The following press release appeared this morning from the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Zionist arm of the Reform movement comprising 1.5 million Jews. As the national chair of the ARZA Board, I share this with sadness over the passing of Shimon Peres, but also with the hope that his vision of a two states for two peoples peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come about soon.
The Association of Reform Zionists of America joins the people of Israel and people of good faith around the world in mourning Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and President of the State of Israel. President Peres suffered a debilitating stroke on September 13, the 23rd anniversary of the day when he signed the Oslo Peace Accords on the White House lawn alongside Yitzhak Rabin z”l and Yasser Arafat.
Shimon Peres was one of the last remaining leaders of the founding generation of the State of Israel. First elected in 1959, he served as a Member of Knesset for a nearly unbroken streak of 48 years before being elected President in June 2007.
As a political leader, he placed the good-being of Israel, the unity of the Jewish people, and hopeful prospects for future peace as his guiding lights. He was a committed disciple of David Ben-Gurion, of whom Peres said, “I knew him well, and I am bound to say that not only did I see him as the greatest Jew of our generation, but my admiration for him continued to grow throughout the years of our acquaintance.” Under Ben Gurion’s tutelage, Peres ascended the ranks of Mapai, a precursor to today’s Labor Party.
His political views evolved over the years. Early in his career, Peres was perceived as a military hawk. A protégée of Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, and an alumnus of the Haganah, he developed crucial strategic alliances for Israel throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He served as the Deputy Defense Minister in 1965 and held various other ministerial posts throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In 1974 he became the Minister of Defense in Prime Minister Rabin’s government.
Peres’s and Rabin’s destinies were often linked together, and each was often perceived as the other’s nemesis. He succeeded Rabin as party leader in 1977, and when Likud won the subsequent election, Peres became the opposition leader.
Eventually, he developed into a political dove and one of the most eloquent proponents of peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. In the 1980s, he served a rotating shift as Prime Minister with Yitzhak Shamir in the Labor-Likud unity government. By the 1990s, he was forcefully articulating his vision of peace in what he called “The New Middle East.”
In President Peres’s vision, economic development and partnerships were the keys to transcending longstanding territorial grievances between Jews and Arabs. With his disciple Yossi Beilin, he was one of the key architects of secret peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which culminated with the Oslo Accords in 1993. As Rabin’s Foreign Minister, he often urged the ambivalent Prime Minister to take risks for peace. On September 13, 1993, Rabin, Peres, and Arafat signed the accords at a White House ceremony with President Clinton. The three of them received the Nobel Prize for Peace for their willingness to embrace Peres’s vision of a New Middle East.
On that historic day, Shimon Peres said:
We live in an ancient land, and as our land is small, so must our reconciliation be great. As our wars have been long, so must our healing be swift… I want to tell the Palestinian delegation that we are sincere, that we mean business. We do not seek to shape your lives or determine your destiny. Let all of us turn from bullets to ballots, from guns to shovels… We shall offer you our help in making Gaza prosper and Jericho blossom again.
Tragically, we know that peace did not blossom in the 1990s. Violence and terrorism erupted as the peace process staggered. In November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish assassin at a Tel Aviv peace rally, and Peres once more stepped in as Israel’s Prime Minister.
In subsequent years, he vigorously led those who would continue to envision peace, even during brutal days of terror. He founded and led the Peres Center for Peace, which works to build the infrastructures of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs. When he retired from the presidency of Israel in 2014, he was the world’s oldest head of state.
Shimon Peres was an intimate and committed friend of the Reform Jewish movement. Throughout his life, he was an outspoken advocate for Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people. He was an ally who supported of the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism here in North America, and Reform Jews around the globe.
In 2007, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion awarded him the Dr. Bernard Heller Prize for his lifelong leadership and pursuit of a peaceful future for the Middle East. At that time he said, “What I appreciate in Reform Judaism is its accommodation of the best of higher Jewish values with the modern world.”
That description could apply to Shimon Peres himself. Jewish history and destiny were in his DNA. Born into a secular family in Wisniew, Poland in 1923, he was tutored in Talmud by his grandfather, a scion of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. He developed a passionate love of Israel and Yiddishkeit. His family made aliyah in 1934 when Shimon was 11 years old; all his family members who did not leave Poland for Palestine were murdered in the Shoah. Once, when President Clinton asked him how Jews were able to survive over 2,000 years of exile and oppression, he replied, “Our Sabbath saved us.”
With the loss of Shimon Peres, the extraordinary generation of Israel’s founding leaders leaves the world stage. We join with our people and people of good faith around the world in sharing our condolences to his family and all of Israel.
And in our grieving, we pray for leaders everywhere who will inherit his mantle and have the courage to envision a new “New Middle East” for us all.
Zichrono Livracha – May his memory be a blessing.