Lessons I learned from Shimon Peres

The only time I ever saw my grandfather cry was when we were watching the signing of the Oslo Accords.

At 15 I wasn’t really aware of what was happening but his reaction shocked me so much that the scene is forever seared in to my memory…

My grandmother was sitting in stony silence in her chair in the living room, watching tv. As I came in to the room I saw my grandfather standing, leaning over the back of the other chair. I stood next to him and we watched the ceremony. My grandfather, wiping the tears from his face, saw me staring at him. He was pale. My undemonstrative grandfather, a man who (unlike my grandmother) rarely expressed any thoughts on politics said: “He just signed away Israel.”

My heart skipped a beat.

His were not tears of joy. At the time while most Israelis were overcome with a feeling of euphoria, truly believing (or at least wanting to believe) that this event would reign in a new area of peace, his reaction was highly unusual.

Both my grandparents were extremely concerned and it wasn’t long before I began to see how correct they were…

Lesson 1: People are complicated

The death of Shimon Peres has triggered a slew of articles and segments about him (including this one). Some lauded Peres, practically deifying him. Others demonized him. In Israel, between his death and his funeral, the media focused on nothing else, as if the world had stopped because the man who seemed like he would live forever stopped.

The media coverage has bothered me enormously, largely because it has been horribly one dimensional. People are complicated and Shimon Peres was a prime example of this. He deserves better than being flattened in to a character that is “the good guy” or “the bad guy,” depending on who is writing the story.

The influence of my grandparents could have put me in the demonization camp but it was those same grandparents who taught me to look deeper than that.

Like his wife, Sonia Peres, who loved the man but hated the visibility of political life, like Prime Minister Netanyahu who utterly rejected the politics of the man but, at the same time, loved his personality, I too differentiate between Shimon the man and Peres the politician.

It is fascinating that one person can encapsulate such complexity…

Shimon Peres was a diaspora Jew in a time when it was cool to become a sabra, a new Jew. He had a heavy accent and he was an administrator, not a fighter. In many ways he was exactly the opposite of the image the new Israelis wanted for themselves – and yet he was no less revolutionary. It was his vision that helped actualize much of the security platforms Israel has today (including a very important “textile factory”). Things others declared impossible, Peres made happen. He was a politician but he was also a poet.

Lesson 2: Determination

One of the most outstanding characteristics of Shimon Peres was his determination. Many called him an incorrigible optimist, assigning to him extreme, almost unexplainable naiveté. These qualities would seemingly suggest a failing in intelligence however, considering that Peres was a highly educated, intelligent man, I believe that these are a mistaken perception of his almost superhuman determination.

Contrary to what it might seem following the infatuated media coverage, Peres spent most of his political life disparaged and reviled, even by his own party. He wasn’t looked at as a visionary statesman, he was considered a wheeling and dealing politician. It was Rabin who called Peres: “A tireless underminer.” Time and again Peres lost to political rivals and yet he never gave up. He had a vision and faith and was willing to do whatever it takes to see that become reality.

Differences of opinion regarding the correctness of his vision or actions are irrelevant in the consideration of his extraordinary determination. How many people can you think of with such a strong sense of conviction? What could you achieve in your own life if you dealt with your challenges in the way Peres dealt with his?

Lesson 3: Maybe I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one

I’ve been laughed at for being a dreamer, an idealist. Shimon Peres was a dreamer too. His dreams of peace in the Middle East were both beautiful and dangerous but those were not his only dreams.

He dreamt of tomorrow with a passion associated only to the greatest inventors in history, people like Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla who envisioned things way before their time. Peres read while others were sleeping. He thought that resting was a waste of time. He taught himself about the latest developments in science and technology and was able to hold deep conversations on an astonishing breadth of subjects. Peres was a true futurist and he was proud that his nation, Israel, is instrumental in inventing and developing a better tomorrow.

Peres was widely embraced around the world for his vision of peace but it was his enthusiasm for the future that endeared him to many at home and abroad.

