Most of our nation mourns the death of our ninth President, the 93 year old Shimon Peres z”l.
Most, that is, except for the majority of the haredi population and the Arab bloc in our Knesset. Their lack of respect for a great world leader and a man who truly labored for peace deserves the scorn of all Israeli citizens.
The haredi population takes much from the government and gives little or nothing in return. Much of the Arab population, 20% of our population, takes from the government they despise and gives us terrorism in return. Not all. But too many.
I was pleased to read that representatives of local Arab councils had the decency to pay a shiva visit and to offer their condolences to the Peres family. They wanted to make it very clear that the actions of the Arab bloc in the Knesset who boycotted the State funeral did not represent them nor the Arab citizens of their towns and villages. It is comforting to realize that there are good and decent people among them.
I had the opportunity of meeting Shimon Peres when he was our Minister of Defense. It was in 1974 and I had just returned from a trip to Egypt, entering on a foreign passport.
While there I had the privilege of meeting with Felix Itchaki, leader of the Cairo Jewish community. We spoke in French in his apartment and he explained to me the loss of a once dynamic and vibrant Jewish population in both Cairo and in Alexandria.
He reminisced about the magnificent department stores and galleries of Circurel, one of Egypt’s wealthiest Jews. He spoke longingly about the beautiful cafes and coffee houses, like Café Groppi, founded in 1909, where nobility and aristocrats frequently came to eat the famous French pastries and delicious ice cream, while discussing world affairs… cafes owned by Cairo Jews. He remembered how influential Jews had been in Egypt, several of them in service as advisors and physicians to the late King Farouk.
His words concerning Israel, Zionists, “war-mongers” as he called them, were tempered because he was speaking to me in the presence of two Egyptian police officials who had escorted me to his apartment.
He suggested that I attend a Shabbat morning service at the great synagogue, Shaar HaShamayim, founded in 1908, on Adli Pasha, a main boulevard in the center of busy downtown Cairo. Once it had been filled with hundreds of worshippers. Now, in 1974, there was barely a minyan of ten elderly men.
I did in fact attend what I hoped would be Shabbat morning services. Instead, when the Arab bawad (gate-keeper) opened the bronze doors to admit me, I found two elderly women sitting in the upper balcony and six men standing and talking hastily with one another in Arabic, fingering their strings of beads at the same time. They looked at me curiously but did not greet me nor speak to me. They were cautious of strangers.
I picked up a Hebrew siddur (printed in Austria in 1907) and prayed silently. No one said goodbye as I left wishing them a Shabbat shalom.
In Egypt, I had the opportunity to meet Egyptian academics and the Minister of Culture and Information who presented me with a personalized gift, a very large and heavy illustrated volume entitled “Arab Republic of Egypt”. In its hundreds of pages of beautiful Egypt, it paints a fascinating history of Egyptian art and culture over a period of one thousand years. In the frontispiece of the volume, the Minister inscribed these words: “To Dr. Ben-Sorek with best wishes and a shared hope for a just and permanent peace in the Middle East”. His Excellency signed it as Kemal Abou Elmagd, Minister of Information, Cairo, July 1974
.From all sides of professionals and government personnel I frequently heard their words hoping for a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. I believed that they were sincere.
And so it was, upon my return to Israel I had the chance to speak personally with Shimon Peres who, at the time, was our Minister of Defense. I showed him the volume I had received as a gift, I told him how frequently I had heard words in hopes of a “just and lasting peace”.
But Defense Minister Peres was a pessimistic Peres. He did not think that peace between the two countries was on the horizon. Although he did not doubt what I had shared with him was true, he remained pessimistic.
It was the visit of Anwar El Sadat, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, when he arrived in Israel, three years later on November 20, 1977 and welcomed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, that put an end to Peres’ pessimism.
Peres was a great leader, a founder of our nation, a Prime Minister and a President of our country held in high esteem by Israelis and leaders of governments world-wide.
But for me, he remains a pessimist… albeit, a pleasant pessimist. May his memory be for a blessing.