I woke up deeply saddened this morning to the news that Shimon Peres had passed away at the age of 93. He was a personal hero of mine and an absolute giant in the Israeli and Jewish worlds.
I believe the death of Shimon Peres heralds a new era for Israel – an era in which Israel’s founding fathers are no longer around to remind us what we should be doing – the “Post-Founders Era”. Like North American Supreme Court Justices often invoke the intentions of the founding fathers when deciding on the constitutionality of certain decisions. Since it no longer has its founding fathers to instruct on what was intended, this is exactly what Israel must do now.
For example: Why did Israel initially exempt yeshiva boys from the army? Because Ben Gurion did not believe there would be a significant Orthodox community in Israel in the future, so what harm was there in exempting a handful of kids from service? This is just one example of a current issue that is only understood by knowing the explicit intentions of Israel’s founders.
With the passing of Israel’s last living founding father, it is now left up to Israel’s current and future leaders, to impute what those founding fathers would have wanted for the country (if they do indeed wish to take an originalist approach).
I do not believe Israel has the same calibre of leaders it had in the past, and I worry sometimes that Israeli leaders are holding on to specific policies or positions just to pacify Israel’s old guard – they don’t want to upset or belittle the accomplishments of Israel’s elder statesmen or citizens who fought for Israel’s very establishment.
I sort of equate this to how I imagine South Africa’s leaders must have felt when Nelson Mandela was still alive. Mandela was a man who dedicated every fibre of his being to ensuring that South Africa had a bright future. When his presidency ended, South African politicians tried to hold it together for as long as they could while under Madiba’s watchful eye, embarrassed they were undoing everything for which he fought so hard. After Mandela’s death, there was no longer any need to hold themselves in check, since their wide-eyed and idealistic founding father was now gone, and there was less pressure to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his accomplishments.
Now, I am not equating Israel with South Africa by any means, and I do not worry about Israel in the same way. What I’m saying, though, is that Israel has lost a leader who knew firsthand both how and why Israel was founded, and that leader is now gone. It is up to Israel’s current and future leadership to ensure that Peres’ legacy – and those of his former boss Ben Gurion, and his friend Golda – are not squandered, but put to use in meaningful ways.
Shimon Peres was a remarkable man. Say what you will about him, but in his lifetime Peres helped establish both Israel’s military machine and Israel’s most prominent peace initiative, The Oslo Process. He served as the youngest Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Defense at age 29 and, at age 91, while serving as President of Israel, became the world’s oldest Head of State. He received a Nobel Prize for Peace, a Knighthood from Britain’s Queen, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from America’s President, and was made an honorary sheikh by Bedouin leaders. He was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a mentor and an icon to many in Israel and worldwide, and he will be missed.
Peres’ funeral on September 30, 2016 will play host to leaders from around the globe. It will be a remarkable gathering of Princes, Prime Ministers and Presidents, a testament to the worldwide respect he garnered. When we look upon the crowd gathered to pay their last respects, we must not forget that Peres stood for Israel and embodied its history, values and virtues. When people come to pay their respects to Peres, therefore, they come to pay their respects to Israel. It will show that despite perceived aggression and marginalization in certain forums, Israel is not as maligned as we believe and as we read about online.
After Peres is eulogized and buried, it will be up to Israel’s current leaders to ensure they honour Peres’ memory by adhering to his values and his legacy and do not squander the place that Israel still holds in the hearts and minds of so many – Jews and non-Jews alike – worldwide. This is the challenge of the future generation of Israelis and Jews, and it is the first challenge that I accept in our Post-Founders Era.