Remembering the indefatigable Jewish leader whose life embodied the saga of the Jewish state.
Few people ever embodied Israel like Shimon Peres, who has died at the age of 93.
Born in Belorussia in 1923, Shimon Peres’ life closely mirrored that of the Jewish state, to whose founding and development he dedicated his long life of public service. In each era through which he lived, Peres was a key player on the world stage, always working to safeguard Jews and the Jewish state.
Childhood in the Shtetl
Shimon Peres was born into a family of great Torah scholars; he was a direct descendant of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, and his grandparents were steeped in Torah learning. He later recalled that his earliest memories were of going to synagogue and studying Jewish texts with his zeidi (grandfather). On Yom Kippur, Peres later wrote, his grandfather would chant the Kol Nidre service; “Indeed,” Peres wrote in his memoirs, “his voice still seems to ring in my ears, and every year, at Yom Kippur, that same sense of awe still sends a shudder deep inside me.”
Though Peres recalled his childhood as idyllic, rising anti-Jewish violence, including the murder of a Jew in his small town by anti-Semites, and ruinous boycotts and anti-Jewish taxes made life intolerable. Five years before the Holocaust would wipe out European Jewry, Peres was sent to Israel at the age of 11, where he began to help build the nascent Jewish state.
Years later, after World War II, Peres found out what had happened to his beloved grandfather: “The Germans, aided by local collaborators, herded all the Jews into the wooden synagogue, my grandfather at their head. They put on their prayer-shawls as the Germans barred the doors and set the place alight, and they died the age-old death of Jewish martyrs.” Peres wrote: “I imagined my grandfather offering his last prayer to God, in that sweet voice of his which still sings hauntingly in my memory.”
Peres’ family settled in Tel Aviv, but at the end of 9th grade, Peres left to go to boarding school. Child refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe were pouring into the nascent Jewish state, and youth villages (in effect, gigantic orphanages) were being built to shelter these traumatized Jewish children. Though still a child himself, Peres volunteered to move to Bet Shemen, a community near Tel Aviv, and help guard it from Arab terrorists.
Still a teen, Peres joined the Haganah, the Jewish defense force and precursor to Israel’s army. Each night he took turns guarding the school. Years later, he recalled those years as “one of the happiest periods of (his) life”. He met his future wife, Sonia, in Bet Shemen, while he fought with the Haganah, helping protect Jews in the area from the Arab riots of 1936-9.
After high school, Peres moved to Kibbutz Geva where he worked as a shepherd and farmer. Eking out crops from the rocky soil was difficult, and the kibbutz was poor. Each kibbutznik owned exactly two outfits: one for work and one for Shabbat. The kibbutz also owned one formal men’s suit (consisting of a shirt, a pair of trousers, and a British army jacket which they dyed black), which the kibbutz members all shared. Peres wore it to his wedding to Sonia on this kibbutz in 1945.
Israel’s War of Independence
In the late 1940s, Peres rose through the Hagana, taking on responsibility for procuring manpower and arms. When Israel declared independence in May 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion appointed Peres to head Israel’s navy. Though still a young man, he later wrote: “I was weighed down with all my other duties: arms procurements, arms production, intelligence, research and development.”
The pressure was enormous. Within hours of declaring independence, the fledgling Jewish state was invaded by Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. As Israelis battled for their very lives, the arms that Peres procured meant the difference between life and death.
Though Israel was still struggling for its very life, Peres helped define the sort of nation his new country aimed to be, ordering what was perhaps Israel’s very first humanitarian rescue operation overseas. When an earthquake struck Greece, he directed Israel to send ships to help rescue efforts there.
Rescue at Entebbe
Peres served in a number of high level positions in Israel’s government throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. On June 27, 1976 he was Minister of Defense, when Israel received terrible news: terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, aided by the West German Red Army Faction, had hijacked a French commercial jet traveling from Israel to France.
The terrorists forced the plane to fly to Entebbe, Uganda, where they freed those passengers who did not appear to be Jewish or Israeli. For six tense days, Israel weighed how to respond. The terrorists were demanding the release of prisoners in Israel, Kenya and Germany, and Peres emerged in Israel’s cabinet as a strong opponent of giving in to their demands, urging then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to respond militarily.
Peres’ deciding moment was meeting Yoni Netanyahu, a member of the elite military unit that would perform a raid (and the older brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). “My impression was one of exactitude and imagination,” Peres later recalled. Reassured, he persuaded the rest of Israel’s cabinet to send in Israel’s special forces to defeat the terrorists and rescue the hostages.
