Shimon Peres lived his life as the quintessential Israeli. He once said that, “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, but they live very different lives!” Shimon lived an optimistic life when he had many reasons to be pessimistic. Without it, he never would have lived such a long and successful life.
He was born in Wiszniew, Poland, which is now Vishneva, Belarus. His family moved to Israel in 1934. In the early 1930s, it was considered naïve to believe that a Jewish State would ever be created. In 1931, Jews were only 16.9 percent of the population in the Mandate of Palestine.
It was perceived as dangerous to leave Europe and live there, which was then the only mandate. By 1941, these “naïve” optimists in Palestine were viewed as prescient. A few years ago, Shimon Peres gave a speech about his early life and the Jews who remained in Vishneva:
In Vishneva the Nazis used a different technique. They didn’t shoot the Jews. They burnt them alive. The Nazis, Germans and locals, gathered up all the Jews left in Vishneva (half had already emigrated to Israel) and forced them to march to the synagogue which was made of wood. My grandfather, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl, stood at the head of the march, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer may peace be upon his soul. The same prayer shawl that I huddled under every Yom Kippur to listen to him recite the Kol Nidre prayer in his beautiful voice. They locked the doors of the synagogue and set it on fire with all the Jews still inside. No-one survived. Nothing was left of the synagogue.
Peres went to Israel a decade before World War II. Much like his mentor David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres was motivated to go to Israel to build a Jewish state. This is the main reason why President Obama’s Cairo Speech was so offensive to many Israelis.
President Obama said, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”
While this paragraph is sympathetic to the painful history of the Jews, it implies that the legitimacy of Israel is based solely as a bulwark against anti-Semitism. In same speech, he spoke about how the Palestinians had aspirations for a state, but somehow he believed Israel was a reaction to the Holocaust. The life of Shimon Peres shows that many people went to Israel because many Jews wanted to build their own country.
Jewish history did not begin with World War II. Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah (Hope), was written decades before 1948. It talks about how the hope of 2,000 years is “To be a free nation in our land.”
It is true that the Holocaust convinced many Jews that life would never be safe for them without a country of their own, but there are also many others, like Shimon Peres, who were Zionists long before the Nazis ever came to power. They were optimists who wanted to re-build their ancient country despite the odds.
Shimon’s optimism led him to rise in Mapai, which would later become Israel’s Labor Party. Most boys in their early 20s would believe that they have to wait until they were older to be a leader.
Shimon refused to be pessimistic about his political career. By 23, Shimon was already an aide David Ben-Gurion. His political star would rise as Ben-Gurion became prime minister.
When independence broke out in 1948, Peres would use his command of the French language to procure weapons from France. In the 1952, he was practically running Israel’s Defense Ministry as Deputy Director-General. He was Israel’s interlocutor to France. In the 1956 Suez War, Peres worked with France and Britain to develop a common strategy against Egypt.
Shimon’s relationship with France paid off for Israel. From 1948 to 1967, Israel’s received more weapons from France than from any other country. France helped Israel build its nuclear weapons program and its aerospace industry.
Israel’s Air Force consisted of mostly French planes when it scored its greatest victory during the Six Day War. In 1967, Israel’s air force was outnumbered three to one by its immediate neighbors. Egypt alone had 450 planes out of the 600 planes aimed at Israel. In a preemptive strike, Israel used all but 12 of its 196 planes to destroy most of the Egyptian air force on the ground.
In just the first day, Israel destroyed 452 planes (338 Egyptian, 61 Syrian, 29 Jordanian, 23 Iraqi, and 1 Lebanese). The Israelis lost only 19 planes that day. Most of the planes in the war were destroyed before they could take off. With 18 air bases destroyed, the surviving planes were useless because they couldn’t take off.
After their victory, President Lyndon Johnson signed off on a deal to sell Israel the F-4 Phantom jet fighter. This began Israel’s shift toward America as its leading ally.
Shimon Peres was Israel’s Defense Minister in 1976 when the Israelis achieved one of their greatest victories in counter-terrorism as they rescued hostages at Entebbe airport. From the 1970s and 1980s, Shimon Peres would fight with his main rival, Yitzhak Rabin, for the leadership of Israel’s Labor Party. Eventually, they would come to respect each other and work with the Palestinians to begin the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s.
After Rabin was assassinated, Peres played a tireless role working for peace with the Palestinians. He achieved peace with Jordan in 1994. He even left the Labor Party to help Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdraw from Gaza in 2005.
As President of Israel (2007-2014), he promoted Israel’s high tech sector and he also played a vital role in preventing the obvious tension between Obama and Netanyahu from irreparably damaging U.S.-Israel relations. Contrary to Netanyahu, Shimon Peres had a very good relationship with Barack Obama even before he entered the Oval Office.
Peres’ funeral is only the second time that President Obama will attend the funeral of a foreign leader. The first was Nelson Mandela.
Obama believed that Peres was the “essence of Israel itself.” I agree that Shimon’s optimism made him the quintessential Israeli.
While war and peace typically dominate political obituaries, Shimon Peres should also be remembered for the key role he played in reducing inflation in Israel when he was prime minister in 1980s.
From 1971 to 1979, inflation soared from 13 percent to 111 percent. By 1984, inflation in Israel peaked at 445 percent. Under a national unity government with Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres took very unpopular measures to get inflation under control. By 1985 it dropped to 185 percent and by 1986 it was 19 percent.
It is traditional for Jews to say in a time of mourning “May the Almighty comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” In the case of Shimon Peres, there are many in Israel, and throughout the world, who will mourn because their lives were impacted by this extraordinary optimist.