A Special Edition of Chelm-on-the-Med

Anyone who reaches the ripe old age of 93 with all his marbles intact deserves a send-off that celebrates his life.  All the more so Shimon Peres z”l – a colorful albeit complex and controversial persona who over the years provided me as a writer with much fodder for Chelm-on-the-Med and its 1980s-1990s predecessor Gleanings – columns that share in English the wildest and wackiest news stories ‘hiding’ in the Hebrew press.  Digging deeper, the subtext of such piquanteria as we call it in Hebrew, speaks volumes about the essence of the man.

I was dumbfounded when I read how in July 1987, while serving as Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs on a state visit to Switzerland, Shimon Peres sauntered over in the middle of a flight over the Swiss Alps and asked the Swiss helicopter pilot — “Do you mind if I fly it myself?”

Now mind you, Peres’ only experience at the helm was in statecraft, not aircraft, but maybe he figured this should be no insurmountable problem, considering his son Chemi had been an IDF helicopter pilot between 1980 and 1985, so he had some vicarious experience… Incredibly, the Swiss pilot turned the controls over to Peres as the helicopter began shaking all over. Two of Peres’ aids began to tremble, as well, but a plucky Peres was determined to stay the course. Regaining stability, he continued to fly the bird for another 30 minutes before handing the craft back to its pilot.

Shimon Peres’ extraordinary zeal and indomitable ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ optimism about the outcome was legendary but the incident suggested something else: The belief everything is possible if you dare to try.

When television was belatedly introduced in Israel in 1968, programming during the first three decades of broadcasting included a Friday afternoon Arab movie on the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s one-and-only First Channel – envisioned as a weekend ‘treat’ for Israel’s Arab minority, and Mizrachi Jews from North Africa and the Levant. Thus, it carried no subtitles. However, as more and more Ashkenazi Jews joined the ‘Friday Afternoon Club’ parliamentarians and the IBA were overwhelmed by letters with a one-word demand: ‘TRANSLATION!’ Hebrew subtitles were added to Arab movies in 1974.

While escapism is a healthy form of relaxation, it makes for poor public policy and Peres was often so consumed by ‘what ought to be’ that the image of a better world he dared to imagine often came at the expense of the present and the past. Was this a blind spot in the ‘script’? No, Peres viewed this as an attribute.  As he himself phrased it: “We should use our imagination more than our memory.”  Thus, it’s no wonder the Polish-born politician became an avid fan of the Friday Arab flicks, in a late 1980s interview explaining the magic attraction: “There’s no hochmes* (clever stuff) with them. Black is black. White is white. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. The viewer doesn’t have to hesitate. He knows when to laugh. And when you should cry, you cry.”  Gray was definitely not part of Shimon Peres’ palette.

When a head of state visits another country, or receives a foreign leader, it’s customary to exchange gifts. These Gifts of State are often fashioned by leading artists and craftsmen, and Israeli gifts have often been quite special: The Lyndon B. Johnson Library alone boasts no less than five ancient glass bottles, one terra cotta oil lamp, a mirror, a gold ring and pair of earrings, and a 1st Century bronze strigilis – an L-shaped gadget that works like a windshield scraper without the rubber tip, used by Greeks and Romans in their gymnasiums and baths to scrape their bodies clean and dry.

In May 2009, in preparation for an historic papal visit, it leaked out that President Shimon Peres – looking for something original and impressive, had suggested Israel present the Pope with sovereignty over five holy sites in Israel during the pontiff’s five-day trip to the Holy Land — including the Room of the Last Supper in Jerusalem…enough to ignite a religious war among Christians from now to eternity!  In the end Benedict XVI came away with a nano-copy of the Bible in Hebrew, written on a silicon chip the size of a single grain of sand.

In the course of 48 years in parliament, 69 years in public service, Shimon Peres raised ‘turning a phrase’ to an art form – once explaining his unflagging optimism saying matter-of-factly that “for me, dreaming is simply being pragmatic”, fending off criticism of the Oslo Accords and his fantasies of a New Middle East retorting “people who don’t have fantasies, don’t do fantastic things.”

Indeed, everything Peres did, he did with a flair, on a grand scale – from fathering the Dimona reactor, championing the Entebbe rescue and holding an 11 million NIS 90th birthday bash, to the flourish with which he painted a bright picture of the future in his last speech — delivered hours before Peres was felled by a stroke. Ignoring the Middle East’s current descent into barbarism and chaos, Peres was confident that somehow Israel’s start-up nation status would be followed by a “start-up region.”

