In “Like Dreamers,” the 2013 history of post-Six Day War Israel, author Yossi Klein Halevy traces the journeys of seven of the elite paratroopers who in 1967 liberated the Western Wall and the rest of the Old City of Jerusalem, using their stories to encapsulate the diversity of opinions that developed during the Jewish state’s evolution to become the economic powerhouse it is today. It takes its title from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers.”
Though he was no paratrooper, Shimon Peres, the longtime head of state who passed away last week at 93, could have just as easily been one of Halevy’s dreamers. In 2004 during a visit to Philadelphia, the future president even described himself as such, telling me that though his vision of a “new Middle East” may be a dream, all dreams of peace will come true in the end.
“You can see already the changing winds in the Middle East,” he told an audience at Temple Beth Sholom in nearby Cherry Hill, N.J., later that day.
That was 12 years ago, of course, back when America’s invasion of Iraq was still fresh and the Pentagon spoke openly of a realignment in the region. Turkey had decided to join the European Union, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the surge, the withdrawal and the rise of the Islamic State would all lie several years into the future.
Peres’ particular dream — of an Israel fully accepted as a regional partner by its Arab neighbors, of a Palestinian state and a secure Jewish state living side by side — has not yet come true. And while reasonable people may disagree about the assumptions inherent in Peres’ vision, no one can fault him, a one-time defense hawk who cemented crucial arms deals with the West and was an architect of Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear program, for embodying the fervent hope of a people longing to live in peace. The strategic implications of implementation aside, it is an intoxicating vision, and to contemplate what the region — and the rest of the world, for that matter — might look like if decision makers and ordinary people behaved according to common interest and mutual respect is to engage in what might ultimately be a messianic endeavor.
But that was how Peres thought. Over a career spanning more than six decades, the two-term prime minister and ninth president of Israel — he also occupied every Cabinet position — Peres was the pragmatist and the visionary all rolled up into one. In that sense, he was the quintessential Israeli, firm yet contemplative, a link between his nation’s meager pre-state past and its innovative present.
Back in 2004, Rabbi Steven C. Lindemann noted that while Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his leftwing positions had by then earned him the derision of many in Israel and the worldwide Jewish community.
Over a career spanning more than six decades,
Peres was the pragmatist and the visionary all rolled up into one.
“Politics aside,” said Lindemann, “people have to acknowledge this is one of the elder statesman of Israel. … To be in his presence is an honor.”
Lindemann was absolutely correct. For me, in particular, being able to converse with Peres and hear him, in his Polish-accented English and Hebrew, paint a picture of a world without war, was most certainly an honor.
The lesson I got from that encounter is that no matter the realities of the moment, no matter the challenges, pressures and concerns that dictate a specific action, we as a people must never forget how to dream. It’s our dreams that keep us sane, that keep us inspired, and it’s dreams like Shimon Peres’ that will prod us toward a future more perfect than our current, compromised existence. You don’t have to agree with him to realize how badly needed such optimism is today.