Shimon Peres has deservedly been honored many times in his long career. His service to his country over 7 decades is unparalleled.
His contributions to building up Israel’s defense capabilities early in the Jewish state’s history was unique. His leadership of the labor party for many years kept that vital institution at the forefront of Israeli politics and policymaking. His contributions to peace as foreign minister and prime minister were significant. And his role as president of the nation these last 8 years took that office to new heights and burnished the reputation of his country in a difficult period.
Just think of the diverse contributions Shimon Peres has made to mankind. Take his work to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace reflected in his sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. We all know the travails and difficulties the peace process has endured since that day on the white house lawn in 1994 where Israelis and Palestinians first engaged each other in hopes for peace. It is easy and natural to focus on the negatives, of which there are many. But keeping alive the hope of peace, a specialty of Shimon Peres, is an important moral and psychological dimension for the psyche of the Israeli people and for Israel’s image in the world.
And then, he went off in what appears to be a completely different direction in setting up a foundation to explore the human brain. What political figure anywhere can find the energy, the passion and the curiosity to engage seriously both the need for peace for his people and the profound questions about the amazing workings of the human brain?
For me, all this and much more come together in one theme which makes this honor for Shimon Peres so special. It relates to three elements; the fact that we are honoring Eric Schmidt along with the president; that it is being presented two days before the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year; and that it is an award given by ADL, the organization whose mission is to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of hate. What characterizes all three elements is the theme of optimism, of looking forward with hope and openness despite the many evils that surround us.
Surely, the internet represents the theme of a different and better future. How many times have we heard Shimon Peres paint a picture of what the Middle East could be like if the parties got past conflict? How much high-tech Israel could contribute to the well-being of millions of Muslims living throughout the region? And how the high-tech revolution could be brought to the people of the region in a way that has not happened before?
A computer on every student’s desk. When he says these things, he is often called a naïve optimist, but without that image of hope how can it be realized.
And that relates to Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom recently gave a talk in which he said that the theme of repentance is never mentioned in the two days of observing Rosh Hashanah.
The explanation; the new year is a time to build for the future, not get bogged down in the past. Yom Kippur plays that role. He noted that holocaust survivors could not have made it had they originally talked about their suffering. Instead they worked to create new lives, then dealt with the past. That Jewish theme has been Shimon Peres’ forever; we can build a different future, we don’t have to be crippled by the past. This can apply to Palestinians as well as to Israelis.
And then there’s the ADL component. Our work exposes us to the worst of mankind. But the only way we can succeed is to believe and to work at it every day to overcome hatred and create a better world. If we didn’t have this belief, we couldn’t possibly do the work we do every day. That too is what Shimon Peres is about.
Yes, it’s important to know and learn from history. To avoid repeating past mistakes, we need to understand the past. But Shimon Peres is still looking forward, never giving up on his dream that young Israelis and Palestinians will be able to overcome their differences and build a better world for both.
Shimon Peres is the man of the future. Yes he is the man of the future.
Mr. President, we are privileged to have you in our presence and we are honored to present you with ADL’s Distinguished Statesman Award before this diverse audience that in many ways shares the ideals you have diligently worked for all your life.
We are very proud to present you with this beautiful and unique Agam menorah, which in our tradition symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and lightness in the midst of darkness.
On behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, I am honored to present you with the ADL Distinguished Statesman Award.