Peres’ attempts to engage the young and demonstrate his ‘relevance’ despite the age gap took some oddball forms – the most outstanding, the launch of a Facebook page accompanied by an electro trance video clip promo with Peres saying over and over ‘Be my friend’. A no less quirky So Now What? video clip marked the end of his presidency in which Peres ‘mocked’ his own credentials and relevance for a ‘real job’ after so many years in public service – sent by the labor exchange to pump gas, serve as a security guard at the entrance to Israel’s social security administration, and sit behind a register at a supermarket check-out counter… As could be expected – the humorous clip went viral, and Peres basked in an avalanche of ‘likes’.

Where did Shimon Peres get the wherewithal? There isn’t anyone over 65 who hasn’t been left open-mouthed at one time or another at the vitality and energy levels Shimon Peres has exhibited.  In real life, far from retiring from public life after the presidency, Peres went on to establishing the Peres Center for Peace as a platform where he could continued to pursue illusive peace partners.

While upon his death, the world praised him for his tireless peace efforts, many Middle East media bashed Peres as a “war criminal” and Palestinian media branded him “’the engineer of genocide against Arabs.”  Perhaps the lowest cut of all came from MK Basel Ghattas from the Joint Arab List who as Peres laid unconscious and fighting for his life, labeled him “a pillar of the arrogant, imperialist Zionist enterprise.”    How would the unflappable Peres have responded?  One only needs to recall a statement he made back in 2013: “There are two things that cannot be achieved in life unless you close your eyes a little bit. And that’s love and peace,” said Peres.  “If you want perfection you won’t obtain either of them.”

Indeed, Peres was like the Energizer™ Bunny, and then some: Fit as a fiddle, mentally agile and inquisitive, adventurous…and constantly on the go, Peres was a walking marvel, and it’s no wonder when Peres toured the Golan Heights and visited the Galilee Genetics Analysis Laboratories – a DNA genetic-sequencing research and analysis facility in Katzrin, the firm’s chief geneticist Professor Dov Berkowitz asked Peres if he was willing to provide a cheek swab to map the President’s genome, in the hopes his team could home-in on a “Shimon Peres Gene” that kept Peres 88 years young.

In June 2014, a month before the close of his presidency, the neighbors – having witnessed from their windows a parade of official receptions and fancy gatherings of ‘the rich and the famous’ held by Peres in the garden of the President’s Residence – called on the outgoing president to finally invite them over for coffee…

Three residents of a third-storey flat overlooking the President’s Residence unfurled a 10-meter long banner over their balcony railing with a message to Peres saying they’d like to meet the President to raise a glass and wish him well, signed “the students at Hanasi Street #4.” While it’s unclear whether Peres responded (i.e. Eliezer Levi, a veteran of the neighborhood since 1956, said the last time he’d had coffee and cake with his distinguished neighbour was during Ezer Weizman’s tenure as president – May 1993-July 2000), Peres’ successor – President Reuven (‘Ruvi’) Rivlin – hosted a coffee klatch to ‘get acquainted with the neighbors’ immediately after the presidential couple moved in, an invitation unceremoniously posted in the hallways of adjacent buildings where condo committees tack messages to residents about leaky garbage bags and collection of monthly maintenance fees.

In 2002, Shimon Peres and his wife Sonia attended their 60th high school reunion.  In one of my favorite ‘Peres stories’, the couple didn’t suffice with a one-time stroll down memory lane; they asked (when the time came) to be put to rest on the campus of their old high school – the 75-year old Ben-Shemen Agricultural School east of Ben-Gurion Airport.

Five years later in mid-2007 restless as ever, Peres showed no sign of being ready to be put out to pasture, so much as push up daises, choosing at age 84 to run for President of the State of Israel, sparking a painful separation from his wife Sonia who expected Peres to retire from political life and gracefully slip into ‘pensioner’ mode and grow old together. Sonia remained in their Tel Aviv apartment when Shimon moved into the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. Sonia Peres was, indeed, buried at Ben-Shemen, according to her wishes, in January 2011, while Peres left instructions that he wished to be buried on Mount Herzl, in the section reserved for great national figures (and their wives, if they wish) – giving poignant new meaning to the saying ‘til death do they part.