Shimon Peres had a crowded life. He was tireless, restless, vital, ambitious, intellectually curious, and filled with ideas. Diaspora Jewry loved him, probably more than Israelis did.
He was accessible to Diaspora Jewish leaders. With Shimon Peres, one did not have to beg for a meeting, as one often had to do with politicians of lesser stature. Whether in power or in the opposition, he was generous with his time and with his thinking. And above all, he was a voice of hope.
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He told Diaspora Jews – and all who would listen -- that Arabs were human beings and that moderates existed in Palestinian ranks. It was in Israel’s interests to search for peace, he told us, and eventually Palestinians and Arabs would see that it was in their interest as well. Again and again, he fielded hostile questions from rightwing American Jewish leaders, but never once was he rattled. He responded with dignity, calm, and compelling logic. He insisted that there were Arab leaders who were not Nazis or terrorists and with whom Israel could talk and deal. And he insisted too that when dramatic changes were taking place everywhere, Israel’s policies must change as well.
While Oslo, of which he was an architect, did not produce the desired result, he did not abandon his optimistic mindset. Still, it should be said that he was more of a realist than he was sometimes given credit for. He made it clear, publicly and privately, that he did not expect peace tomorrow or the next day. For all of his optimism, he did not feel that the messianic age was near. His worldview included large doses of both reason and realism. Nonetheless, he looked to peace, he believed in peace, and he gave us a vision of what the world could be. He will be remembered as Israel’s greatest statesman—a man who spoke for the good toward which humankind aspires, even in the Middle East, a region capable of unspeakable evil.
Peres was an inconsistent politician, occasionally brilliant but often not. But near the end of his 75 year political career, an interesting thing happened. Israelis began to love him as well. He ended his career revered by left and right, an outstanding president who brought healing and renewal to the office of the presidency and to a discouraged and divided country.
Two final observations on this most amazing of men: It was a wonder to watch him in his later years at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It seemed that there was not a single world leader who did not know him or did not express admiration for him or did not seek him out for advice or a few minutes of intimate conversation. At a gathering attended by hundreds of world leaders, an Israeli—Shimon Peres—was the rock star! The Shabbat dinner in Davos was an occasion because Peres was there, drawing non-Jews to this most Jewish event so that they might listen to his words.
To some extent, of course, Peres was beloved because he was seen as an advocate of peace when Israel’s government was not. But then, as always, he served his country, speaking broadly of peace but offering not the slightest public criticism of his government’s actions.
And it was a wonder to sit with him on any occasion, alone or in any group, and to hear him reflect on the book that he had been reading the night before. The breadth of his reading was extraordinary, but most frequently he talked about political books that offered new approaches to the most important human problems. He shared his thoughts not in a didactic way or with any sense of self-importance, but simply as one dimension of his thoughtful, reflective, insatiably curious thinking about how to make his part of the world a better, more peaceful place.
There is none to replace this great leader. The Jewish people and the State of Israel have suffered a grievous loss.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie
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