More than 1,100 people packed New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, the Conservative sanctuary on the Upper East Side, to bid farewell to Shimon Peres. One of the founders of the State of Israel, Peres is concluding a seven-year stint as president of Israel next month. Charlie Rose, host of a PBS interview program and co-anchor of CBS This Morning, engaged in a Q&A session with the 90-year-old statesman, the oldest head of state in the world.
On his last official trip to Washington last week, Peres received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He already got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. At that time President Obama noted that in the ups and downs of Israeli politics Peres had been counted out more than once — but always rebounded as “the ultimate Comeback Kid.
“What does getting those two medals mean to you?” Rose asked. “It means America is a great country,” Peres said.
He continues to be optimistic regarding a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. He said the time of a single state with two nations is over. He gave Czechoslovakia as an example of a diverse country where different people couldn’t live together. Once the land split into separate countries, they became friends.
He said if you want a Jewish democratic state, you have to have a Jewish majority. Only when you break off from the Arab part of the land, can you have a Jewish majority.
The first democrat, he said, was Moses. He led the Jews out of Egypt, and for the next 40 years of his leadership they criticized him at every turn.
As for sending American troops back to Iraq, Peres thinks it’s not a good idea. “It should not be up to the American army to decide who will be the heir to Mohammad, the Sunni or the Shiite.”
“We still face the danger of Iran,” he said. “I don’t know what the hell they want from us. We want to prevent Iran from becoming a country with nuclear bombs. They are a danger to the whole world. Nobody wants another Hiroshima.”
Asked how it happened that Israel became a world leader in technology, Peres said, “Jewish DNA.”
He explained that in the Middle East there are two kinds of countries: a holy country and an oily country. “Israel has swamps in the north and sand in the south. No gold, no oil. The land refuses to cooperate, so we have to depend on our brains.”
Among the VIPs at the farewell event were Consul General Ido Aharoni, Ambassador to U.S. Ron Dermer, Ambassador to UN Ron Prosor, JCRC executive director Michael Miller, Presidents Conference chairman Bob Sugarman, Israel Bonds president/CEO Izzy Tapoohi, AIPAC president Robert Cohen, ADL national director Abraham Foxman, State Assemblyman David Weprin, Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, former Mayor David Dinkin and John Ruskay, executive vice president/CEO of UJA-Federation.
The shul was so crowded one guest was heard to murmur, “More people here than on the High Holidays.”
The synagogue’s rabbi, Elliot Cosgrove, praised Peres as “a fervent advocate for peace with his Arab neighbors” and presented him with a kiddush cup. “I always give this to our bat and bar mitzvahs,” he said. “It is time I gave one to a president.”
In a final question Rose wanted to know what Peres would write in the first paragraph of his obituary. “I will think about it,” Peres said. “I am not in a hurry.”
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. Currently he has been writing a column for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years and is a writer-photographer at 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of “Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame,” interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.