Shimon Peres, Israel’s last living founding father, leader of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, former President and Prime Minister, has passed away at the age of 93. For those of you who do not know who Shimon Peres was, he was a man who served his country for over 70 years in the highest levels of government and military. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, won countless medals and awards for his work promoting coexistence, and was universally respected for his love and optimism. His funeral on Friday was attended by dozens of world leaders. President Obama, the Pope, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Palestinian PM Mahmoud Abbas, and many many more.
In an era where our trust and faith in politicians is at an all-time low, Shimon Peres stood as the exception. His style of leadership was steeped in optimism and the idea that anything was possible, even peace between Arabs and Jews. The impact Peres’ leadership was evident by the swarm of world leaders who flocked to Jerusalem to pay their respects to the fallen leader.
America is currently deciding not only who will fill the Oval Office in January 2017, but what type of leader we want to represent our country. We are deciding what leadership qualities we believe are needed to represent America to the world, to keep America safe, and to inspire us to strive for a better tomorrow. Shimon Peres was by no means perfect, but his ability to lead a country battling constant adversity over 70 years proved he was the type of leader the people of Israel deserved. What was it that made Shimon Peres so special, and what were the qualities he possessed that America would be lucky to have in a leader?
If Shimon Peres is to be remembered for one thing it may be his vast optimism and his belief in the potential for peace. To be an optimist, especially in a region of the world where war and terror is commonplace, takes great courage. It took courage for Shimon Peres to build Israel’s defenses, ensuring the survival of a young state that was under constant attack from all of her neighbors. It took courage for Peres to then sit with those neighbors and to commit himself to forging peace for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Kurds, and for all people. It took courage for Shimon Peres to build the foundation for Israel, a tiny country with no natural resources, to become a focal point of technology, innovation, and creativity.
It took immense courage and an impressive amount of fortitude for Peres to serve his country for his entire adult life. For over 70 years he served as a military leader, Knesset Member, Minister, President, Prime Minister, and as Israel’s unofficial ambassador to the world. Peres represented the conciseness of Israel, the true Zionist ideal that a secured homeland for the Jewish people does not mean rule over anyone else, but that our survival as a people is dependent on the self determination of our sovereignty. He worked with 10 US Presidents dating back to John F. Kennedy, traveled to hostile lands in the pursuit of peace, and committed the latter years of his life to bringing Jewish and Muslims youth together at the Peres Center for Peace. It is easy to be cynical of the world we live in, but it’s truly courageous to see the good and the potential in everyone and in everything.
Peres also understood better than most that peace for Israel is rooted in security. Having been born in Poland and having lost his father in the Holocaust, he lived through the evils of anti-Semitism and knew that survival of the Jewish people was contingent on security. Because of the foundation of security Shimon Peres helped to form, Israel was able to sign peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. As Israel’s relations with Muslim and Arab countries grow today to the highest level in Israel’s history, it was Shimon Peres who helped set the precedent of rapprochement. When Peres traveled to Morocco in 1986 to meet with King Hassan II in pursuit of peace and security for the Middle East it was said to be one of the most important public contacts between an Israeli head of government and an Arab leader. Peres won his Nobel Peace Prize with fellow Israeli champion of peace Yitzhak Rabin for their negotiations with PLO President Yasir Arafat, and he was the Foreign Minister overseeing the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan. No matter what position he held, peace was always the goal. “Our aim is peace, not war. And when we win a war we don’t consider it as a victory. For us victory is peace! We have power, we shall never use power unless we don’t have another choice. And when we have a choice we want peace…And that was, and that is, and that will remain the position of Israel.”
As as student of history I am constantly inspired by the great leaders of our past. I often look at men like George Washington and women like Harriett Tubman in awe of the self-sacrifice they made for the advancement and success of their people. As I now process the death of Shimon Peres, a man who committed over 70 years of his life to the betterment of the Jewish people and to all of humanity, I now see that he falls into my personal list of heroes and legends. He is a hero because he inspired everyone he met or who heard his message, but he is a legend because his legacy as a man of peace, courage, and never ending optimism will live on for generations.
Legends like Shimon Peres do not come along every election cycle. But if we look at the qualities that make up the legend, it will help us to understand the attributes needed by great leaders. The self-sacrifice, courage, and inspiration of Shimon Peres are the assets Americans deserve in their leaders.
Heroes get remember, but legends never die. Shimon Peres, the man, the statesmen, the politician, will be remembered. His legacy of love, peace, and optimism, however, will never die.