Perhaps the most important dream Peres had for himself was the desire to be loved. He served the public most of his life but only received widespread admiration in his final public role, as President of Israel. His tireless determination finally paid off. His controversial political past was largely set aside and, for the most part, he was warmly embraced by the nation he loved.

I’m certain knowing that tribute to his vision and personality brought so many world leaders together, brought them to Israel, would have given him great satisfaction.

Lesson 4: Age is an attitude

It seemed like Shimon Peres would live forever. He had an air of timelessness about him. While most people remain in the timeframe of what was contemporary in their youth, Peres kept his mind flexible, changing with the times, always focused on the future. As he grew chronologically older, his attitude remained contemporary. He kept up with the swiftly changing technology, adopted the use of social media and participated in the creation of viral videos. For those of us who were born into the technological age it is difficult to comprehend the enormous flexibility it takes to change with the times.  My grandmother was born before electricity was common in homes and she lived to see the invention of television, a man on the moon, cell phones and the internet. Peres not only saw all those changes, he made use of them.

Peres proved that age is a mindset, an attitude. He was always excited to see what tomorrow would bring and that made it seem like there would always be a tomorrow for him. This attitude made the epitaph he requested for himself seems so apt: “Died before his time.”

Lesson 5: Narrative appropriated

Watching the media response to the death of Shimon Peres left me wondering about the validity of the narrative we are taught about other historical figures. The Israeli media, like most media around the world, aligns mostly with the political left. Our artists, musicians and other celebrities tend to identify with the left as well. Peres was the spokesperson of the Israeli left, he gave dignity to their ideas, presenting them in world forums, gaining acceptance abroad which, in turn, reinforced the perception of his colleagues that their way was the right way. Even following the utter failure of the Oslo Accords, additional land-for-peace and prisoners-for-peace deals, the left still upheld Peres as their symbol of Israel’s undying hope for peace. His death created a vacuum for the Israeli left. They have no more representatives for their ideas. While the general public still wants peace and would willingly make enormous sacrifices for peace, Israelis, in general, no longer hold the belief that the next deal signed will bring peace. With no leader to look to, the left has done everything in their power to transform Shimon Peres the man, with all his complexities, in to a symbol with which they can justify themselves. Considering that the people who set the tone for the culture are the ones redefining the man and deciding what his legacy is, there is very little room for anyone with a different perspective. This, combined with a rigid taboo on speaking poorly of the deceased, makes an honest discussion of his peace initiatives (or the people hurt by them) almost impossible.

Watching this unfold raises so many questions….

Is it so difficult to discuss someone or something we don’t like without being disrespectful? Or being accused of being a “hater”/”racist”/whatever other shut-you-up label is currently popular?

Is it so difficult to differentiate between a man and his actions? What in the world makes it so easy to convince people that any person is one dimensional? Only good or only bad? Who says we have to completely agree or completely disagree with anyone? Why do we have to choose “teams”? Isn’t it possible that we may have the same goals while still disagreeing about how to achieve them?

Last but not least, I am left to wonder – if the narrative of a man’s life can be appropriated so swiftly, so close to his death, how much of what we know about historical figures is true?

I remain with more questions than answers. Possibly the historical facts matter less than the principles we choose to remember and uphold. I know others will define Peres as the symbol for peace and teach that his methodology is the correct way to attain peace. To me it seems disrespectful to turn someone so complex in to a one-dimensional tool to use to further a political agenda…

Personally, I choose to remember the lessons I’ve learned from Shimon, the man, the poet, not the politician. To me his legacy isn’t about politics, it’s about a way of being in the world, an attitude towards life:

People are complicated. No one is a saint, no one is a devil.

Determination pays off in the end. Never give up.

Focus on the future.

Age is an attitude.

History is taught according to the narrative convenient to the people in power. This is a very disturbing realization however I still hold on to the belief that it is the principles we choose to uphold that will determine our future.

Maybe I’m a dreamer but, at least, I’m not the only one.


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