism is based — should serve as a beacon for the citizens of Israel and its leaders.

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