Peres at his 90th birthday 370.
(photo credit: Koby Gidon/GPO)
Money, unfortunately, was the focus of much of the discussion surrounding
President Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday celebrations, rather than the exceptional
First, there was the controversy over the $500,000
enumeration offered by the Peres Academic Center to facilitate an appearance at
its Rehovot campus by former US president Bill Clinton.
Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund was supposed to help foot Clinton’s
speaking bill, but a public outcry forced it to back out. The money was to go to
the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation to help encourage awareness
of environmental protection and public health.
But on Monday night, it
was announced that Clinton had decided to donate the $500,000 payment for his
speech to the Peres Academic Center. The money is now slated for scholarships
for students of the institution, according to Prof. Ron Shapira, president of
Then scrutiny turned to the NIS 11 million being spent on
this week’s Israeli Presidential Conference, which kicked off on Tuesday night
with a gala celebration at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. In
the past, then-state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss criticized the fact that
the annual event was funded by private individuals, not the state.
of the criticism of Peres’s extravagant birthday celebrations can be traced back
to the state’s socialist roots, when austerity plans were implemented and
conspicuous consumption was considered unseemly. For example, in an op-ed on
Ynet, historian Yechiam Weitz contrasted Peres’s ostentatious birthday
celebrations with his mentor David Ben-Gurion’s modest 80th birthday party at
Kibbutz Sde Boker in 1966.
But whether Weitz and others like it or not,
we no longer live in an era in which our economy is centrally controlled and the
differences between rich and poor are barely recognizable.
society is more materialistic. Conspicuous consumption is encouraged. Our free
market economy has brought more opportunities to more people. Those with the
skills to take advantage of these opportunities have excelled while others have
fallen behind. In the process, gaps have widened between the rich and
In this economic environment, an expensive birthday extravaganza
for our nearly nonagenarian president, especially one paid for primarily by
affluent Jewish entrepreneurs and philanthropists, is a legitimate
While the pros and cons of allowing business moguls to fund a
conference devoted to issues central to Israel’s prosperity can and should be
debated, we should not let the cost eclipse the conference and the
Peres is, after all, an invaluable asset for the State of
Israel. He is the wise, tolerant, gentle face of the Jewish state. He is Mr.
Peace. He is loved and respected by international leaders from US President
Barack Obama to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, by astute scientists,
accomplished artists, successful businessmen and cynical journalists. He is a
friend of superstars such as Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and
Madonna. He gives Israel a positive image, emphasizing its many accomplishments,
especially in the fields of hitech and brain research.
“He is clearly the
world’s greatest visionary,” former president Clinton said of Peres in his
address at the Peres Academic Center on Monday night. “One of the reasons he has
lived this long is that he always lives in the future. He is always thinking
When Peres reached the age of 80, the rabbinic adage
that appears in the fifth chapter of The Ethics of the Fathers [Pirkei Avot] was
widely quoted. Peres had reached the age of “special strength.”
rabbis have to say about the age of 90 – “the body is stooped” – is less
complimentary. But our president seems to have defied the sages. In
international forums, such as the World Economic Forum that took place last
month on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, Peres continues to generate
excitement – more than political peers decades younger.
He continues to
keep alive hope for the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while others on both sides of the conflict with
less mileage have given in to cynicism and pessimism.
As he celebrates
his 90th birthday – which technically falls on August 2 – our popular president
should be honored not just as a national treasure, but as a source of
inspiration and hope for the future.