Much will be written about the incredible life of Shimon Peres, who passed away last week at age 93, and it is not my intention here to present a comprehensive review of his fascinating biography or to praise his important contributions to Israel, which spanned many decades. Nor is it my intention to paper over what many felt were his misguided ideas and policies. Suffice it to say that his fierce dedication to Israel and its people is beyond dispute.
He is the only person ever to have served as both prime minister and as president of Israel, although he did lose five elections for prime minister, which may constitute the all-time historical record for futility by the nominee of a major political party seeking election as head of state.
Peres was a principal player in the building of the state of Israel. Ironically, though touted around the world as a man of peace, he played a seminal role in engineering and advancing Israel’s military establishment, from acquiring weapons for the new Israeli army to developing Israel’s state-run military industries to being singularly responsible for the development of Israel’s nuclear capability.
Following the 1967 Six-Day War he championed the establishment of settlements under the slogan “Settlements Everywhere,” but he eventually changed course as he pursued his dream of a “New Middle East,” which would have entailed significant Israeli concessions as part of a hoped-for peace agreement.
But Peres’s legacy presumably will be defined by the important role he played as architect of the disastrous 1993 Oslo Accords (for which he was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize together with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chief Yasir Arafat) and by his naïve trust in Arafat’s good intentions.
Though Peres was raised in a non-religious family and was not personally observant, he studied Talmud as a child with his maternal grandfather, the great Torah scholar Rav Tzvi Hirsh Meltzer, Hy”d, who had a great influence on his life. Rav Meltzer’s last emotional words to Shimon as his grandson immigrated with his family to Eretz Yisrael in 1934 were “Be a Jew!” and indeed he was.
In recognition of Peres’s deep respect for traditional Judaism, David Ben-Gurion often sent him to work with rabbinic leaders on critical religious matters, including the deferment of military service for yeshiva students. (Peres later recalled that whenever he met with the rabbis, “I felt like I was sitting with my grandfather.”) He also met frequently with the Lubavitcher Rebbe to discuss issues relating to Jewish identity in Israel, including many specifics regarding Russian immigrants.
Standing against his fellow secular Zionists, Peres opposed the elimination of traditional Judaism from the new Jewish state and throughout his life maintained a deep respect for Jewish customs and practices. For example, he declined to attend the Friday night opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic games out of respect for Shabbat. In the historic June 30, 1994 correspondence written on his Minister of Foreign Affairs letterhead to Rav Menachem Porush and exhibited with this column, he displays further sensitivity to Shabbat observance:
As to your letter of 20 Tammuz, 1994 – in order to prevent the mass public desecration of Shabbat, we have expended great effort to ensure that Yoshev Rosh Ashaf [the head of the PLO, i.e., Yasir Arafat] will arrive in Gaza on Friday during the early afternoon hours.
Rav Porush (1916-2010) was an Israeli rabbi and politician (and longtime Jewish Press columnist) who served as a member of the Knesset, deputy head of the Jerusalem city council, and deputy minister of labor and social welfare.
The background of the letter is fascinating. Arafat’s sudden announcement that, in his first trip to the Palestinian territories since 1967, he would be visiting the Gaza Strip – “I am coming home!” – had the Israeli government scrambling to make security arrangements. Prime Minister Rabin, committed to honoring the Oslo Accords regarding Palestinian self-government, agreed to a three-day visit and told his generals and security chiefs that the question was not whether Arafat would come but, rather, how Israel would manage the visit.
Though Arafat had not asked to come to Jerusalem, then-mayor Ehud Olmert expressed his belief that Arafat might try to sneak into the holy city on Shabbat, when religious Jews could not organize a protest. Thousands of Israelis opposed to the Oslo Accords jammed the center of Jerusalem in a wild demonstration and hundreds of policemen were posted in the Arab Old City as a precaution. Nevertheless, on Friday, July 1, 1994, Arafat made triumphant return to the Palestinian territories, though he was prevented from going to Jerusalem.
Finally, in Peres’s memory and in the spirit of the yamim noraim, exhibited with this column is a 23 Elul 1989 correspondence on his Minister of Foreign Affairs letterhead that evinces his knowledge of biblical verses, his respect for Jewish tradition, and the honor he accorded Rav Porush:
With greetings of the New Year, I extend to the Rav’s honor and to his entire household a good and blessed year, a year in which all your wishes be fulfilled with health and long years.May it be [Hashem’s] will that the year, may it come upon us for the good, will be a year of peace and serenity for Israel in our land and in our Diaspora, a year of the ingathering of exiles and, in the words of the verse from the weekly Torah portion: “And Hashem your God will return you to your home and will have compassion for you and gather you from among the nations which Hashem your God had dispersed you” (Deuteronomy 30).