The death this week of Shimon Peres, a leader of remarkable stature, begs many questions about the future of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what it means for American Jews. Since my background isn’t in Israeli history, I went to a local expert: Jeff Robbins.
Robbins, a Boston attorney, was twice appointed the U.S. delegate to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights during the Clinton administration. He also served as chairman of the New England Board of the Anti-Defamation League from 2012-2014 and president of the World Affairs Council of Boston from 2001-2004. He was kind enough to answer my questions and help me make sense of the life and memory of Shimon Peres.
What will you remember Shimon Peres for?
I will remember him for his good humor and obviously profound love of Israel, and for the stamina and twinkle in his eye that he brought with him to Boston in the autumn of 2004 when, at the age of 81, he traveled here and met with round after round of Bostonians in various settings. He came here to support the young women and men of the Israel Defense Forces, on whose behalf he was raising funds, and to promote the peacemaking activities of The Peres Center For Peace, which he had created in 1996 to find ways of bringing Israelis and Arabs together in various ways. And he seemed to touch everyone who met him, from civic leaders to jaundiced businesspeople to young people, so many of whom conveyed that they felt in the “presence of greatness,” as they put it.
What’s the significance for Israel in losing the last of its “founding generation”?
In the case of the death of Peres, it means the loss of the most impressive, most positive, most appealing face of Israel in quarters of the world that are indisposed to ever see, or acknowledge, Israel’s positive traits. So at a time when Israel’s enemies, of whom there is unfortunately no shortage, have had considerable success trying to turn the world against Israel, the loss of Peres is no small loss.
Peres was known as a warrior who later pursued peace. Is there someone who can take up this mantle with the same sort of credibility and respect?
There are none that I can see who can even approach Peres’ stature or impact. Peres seemed “large.” I am afraid that others seem “small” by comparison.
I just read your amazing breakfast story about Peres. What was it like to be in the company of someone who is, you know, a historically significant person?
I was actually struck most by his love of humor, and by the fact that he carried himself without any “puffed-up” quality or airs of any kind. I watched him during the breakfast, a reception for him immediately thereafter and a reception for him at the Israeli consul general’s residence the night before. What I saw was someone bathed in love for Israel and with an almost gritty determination to push himself to the limits to do all he could to thank its supporters, to explain Israel to others, and to orchestrate developments on various levels to strengthen it and its future.
Imagine you’re talking to someone like, say, a young adult, who recognizes the name Shimon Peres but doesn’t know his full history. What would you say are the most significant things he did or accomplished that people should know about?
It seems to me that Peres, not unlike others of Israel’s founders, lived a life that illustrates vividly that individuals, by the strength of their commitment to persevere even in dark times, really can shape the course of history. Most notably, during the first 15 years or so of Israel’s life, when it was surrounded by sworn enemies with vastly superior forces, “levered” by Arab influence and struggling to ingather new refugees while building a home for the refugees who had recently arrived, Peres was instrumental in ensuring that Israel was able to defend itself through artful negotiations with other countries and force of will.
Do you think anything is missing from the obituaries that have been written about him so far?
Though I have seen scattered references to his wit, I was struck during the two days in Boston in which I was privileged to watch him a bit how funny he was, and how much pleasure he seemed to take from humor.
What would you say to someone who said, “Why should I care about the life of Shimon Peres?”
He was among a small group of visionaries who dared to believe that, despite much evidence to the contrary, it would be possible to establish, nourish, protect and sustain a homeland for the Jewish people, and to create what truly is a miracle out of the horror of the Holocaust despite the more or less implacable hostility toward Israel of its neighborhood.
It seems like during his final years, he made a real effort to reach out to people much younger than him, whether through hilarious YouTube videos (even a music video!) or Facebook. Why do you think a statesman chose this as one of his final efforts?
I do not, of course, profess to have known him. But I suspect this is a simple reflection of two aspects of life that meant a lot to him: young people, and what he understood they represent for our future, and humor.
How do you think American Jews feel about his life, versus what Israelis feel?
I expect there are many Israelis who view him through a Likud-Labor, hardliner-peace camp prism, and whose view of Peres is affected by which “side” of those divides they are on. In America, I believe, we look at him without the partisan overlay.