Peres in Oslo synagogue, May 11, 2014..
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH)
OSLO – We must continue praying for peace until it arrives, President Shimon Peres told the Jewish community of Oslo Sunday in its historic synagogue.
Peres recalled attending services in the synagogue 20 years ago with then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin when the Oslo Accords were signed. The two prayed for peace, he said, and “until it is completed we still have to pray and pray and pray.”
“I believe the chances [for peace] are not lost even though I am aware of the difficulties,” he said, citing obstacles such as Gazans following the disengagement with shooting rockets into Israel and the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.
Still, the president posited that “neither the Palestinians nor us really have any alternative but to live in peace... in two separate independent states.”
“Never give up hope,” Peres beseeched the crowd.
Peres is on a state visit to Norway, and will be received by King Harald V on Monday in an honor-guard ceremony and a royal dinner.
The president was welcomed by the Oslo Jewish community in the town’s first synagogue, built in 1920, with a choir singing Biblical verses and a welcome address from the community’s president, Ervin Kohn.
The synagogue’s ornate sanctuary and women’s gallery were packed with 300 people sitting in front of a bima and ark decorated with wood carvings, gold lamps and an arched ceiling painted to resemble a starry sky.
There are over 1,000 Jewish people living in Oslo and another 200 in Trondheim. The community considers itself Zionist – as witnessed by its reciting the prayer for the State of Israel and “Hatikva” in the synagogue – and is recognized by and receives funds from the Norwegian government.
Oslo, the president said, “is not just a point on a map. For the Jewish people and Israelis, it is a point in our heart.”
“When Israel was established,” Peres said, “we never dreamed that we would reach the size of Norway. We were 650,000 people and we thought it’d be great if we reached a million. Now, we’re [more populous] than Norway! You have 5 million citizens and we have 8.2 million.
“This shows us that dreams that we think are great are actually small. Reality is greater than our biggest dreams,” the president stated.
Peres commended the community for its strong Zionism and work for Jewish continuity, saying the most important thing is “that our children continue to be Jewish.”
“Who is a Jew? A Jew is a person who tries to keep his children Jewish,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Kohn said that he loves Israel like his children – even when he disagrees with them, he loves them – but expressed concern about legislation that he said undermines Israel’s character as a democracy, adding that he is sure Peres feels the same.
Chief Rabbi of Norway and former Labor-Meimad lawmaker Michael Melchior tried to solve the mystery of what makes Peres such a respected figure by so many people around the world, citing the president’s “mind-boggling” longevity, his varied areas of interest and his optimism.
The rabbi gave what he called a Jewish answer: “Judaism doesn’t believe in predestination. If you miss an opportunity there is not always another one. Human history is a long chain of opportunities. Some are grasped but often they are missed and that is a tragedy.
“The life of Shimon Peres has been one long chain of standing at crossroads and grasping the moment. That cannot be written in any manual for politicians for statesmanship,” Melchior added. “He is always alert, does not hesitate for the sake of his people, of their future, for the sake of peace. Shimon Peres will always be there. This alertness, this urgency, is always felt around him and that will always make him the center of the buzz no matter what title he holds.”
When Peres took the stage, he joked that he didn’t want to speak because he didn’t want to spoil the great impression Melchior’s words left.