Public pays last respects to Peres at Knesset memorial.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
While Shimon Peres’s funeral on Friday will be attended by heads of state and other personages from around the world, the public he represented in so many varied capacities paid their respects in the Knesset courtyard on Thursday.
After wreaths were laid on Peres’s coffin by President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, the Knesset was opened to the public for 14 hours.
Some 50,000 Israelis including Likudniks and Leftists along with religious, secular and everyone in between came from across the country to say goodbye to one of Israel’s founding fathers.
“He was one of a kind, he lived life to its fullest,” said Morel Haina, 14, from Ramle. “I’m not sure if there will ever be another person like him.”
Peres’s casket, wrapped in an Israeli flag, was placed on a black stone. As people walked by, some recited prayers and many took a last picture with the leader who was famous in later life for his media-friendly demeanor.
Security guards kept the crowds moving at a fast pace, to the ire of some who wanted to spend an extra 30seconds with the country’s eighth prime minister.
“He was a leader not only for Israel, but the entire world. He worried about everyone,” Rami Alon, 73, from Tel Aviv, remarked. “The whole world is coming to say goodbye.”
Alon, like many others present, had a personal experience with Peres.
“I met him around 40 years ago in Herzliya during the election, he was a great man, a huge man.”
“I never met him,” said one man who didn’t want to give his name. “But at the rally where [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated we made eye contact and I smiled, it was a real emotional connection.”
The public memorial was open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, and in the early afternoon the crowds of visitors were largely calm and organized though sitting under the Jerusalem sun. Excited high school students gathered for class pictures in front of the casket, giggling and pushing as their teacher told them to be quiet.
A delegation of 34 Arab-Israeli schoolchildren from Abu Gosh was present. The youngsters were part of a Peres Center for Peace-sponsored “Peace Team” soccer initiative that promotes Muslim-Jewish soccer games. Mahmoud Abu Katish, their teacher, said: “We are here to share in the memorial. Peres was a great role model for teachers and students... Peres pushed Arabs and Jews together for peace.”
Haina from Ramle agreed. “He is the example, he worked for peace with the Arab world.”
Dalia Vakhnin from Haifa first remembers seeing Peres when he was defense minister in Rabin’s second term, when he helped lay the groundwork for the Oslo Accords.
“I remember him as a man of security, for pushing the Oslo Accords, for being president,” she said.
Peres’s long and storied career garnered significant criticism as well as praise. Yet at Thursday’s ceremony, Peres transcended political divides and became a unifying symbol for many Israelis.
“He was great, and I say this even though I’m from the Likud and didn’t agree with him on everything. Other people didn’t dare like him,” Lea Hamid from Jerusalem said. “Let’s not talk about politics here.”