What do John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Shimon Peres have in common? What is the connection between July 4, 1826 and September 28, 2016?
Much has been written these past days about the end of an era in Israel. With the passing of Shimon Peres, Israel has lost the last of its “founding fathers”. The use of the phrase “founding fathers” is powerful and laden with meaning and yet in the case of Shimon Peres, it seems altogether fitting. No other leader in Israeli history was on the scene for so long and touched every aspect of the country’s being. No other leader was on the stage from day one, for Israel’s 68 years. No other leader was so identified with both peace and security, with both settlements and Oslo. And no other leader was viewed as an Israeli icon, for such a long time, on the world’s stage, as was Shimon Peres.
President Obama’s eulogy was moving. As David Horowitz wrote in his right-on-the-money article in the Times of Israel – Obama’s Empathetic Speech Raises Questions of What Might Have Been, had the President said those things in Israel seven years ago, things may have been different.
He said powerful things for those of us who look at the deeper connection between the US and Israel that goes beyond common interests and military/intelligence support. The kind of connection that goes to the core of what these two countries are and why the Congress and the vast majority of the US population has such a strong affinity for Israel, even when there are disagreements between the governments. The President made those points and they came across as heartfelt even if the years of his Administration have not stood out as being the friendliest. An enemy of this country he is most definitely not.
In Obama’s words: ”I think of him (Peres) sitting in the Oval Office, this final member of Israel’s founding generation, under the portrait of George Washington, telling me stories from the past, but more often talking with enthusiasm of the present…. As Americans and Israelis, we often talk about the unbreakable bonds between our nations. And, yes, these bonds encompass common interests — vital cooperation that makes both our nations more secure. But today we are reminded that the bonds which matter most run deeper. Anchored in a Judeo-Christian tradition, we believe in the irreducible value of every human being. Our nations were built on that idea. They were built in large part by stubborn idealists and striving immigrants, including those who had fled war and fled oppression. Both our nations have flaws that we have not always fixed, corners of our history which date back to our founding that we do not always squarely address. But because our founders planted not just flags in the eternal soil, but also planted the seeds of democracy, we have the ability to always pursue a better world. We have the capacity to do what is right.”
Obama recalled the vision of Peres under the portrait of George Washington… But it is not the first US President that stands out in comparison for me but rather the second (John Adams) and the third (Thomas Jefferson). On July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, both Adams and Jefferson passed away. It remains one of the greatest coincidences in American history. Some 900 miles apart and with no communications between them, these two men, Jefferson who wrote the Declaration and Adams the one who pushed him to do it, the last two survivors from the Revolutionary era, died within hours of each other. Adams’ last words were “Jefferson Still Survives.” He was wrong. Jefferson had died five hours earlier.
The two men had over the years worked together, had been bitter political rivals, became enemies after Adams lost the Presidency to Jefferson and felt the latter had stabbed him in the back, and after they both left politics became friends again, engaging in a historical correspondence over the last years of their lives in which they became the remaining spokesmen of the revolutionary age, defending what they believed to be the values of that revolution and what it meant to a new generation headed into the unknown.
Parallels abound here but a few stand out. Adams was 91 years old when he passed away (Jefferson, young in comparison, dying at age 80 – though in those days, both men lived well beyond the average). The bitter rivalry between Adams and Jefferson is reminiscent of the bitter rivalry between Peres and Rabin. And yet, though they are not buried together, Adams and Jefferson are forever linked by their histories and date of death, July 4, 1826. Rabin (73) and Peres (93) are forever linked by their histories and burial locations after death, next to each other on Mt. Herzl.
But beyond these coincidences, there is something more profound and one we should all be paying attention to. The passing of Adams and Jefferson marked the end of the revolutionary era. The last connections had been severed and the United States now drifted into a turbulent period which would culminate in a Civil War 35 years later. Jefferson, the States Rights southerner and Adams, the abolitionist New Englander, had worked together, had compromised and symbolized what had kept the country united despite profound differences. It may have happened anyway, but after they and what they stood for were gone, the forces pulling the country apart were too strong to be stopped.
The issues in Israel are different but some of the symbolism is the same. We are a country split along many lines: Right and left, Ashkenazi and Sefardi, Secular and Orthodox, Arab and Jew. Peres came from a generation in which the Zionist ideal was to be a light unto nations, an accepted member of the international community and in the Middle East. Those leaders believed that we have to be strong if there was ever to be peace and Shimon Peres, more than anyone else, represented that belief. Prime Minister Netanyahu in his eulogy stated that after arguing with Peres who he admired greatly, he came to understand that they were both correct in their views – there could never be peace without strength and security but there could never be true security without peace.
The State of Israel has accomplished more than any of the founding fathers would have believed possible. And Shimon Peres had a lot to do with it. But he never rested on laurels. Peres may have been a dreamer, but his quest for peace was genuine and it was totally in sync with the vision of the founding fathers. It never was their dream to control the lives of other people. It never was their dream to live forever by the sword. And it was their vision that this country be a Jewish and democratic state. There may not be a choice in our generation to give up the sword. There may not be a realistic chance to make peace under the current circumstances. But we would be betraying the vision of our founding fathers if we were to give up that dream and give up that pursuit of peace. It would be a betrayal of the Zionism of those founding fathers if we were to pursue policies (whether it be along the social/religious or diplomatic tracks) that ultimately lead this country down the path of not being a Jewish and democratic state.
The last of Israel’s founding fathers may be gone. But the responsibility of being true to the vision and ideals pursued by those founding fathers is now ours to carry on.