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The Lessons of Shimon Peres

As Israelis remain glued to the news for updates on the health of the former prime minister, it’s comforting to keep the promise of his legacy close by

Daniel Gordis
September 16, 2016
Yoav Lemmer/AFP/Getty Images
Shimon Peres, then Israel's Foreign Minister, raises his fist when reacting to opposition parliament members during a debate at the Knesset, September 9, 1993. Yoav Lemmer/AFP/Getty Images
Yoav Lemmer/AFP/Getty Images
Shimon Peres, then Israel's Foreign Minister, raises his fist when reacting to opposition parliament members during a debate at the Knesset, September 9, 1993. Yoav Lemmer/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Shimon Peres died on Wednesday, September 28 in Israel. The following article was originally published on September 16, after he had suffered a stroke.

Ad me’ah ve-esrim, the Jewish tradition has us wish each other. May you live to be 120.

The age at which the Bible says Moses died, “one hundred and twenty years,” has come to signify completeness, wholeness. Next year, 2017, marks 120 years since Theodor Herzl launched political Zionism and the project of building a Jewish State with the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.

A century is also a mark of completeness. Next year, 2017, will be a century since the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917. True, the British eventually backed away from their endorsement of a “national home for the Jewish people” by limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine to almost zero in the late 1930s, but 1917 marked the first time that a major world power publicly and unabashedly stood behind the project that Herzl had launched two decades earlier.

So, too, with 70 years. Seventy years, says the Mishnah in Avot 5:21, is the age of “fullness of years.” And next year, 2017, will be seventy years since the UN voted on November 29 to partition Palestine and to create a Jewish State.

We are on the eve of all those significant anniversaries… but they will not arrive until next year. Perhaps that is part of the reason that Shimon Peres’s very serious stroke strikes many of us as particularly sad. Updates on his status lead the Israeli news, several times a day. An entire country is waiting to see and hear what will be. Peres, to be sure, is not a young man; and he has lived an extraordinary life of great purpose and accomplishment. Yet, it is hard not to feel wistful: Is there anyone alive who more deserves to see 120 years since the Zionist Congress, a century since Balfour, and 70 “fullness” years since UN Resolution 181?

Why would it be so wonderful to have had an alert and healthy Shimon Peres live to celebrate those anniversaries? Because he is, in many ways, the bookend to Theodor Herzl. Herzl, often called the “father of the nation,” got the Zionist movement under way. It was David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues who brought it to fruition, and Peres is the last of Ben-Gurion’s circle still alive. Dayan, Meir, Rabin, and many others were all part of that effort, but they are gone. Peres’s abiding presence in the Israeli public eye was our last living link to that founding generation. When we lose him, there will be no denying that the defining era of Zionist toil and accomplishment has ended.

Though an entire country has Shimon Peres in its thoughts, and the Chief Rabbi has urged the nation to pray for Peres, it is clear that we may lose him. If we do, though, in the year before those anniversaries and the “fullness” they reflect, perhaps there will be a lesson in that, too. The Zionist movement has not yet made it 120 years since Herzl. We have not had that full century since Balfour. And we have not quite reached the seventy years of fullness since Resolution 181. This is, then, still the beginning. This project is still very young, still vulnerable. It is not too late for us to shape it.

That is what Shimon Peres’ life was about. When necessary, in particular on the eve of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he procured advanced weapons for Israel. Yet he never lost hope that peace could was still possible. In 2007, Peres became the first President to visit Kfar Kassem, the site of the 1956 massacre of Arab citizens by IDF soldiers, and he asked for forgiveness. He was the man who was deeply involved in Israel’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and the man who signed the Oslo Peace Accords. In his latter years, he grew fascinated with nanotechnology and became the darling of Israel’s youth.

More than anything, Shimon Peres, never a terribly successful politician, has long represented the belief in possibility, the belief in Zionism coupled to realism. With Peres aging and now very frail just on the eve of all those anniversaries, the fullness of those years not quite achieved, his illness is a kind of passing of the torch. His generation did what it could. It is up to us to pick up this mantle and emulate their wisdom before it’s too late, lest we lose the promise of those anniversaries. We still pray Shimon Peres will live to see them.

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Book of the Year.