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Shimon Peres: The last Israeli Jeffersonian

Two weeks before his death on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson penned his last public letter, explaining that he was too weak to join the festivities marking 50 years since 1776. Despite his frailty, he took pains to assert that what he and his fellow revolutionaries had accomplished had more than changed the history of the colonies. The Declaration of Independence, he wrote, was “an instrument, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world.”

Though America’s founders are long since gone, Israel still had, until this week, the last of its founding fathers. Shimon Peres, who died Wednesday at 93, was the final member of David Ben-Gurion’s team to depart the stage. The profundity of the loss stems from the fact that to Israelis, Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Peres are as iconic as Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton are to Americans.

Yet Peres was more than Israel’s last living founder. He was, in a sense, the last of the Israeli Jeffersonians, the last of an era of Zionist leaders who, like Jefferson, believed that the fulfillment of their national aspirations would ultimately benefit the entire world.

Theodor Herzl, in his 1902 utopian novel “Altneuland,” envisioned a Jewish society that would do good far beyond Palestine’s borders. Having defeated malaria in Palestine, one of Herzl’s scientists says he aspires to do the same throughout Africa. The scientist also believes that Jewish sovereignty could inspire African Americans. “I lived to see the restoration of the Jews,” he says, and “I should like to pave the way for the restoration of the Negroes” as well. 

That Jeffersonian sense of Israel’s literal and symbolic global importance became a central Zionist tradition. Speaking at the opening of the first session of the Knesset in early 1949, Chaim Weizmann, who had just been appointed Israel’s president, said, “Today we stand on the threshold of a new era. … Let us not be over-arrogant if we say that this is a great day in the history of the world. In this hour a message of hope and good cheer goes forth from this place in the Sacred City to all oppressed people and to all who are struggling for freedom and equality.”

A few years later, upon her appointment as foreign minister, Golda Meir gathered together her senior staff and took out a copy of Herzl’s “Altneuland.” She read the passages in which Herzl articulated his hope that if Zionism could succeed, then African states could also flourish and said she would work tirelessly to build relationships between the Jewish state and emerging African nations.

“Like us,” she said, “their freedom was won only after years of struggle. Like us, they had to fight for their statehood. And like us, nobody handed them their sovereignty on a silver platter.”

Although that Zionist-African bond never materialized, Peres was among those who held fast to the Jeffersonian dream that Jewish independence and democracy could and would serve as a model to not-yet-liberated peoples elsewhere.

“My heart swells with pride when I see how many nations turn to the tiny state of Israel to learn from our bold innovations,” he said in July, “[and] to learn how to turn the impossible into the possible.”

Responsible for building Israel’s military infrastructure and later one of the masterminds of Israel’s nuclear program, Peres was never naïve or abashed about the Jewish people’s need for a homeland and Israel’s need to arm and defend itself. He also believed, however, that his country should relentlessly pursue peace.

As president, Peres used the officially nonpolitical position to critique his colleagues, and in particular Benjamin Netanyahu, for not pushing harder on the peace front: “Israel should implement the two-state solution for her own sake because if we should lose our majority …we cannot remain a Jewish state or a democratic state. [To] my regret they (the government) do the opposite." He risked public approbation in taking that stance but never backed down.

With Peres’ death, Israel has lost the last of its three Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Begin died in 1992, Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and now Peres is gone. All three knew well that Israel faced existential threats. None shied away from the use of force when it was deemed necessary. Yet all three also understood that an Israel that saw itself only as a fortress state could neither survive nor serve the world the way its founders had intended.

In the midst of their mourning, Israelis would do well to ask who might provide the blend of realism and optimism that was the signature quality of their national movement and of their last founding father.

Daniel Gordis is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.”

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