Coronavirus restrictions have prevented the traditional state memorial ceremony held for deceased presidents and prime ministers on the anniversaries of their deaths. Thus, the fourth anniversary of the passing of Israel's ninth president Shimon Peres was held not at his graveside on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, but in a social media format broadcast from the Jaffa-based Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
Aside from his family, these were the things closest to Peres's heart. He dreamed and worked for peace, and he was both curious about and fascinated by innovation. He frequently commented that Israel's innovative edge was honed by the need to come up with new defense solutions, but that these were quickly adapted for wide-scale civilian use, which was how Israel came to be the Start-Up Nation.
A member of the founding generation of the state, who served in several ministerial capacities including that of prime minister, Peres sought to break down ethnic and religious barriers, and arguably met with more world leaders in the course of his career than did any of his contemporaries in Israel and abroad.
Some of these meetings were shown in photographs that were interspersed with the memorial ceremony. In addition to President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres was eulogized by people whom he had met during his travels, or who met him when visiting Israel, who had attended his gala 90th birthday party, or who had come to his funeral to pay their respects.
Scenes from all of the above were incorporated into the memorial ceremony.
The additional speakers were former US secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former British prime minister and Special Middle East envoy of the Quartet Tony Blair, Prince Hassan of Jordan, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, actress Sharon Stone and actress and singer Barbra Streisand.
Two of the three Peres siblings – Chemi Peres, who is chairman of the Peres Center and Tzvia Walden – were also among the speakers and were joined by their brother Yoni in reciting Kaddish, the prayer of the dead in which God is extolled. The trio changed the final verse which calls on God to make peace on all Israel and instead called on Him to make peace on all humanity.
THE COMMON thread of all the speeches was Shimon Peres's vision, his indefatigable quest for peace, his attention to detail and his incredible memory.
Rivlin reviewed changes in the country since Peres's passing.
"We find ourselves living in a period of numbers – the number of seconds it takes to wash your hands properly, the number of meters for social distancing, the number of new cases, the daily number of recoveries, constantly calculating statistics and hoping to find some comfort in them.”
Addressing Peres by name, Rivlin voiced confidence that were he still here, Peres would have some ideas about how to overcome the current crisis, adding that "statistics are nothing without being accompanied by dreams."
Netanyahu also referred to a frequent quote by Peres "This too shall pass."
Relating to the present time, Netanyahu said: "Today, Israel – and the whole world – find ourselves facing the challenge of corona. Shimon never forgot from where we had come, how far we had come. He knew that the State of Israel represents indefatigable strength, and was certain we would not give up in the face of challenges that come and go."
It was in that spirit that Netanyahu was convinced that the corona storm shall also pass, and that Israel will emerge stronger than before. Dwelling briefly on Peres's achievements, Netanyahu said: "Shimon contributed to the development of Israel in so many areas, and perhaps most of all in its security through his involvement in attaining weapons, in the development of the defense industries, in cultivating our strategic capabilities and in increasing our deterrence. The legacy of his work will endure for generations."
Netanyahu was particularly keen to mention Peres's role as defense minister during the Entebbe Rescue Operation of 1976.
“I want to pay a special tribute to Shimon for his role as defense minister in the government of the late Yitzhak Rabin, 44 years ago," said Netanyahu. "Shimon pushed for the bold action to rescue the hostages in Entebbe, and the tear that Shimon shed when my late brother Yoni fell, still touches my soul to this day."
CHEMI PERES imagined how excited his father would be to see the evolving and further development of his vision of the "New Middle East."
Tzvia Walden was somewhat more nostalgic, talking about her father's role in the family, but also noting his respect for people from all walks of life. Taking a cue from her brother, she said of their father: “Today, we are reminded of his covert and overt travels in constant pursuit of peace. He strived for peace with everyone, with those near and far and especially with our neighbors. Right before our eyes, photographs of him from visiting the Gulf states, Oman and Qatar are emerging. My father knew how to gain the respect and trust of world leaders, including leaders of Arab and Muslim states."
Hillary Clinton said that above all, Peres had been an optimist, and not just a friend but a mentor to her and her husband, former US President Bill Clinton.
Tony Blair, who spoke at Peres's 90th birthday party and who made a point of seeing him whenever he came to Israel, described him as "a source of inspiration and a role model."
Hassan wrote a letter in which he described Peres as a man who "embodied the courage, desire and integrity that characterize unfortunately [only] a past generation of leaders."
Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi said that Peres knew the dangers of war, and so he made an effort to promote peace.
Sarkozy, who regarded Peres as a dear, personal friend, said: "His voice, persona, temperament and ideas are missing in the world. We lost a great leader who led the way toward peace."
Kagame, who also spoke of Peres's pursuit of peace, added: We identify with his vision of global cooperation, in pursuit of a better future for our children. We want to remember that peace and security are prerequisites for well-being and progress, both in Israel and around the world.
Like Hillary Clinton, Sharon Stone referred to Peres as her mentor and said that under his guidance, she had launched the online peace project "Yala Young Leaders."
BARBRA STREISAND said that she thinks of Peres often, especially amidst a global pandemic, political strife and general discord in the world. "His wise voice would be so helpful now."
Students from many schools around the country that have been named for Peres shared some of their dreams for peace and equality. Collectively, they represented Israel's human mosaic.
During the broadcast, there were several Facebook messages from viewers who said how moving it was to hear Peres's voice in recordings, what a great loss his death had been to the State, how much he was missed and how important it was for today's leaders to look at this broadcast.
For those who missed it, it has been recorded on YouTube. There are many YouTube programs dedicated to Peres, both in English and in Hebrew. Although this one was bilingual, it appears on the Hebrew YouTube site.
When there is talk of the many years in which Israeli diplomats have worked towards peace with Israel's neighbors, it should also be remembered that Shimon Peres served three times as foreign minister, beginning in 1986.
Photographs of Peres with leaders of Arab countries were reminiscent of one of several interviews that he gave to The Jerusalem Post during his term as president. A list of all the countries with which Israel at that time enjoyed diplomatic relations was presented to him, and he was asked how many countries on the list he had not visited. He gave it a quick scan and said "four" – meaning that he'd been to around 130 countries. Then his eyes twinkled and he said: "But you haven't asked me which countries I've been to with which we don't have diplomatic relations."
Now, we know.