Peres and Moral Leadership: Dreams and Lessons for the Future
In the current world of politics and diplomacy, it's more than fair to question the existence of morality and wisdom in the minds of today's leaders. At times, it seems that all we hear from government officials these days are messages of fear, incitement, and divisiveness. We often read about the inexcusable behavior of our leaders toward others and how they lack common decency and respect. We then ask ourselves: What happened to morality? When did decency disappear? Why do we stand divided? How come optimism is no more? Have we lost all hope? Can there be a brighter future? The answer to all these questions can be found in the life of a man who lived by these basic values that many lack today. A man who, in his recent departure from this world, taught us that one who lives in fear is doomed and that one who lives in hope is destined to succeed. This man was none other than former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres, of blessed memory, who passed away two months ago.
Many words can be used to describe Shimon Peres, his image, his impact, and his legacy. I choose to focus on one word: dreamer. As one of history's greatest visionaries, Shimon Peres dreamed a great dream. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of dreamers like Joseph, Theodor Herzl, and Martin Luther King. It was precisely the dream of Shimon Peres that made the desert bloom, revived an unspoken language, and returned an ancient people to their national homeland. And like most dreamers, Shimon Peres never gave up hope, even in the worst of situations. He didn't give up hope when his beloved grandfather was burned to death by the Nazis while praying in synagogue. He didn't give up hope when he, as an eleven-year-old young Jewish boy, was forced to flee Poland with no place else to go. He didn't give up hope when he boarded a train to Israel with nothing but the clothes on his body.
Instead, Shimon Peres began a new life in Israel, rebuilding what he had lost in Europe. He married and had children, creating for himself a new family and a new reason for hope. He fought for the right of Jews to live as a free people, joining David Ben Gurion's team and helping to re-establish the Jewish State of Israel. Shimon Peres defended his reborn nation as the first Director General of Israel's Ministry of Defense, securing enough soldiers and weapons to win the War of Independence in 1948. He oversaw the construction of Israel's nuclear facility in Dimona and worked hard in 1967 to rebuild the Jewish blocs of Judea and Samaria. As Defense Minister in 1976, Shimon Peres coordinated the successful raid on Entebbe that rescued Jewish passengers taken hostage by terrorists on a hijacked airplane. In 1979 and in 1994, he was instrumental in negotiating and facilitating Israel's successful peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, as well as opening the first-ever direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the latter winning him the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was in these fulfilled dreams that Shimon Peres rarely concentrated on the past, or even on the present for that matter. His eyes were always focused on the future. His dream for the future was one of peace, coexistence, and bridge-building. It was his optimism for the future that often brought him to meet with young people in Israel and around the world - including his visit to Yeshiva University in 1987 - educating the youth generation about the benefits of peace: “Peace is not a political event," Peres stated. "It is a basic, historic, and moral choice: Either war and take the risk, or peace and pay the price.” These values led Shimon Peres to establish the Peres Center for Peace, an organization which works to promote peaceful cooperation between children and adults from different cultures and faiths in areas of sports, science, innovation, technology, education, and public service.
At times, it was difficult to imagine how it was possible that an Israeli leader could be so optimistic about the future while living in such a very dangerous world. He proclaimed that his dream was that of a voyager. “I am a voyager from the defense of Dimona to optimism of Oslo,” Shimon Peres remarked to Ambassador Danny Ayalon, the YU Rennert Visiting Professor of Foreign Policy Studies, in one of their many conversations together. Similarly, when I had the great honor and privilege of meeting Shimon Peres at the end of his presidency, he told me: “We must always be hopeful and choose peace over war, to save lives and prevent death and destruction. The Talmud teaches us that to save one life is to save an entire world. It is thus our duty to save this world from war and hate by filling it with peace and respect.”
It is the belief of the Jewish tradition, enshrined by Biblical prophecy, that the seventy nations of the world will one day all assemble together in Jerusalem to pay respect to the Jewish people and its leaders. Indeed, at the funeral of Shimon Peres on Mount Herzl, world leaders from seventy different nations gathered to pay their final respects to a dreamer who was the most respected Israeli abroad. A dreamer, as Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaimed, “whose memory will dwell in the heart of the nation, and more importantly, in all the hearts of all the nations.”
We now embark on a concerning era of uncertainty with a lack of moral leadership in this world. In contrast to today's leaders, Shimon Peres was a dreamer of unity, not of divisiveness. He was a dreamer of hope and courage, not of fear and despair. I can only hope that our new government officials will follow in the footsteps of Shimon Peres and his dream to “create a new future for our children, to live differently from us, to live in peace.”