The world has lost a giant, Israel has lost an icon and I have lost a personal hero.
Throughout my life and diplomatic career Shimon Peres was a role model. He was the face of our country for decades and shone his face upon the world.
Anyone tasked with representing the State of Israel and the Jewish People, if they take that responsibility seriously, emulates Peres – as a diplomat, leader and human being. Never meet your heroes, they say, but I am grateful to have had a career in which I met and got to know mine.
In every office I have worked in for more than two decades, an image of Peres in action has taken pride of place on my wall. It is a photograph I call “the Middle East Without Words.” The picture was taken in Cairo in 1994. It shows regional and international leaders who had assembled to sign maps of Jerusalem outlined in the Oslo Accords, live on TV. The photo captures the moment just after they discover that PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, is refusing to sign.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres’s fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, stands to the side, arms folded, furious. Arafat stands surrounded by Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev, King Hussein of Jordan, US secretary of state Warren Christopher, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt who has just called him a son of a dog in Arabic.
Yet the heart of the picture, and its soul, is our then foreign minister, Shimon Peres, eyes fixed and determined as he points his finger in Arafat’s face. On the one hand, it was an uncharacteristic gesture for Israel’s most celebrated peacenik. On the other, it captures him perfectly – a man whose biggest fight was the struggle to bring peace to his country and resolve its conflicts.
He was tireless in pursuit of peace but tenacious in defence of Israel. I remember accompanying him to Balliol College, Oxford in 2008 during his visit to the UK when he received an honorary knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen. In a sign of things to come on University campuses, he was repeatedly heckled by anti-Israel protesters. He paused, looked up to the gallery where the latest interruption had come from and spoke calmly but defiantly. “We do not need your permission to stay alive” he said, to the applause of the majority of the audience.
He knew about survival. This was the last of Israel’s generation of leaders who oversaw the birth of our state, ensured it survived its infancy and enabled the rebirth of the Jewish people. Israel, Peres said “used to be a question mark” but is now a strong country. He devoted his life to removing that question mark, from his work equipping our armed forces before, during and after Israel’s War of Independence, to his work at the ministry of defense and in every senior office he held throughout his career. “We are a peaceful people who can defend itself. We can and we will,” he said.
He, like all of his generation of Jews, well understood the historic necessity of Israel, having immigrated to the putative state from Vishniev, Poland in 1934. Those from his town who did not make that journey were murdered by the Nazis. He learnt later how the Jews of Vishniev had been locked in their wooden synagogue and burnt alive, including his grandfather and mentor, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer.
His pride in Israel, however, was not based purely on our survival but on what we did with it. Even in his later years as President and beyond, he embraced change, recognising the potential of new technology and science to break down barriers and adopting social media ahead of politicians half his age. And he did so with a trademark warmth and wit. “We used to be the people of the book, now we became the people of the Facebook” he quipped, as he invited young people to “be my friend, for peace” in the viral videos he published online through the President’s office. He described stem cell research as a search for “human spare parts.” Solar energy, he argued, was preferable to oil because the sun is “more democratic, more permanent and not a member of the Arab League.”
His commitment to peace and progress was relentless. He surrounded himself with bright men and women who would challenge him and speak their mind, and had no use for yes-men. Even in his 90s, he approached life with the dynamism and energy of a far younger man – restless, searching, never satisfied. “The Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction!” he said. “We’re a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.”
Towards the end of his Presidency, when I was Israel’s ambassador to the UN, I was asked to honour Peres at a dinner in New York. I presented him with a backpack. After all, when many young Israelis finish their national service they go backpacking. .As his seven decades of national service drew to a close, I thought he might appreciate the option. The gift was well received.
Shimon Peres’s journey has ended; Israel’s journey continues. May we carry his warmth, his “dissatisfaction” and his optimism for a better, more peaceful future with us on our way.