The Israeli leader, who died this week, came to symbolize the growth and power of Zionism, which he nurtured in the fields of the Middle East.
While every obituary marking Shimon Peres’s death mentioned his age, 93, the more significant number may be 68, the age of Israel, the country he helped establish. Peres was the last of the founders. As the protégé of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Peres helped conquer the southern port of Eilat, establish the Israeli navy, supply the Israeli air force, and launch the Israeli arms industry, all before his 30th birthday. Even more than any particular achievement, this Polish-born shepherd, who lost relatives in the Holocaust and wooed his wife, Sonia, by reading her excerpts from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, while sitting in a kibbutz he started, came to personify the “New Jew” that Zionism’s founders first envisioned. He became Israel’s “Mr. Security.” He went on to become the Nobel Prize-winning, peace-seeking president of Israel. In so doing, Peres embodied the flourishing of the state from a fragile, embattled Jewish “Hail Mary pass” to an established democratic home to millions. He typified the generation of larger than life pioneers who are now gone.
When Szymon Perski was born in Wiszniew, Poland—today Vishnyeva, Belarus—on Aug. 2, 1923, a Jewish State was an impossible ancient dream, not today’s robust reality. Although the Jews working the land in Palestine were starting to change their reputations, the image of the Jew was as a passive, bookish, ultra-religious victim, the wandering Jew, the beaten-up Jew, the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem’s wise but weary Tevye. David Ben-Gurion would explain that while most revolutions rejected the dominating regime or colonial power, the Zionist revolution had a double challenge. In addition to freeing Palestine from the British empire’s grip, Zionists had to liberate themselves from that debilitating self-image and create a new Jew. These pioneers’ aggressive secularism, idealistic socialism, and gruff physicality reflected their personal revolutions as the first steps toward national salvation.
Peres, who never lost his Polish accent, would struggle to become a true Israeli—and never fully achieve it, even as he became the representative Israeli to millions abroad. The grandson of a prominent rabbi, Peres immigrated to Tel Aviv with his family in 1934. His true Zionist transformation began in 1935, when he moved to the agricultural village at Ben Shemen. There, at Kibbutz Geva, and at Kibbutz Alumot, which he helped found, this bookish Polish child modeled himself on the brawny sabras around him—the nickname for New Jews born in the Promised Land’s rich but rocky soil, who, like the prickly pear, were bristly on the outside—but sweet on the inside.
While working as a dairy farmer and a shepherd, Shimon Persky, as he was now known, began to look like a pioneer, bronzed by the sun, toughened by the work. Peres and his peers embraced agricultural life and communal living, disavowing the weakness of the ghetto, the selfishness of the city, the decadence of bourgeois life. They delighted in Jewish nationalism’s particularity, rhapsodizing about the Promised Land as it revived, delighting in hikes following biblical trails, turning Hebrew from the heady language of prayer and study into the daily language of work and play. But at the same time, their Zionism was universalistic. They offered their synthesis of socialism with liberal nationalism as a model for others, especially after World War II when Israel became the poster child for the post-colonial nations, a rare new country that developed a stable, prosperous, liberal democracy.
Of course, Peres’s generation were not able to luxuriate in their high-minded ideals. They had to fight the British who first refused to leave and the Arabs who didn’t want the Zionists to stay. In the 1940s, Europeans, who had long yelled “go back to Palestine,” were now slaughtering their Jews en masse; so when Arabs yelled “go back to Europe” the Jews in Palestine became even more determined to fight for their national rights in their ancestral homeland. They had nowhere to go; this had been and was now their only home.
Thus, while any Perskis remaining in Poland were being butchered, Shimon Persky was learning to fight. He met Ben-Gurion, already functioning as the leader of the state that had not yet been declared. Ben-Gurion sent him on a secret mission into the Negev desert, scouting out future settlement sites, only to be arrested. Persky joined the Haganah and entered the shadow world of arms dealers, procuring weapons for an army still outlawed by the British yet being attacked daily by Arabs, especially after November 1947, when the United Nations declared there would be a Jewish State. All the intrigues of what he recalls as this “new world… of mysterious missions and anonymous agents,” appealed to Persky, who, for all his attempts at self-transformation, remained far more closed, wily, and elegant than his rough and tumble friends—and rivals.
