President Peres

Money, unfortunately, was focus of much of discussion surrounding Peres’s 90th birthday celebrations, rather than the exceptional man himself.

June 18, 2013 23:53
3 minute read.
President Shimon Peres at his 90th birthday celebration June 18, 2013.

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 man himself.

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.

Originally, the 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 the center.

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.

Part 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.

Today our 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 poor.

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 enterprise.

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 celebration.

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 about tomorrow.”

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.”

What the 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.

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