On July 3, Israel sent four Hercules C-120H cargo planes, carrying over 100 soldiers, and escorted by Phantom jet fighters. The planes flew 2,500 miles (4,000 km) to Uganda. Within an hour of landing, Israeli fighters had rescued the hostages. All seven terrorists were killed. Three Israeli hostages and one soldier, Yoni Netanyahu, died in the fighting.
Peres later recalled hearing the news. He’d been awake for days and was exhausted in his office. Relief at the daring rescue turned to horror when a colleague arrived with the news: “Shimon…. Yoni’s gone. The bullet hit him in the back and went through his heart. He was shot from the control tower.”
“I turned to the wall,” Peres recalled, and for the first time all that tense week, gave vent to his feelings, and cried. Later, when commemorating the daring rescue operation, Peres dubbed it Operation Yoni.
Overtures for Peace
Peres held some of the top posts in Israel’s government in the 1980s, including Prime Minister (1984-6), Foreign Minister (1986-8) and Minister of Finance (1988-90).
In 1992, Peres once again became Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was one of the key players in negotiations that led to the controversial signing of the Declaration of Principles with the PLO in September 1993, which was meant to have led to a formal, permanent, agreement within five years. Peres won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasir Arafat. The PLO eventually scuppered any formal compromise with the Jewish state.
Although the PLO never emerged as a true partner for peace, Peres did help negotiate one important peace treaty at the time: Israel’s 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan, ending Jordan’s 46-year declaration of war against Israel, and which is still in effect.
“I was born an optimist and have remained one throughout my life,” Peres wrote in his memoirs. Even when permanent peace agreements seemed elusive, Peres remained committed to his dreams that one day the Jewish state would enjoy peace with those who are committed to its annihilation.
In the absence of real partners to peace, Peres did what he could in his own life to initiate peace and cooperation between Israel and its enemies. In 1997, he founded the Peres Center for Peace, which has brought life-saving medical treatment to 12,000 Arab children, trained over 250 Arab doctors and healthcare professionals in Israeli hospitals, and fosters cooperation between Jews and Arabs in business and the arts.
Meeting the Chafetz Chaim
Dr. David Luchins, professor at Touro College and chair of its political science department, recalls this story. In September 1993, the day after Yom Kippur, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Luchins met with Peres who was then Israel’s Foreign Minister. Senator Moynihan had requested the meeting at the behest of Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, who had a number of questions about the newly signed Camp David Accords.
Peres was eager for the Rabbi’s support and gave us detailed answers to every question. (Alas, everything he predicted could “go wrong” did so in short order.)
At the end of the meeting Senator Moynihan thanked Peres for his strong support of the Jerusalem Fellowships, a project of Aish HaTorah that the Senator served as Founding Honorary Chairman. Peres grew animated “Senator, let me tell you why I support The Jerusalem Fellowhips and Yeshivot. Over 60 years ago, when I was 8 years old, I was already an ardent Labor Zionist. I had a religious uncle who was upset by my lack of faith and dragged me to the village of Radin to meet the Chaftez Chaim, the venerable Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan.”
Peres continued: “The great Rabbi and I had quite a talk. He quoted Maimonides and I responded with Marx, He quoted Talmud and I quoted Ushishkin, The Chafetz Chaim then began to cry and put his hands on my head and blessed me. ‘The Aibeshter (God) gave me a long life. He should give you the same. You should go as you wish to Eretz Yisrael.and become a great leader of the Jewish people. But remember mein kind, that you can’t have a Jewish State without the Aibeshter and the Aibesher’s Torah!”
Peres became quite emotional. “Senator,” he declared, “yesterday was Yom Kippur. I do not fast all day. My wife does. I do not spend the day in synagogue. But every Yom Kippur night I think of what the Chafetz Chaim told me and realize how true his words were… and that is why I support the Jerusalem Fellowships and Aish HaTorah.”
Shimon Peres never gave up working, nor his belief in a better future. In 2015, Time Magazine asked the then-92 year old “When you look back on the 70 plus years of public life you’ve lived – as a founder of the state of Israel, as an architect of the Oslo Accords – what do you feel most proud of?”
Peres’ responded as he’d always lived: “The things I should do tomorrow.”
By Dr. Yvette Alt Miller