After the British left and Israel emerged in May 1948, Ben-Gurion appointed Persky assistant defense secretary for naval affairs. “My naval experience,” he later recalled drily, “consisted of a moderate proficiency at breaststroke and one childhood attempt to build a raft and launch it off the coast of Tel Aviv.” Nevertheless, he completed his mission efficiently and honorably, securing frigates and torpedo boats, organizing the fledgling service. During this difficult fight, when Israel barely had enough fuel to survive, let alone train men on functional munitions, Peres served the military effort but did not serve in the military. That distinction alienated him from his peers and harmed his political career. General Yigal Allon, who, with Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan, would go from fighting in the ’48 war to fighting each other to lead the country, would grumble, “In the trenches where I was, I never saw Shimon Peres.” A leading poet would dismiss him as one of those “who heard gunfire only on the telephone.”
The critique was particularly unfair considering the tremendous contributions to the nation’s defense made by Persky, who now christened himself Peres, to be more Israeli. In 1952, he became deputy director-general of the ministry of defense. In 1953, before his 30th birthday, he became the ministry’s director-general. While purchasing arms from abroad, he also established some Israeli self-sufficiency by manufacturing weapons. He was instrumental in solidifying relations with the French, Israel’s main arms supplier until 1967, and in developing the Dimona nuclear reactor.
In 1959, he began the political career that would make him world famous. Over the decades he would fill key posts in 12 cabinets, serve as prime minister twice and as interim prime minister twice, and evolve from the architect of Israel’s military infrastructure into Israel’s leading pursuer of peace. Yet, in half a century in politics, despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he never fully clicked with the Israeli public, or the sabra politicians around him—especially his archrival and co-Nobel peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin.
The Peres-Rabin rivalry polarized the Labor Party for years, and wasn’t fully resolved until Rabin was assassinated in 1995 with Peres just steps away. Peres then played the role elegantly of Rabin’s “brother” and successor. He explained that when fighting to defend Israel’s existence, he had no choice but to be a hawk, now, however, the time had come to be a dove. His vision of a New Middle East, not only respected Palestinian national aspirations, but envisioned broad regional cooperation that would bring prosperity and democratic dignity, not just peace, to Arab and Jew alike. Peres, however, failed to get elected as Hamas started undermining the Oslo Peace Process—and his credibility—by blowing up Israeli busses.
Peres lived long enough to become the Last of the Zionist Mohicans, finally achieving the iconic status among Israelis he had long sought. Serving as president from 2007 to 2014, retiring at the age of 91, Peres now became Mr. Israel at home and abroad. In the 21st century, beyond being the living link to the founding heroes, he helped articulate a new Zionist vision, now that being a New Jew and having a Jewish State were old stories. His celebration of Israeli technological derring-do, his wry toasts to the Jewish “dissatisfaction gene” as the source of both creativity and kvetching, charmed the nation and the world. Building on the practical dream-making of Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, Peres quipped “For me, dreaming is simply pragmatic” and taught “you’re as young as your dreams not as old as the calendar.”
If some of Peres’s peacemaking and his refusal to acknowledge the Oslo failures once were annoying, now his optimism renewed faith in HaTikvah, the title of the Israeli national anthem, “the hope.” If some of his European ways once were off-putting, now his cosmopolitanism boosted confidence that the New Jews could function in the modern world—while making him the most popular Israeli abroad. And if some of his can-do optimistic pronouncements once seemed terribly naïve, now they were reassuringly charming.
And so, as Israel, the Jewish people, and democratic idealists throughout the world eulogize Shimon Peres, they are also celebrating Israel’s miraculous survival, its inspiring post-Colonial example, and its tremendous potential to create the new peaceful, prosperous Middle East, this Polish-born pioneering Zionist not only envisioned but came close to creating. Peres advised young people “to find a cause that’s larger than yourself and then give your life to it.” The late Shimon Peres found that great cause—Zionism—and fulfilled his life through it.