The last time I saw Shimon Peres was at a breakfast a little more than a year ago. At 92-years-old, he regaled us with his views of the government, the peace process, American politics, French literature and the history of Israel. Then Peres, formerly named Szymon Perski, repeated one of his favorite themes: the greatest gift of the Jews to the world, he said, was dissatisfaction.
We all laughed and knew what he meant. A culture of argument, critique and questioning; a disposition to make things better; a skeptical optimism, or better, a wary hopefulness. Of course, Peres was describing himself.
After the mourning for the former president of Israel, who died Wednesday at age 93, all the criticisms will set in. He should have been more hawkish, or perhaps less politically adroit. He fought some of the wrong battles and never forgot a slight. In other words, he was a human being.
So please keep in mind that this man, who spoke six languages, who wrote poetry and quoted literature, who kept abreast of technology, was born in Poland in the early 20’s, a despotic country, and yet helped found a democracy. That he was a passionate advocate of scientific advancement and never lost touch with the youth of his nation. That he concluded the first arms deal for Israel, created its nuclear program, was involved in innumerable military and civilian initiatives—including the famous Entebbe raid—and through it all believed (some say naively) in the possibility of peace.
As George Deek, an Arab-Israeli diplomat writes in his tribute: “One may agree or disagree with his views, but there can be no doubts about the greatness of this man who dedicated his life for a vision of an Israel and a Middle East that is prosperous, tolerant and peaceful.”
It is easy to forget how improbable it seemed that a people who had not ruled themselves for 2,000 years could produce soldiers and citizens and politicians and revive a language and recreate a culture. Yet they came from lands with czars and kings and tyrants and created a democracy. Peres became the protégée of David ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel who, surveying the return of an ancient people to its land, famously declared: “Any Jew who does not believe in miracles isn’t a realist.”
When they meet again in the beyond, Ben Gurion’s protégée can tell him that, yes, the State has made many mistakes—he has made many mistakes—but through it all, after 60 years, there is innovation, creativity, openness and strength. Ben Gurion will know once again that he chose well. Rest in peace, Shimon Peres; you left a legacy for the ages and a grateful people will always remember you.