In 2012, then-Israeli President Shimon Peres was awarded America’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Upon receiving that honor, Peres said, “Public service is a privilege that must be based on moral foundations.”
At a time when we have come to expect less and less of our leaders, Peres, who died Wednesday in Tel Aviv at age 93, is a model and inspiration for courageous moral leadership in the face of adversity.
President Peres was a leader and a visionary in so many ways.
Literally one of the founders of the modern state of Israel, he was both a Zionist and a dreamer, whose mark on history was defined by his daring — a willingness to take great risks. Over the course of his life, he was involved in many of the most fateful decisions that determined the course of Israel’s history.
Peres was someone seized as a young man by the dream of Jewish independence. It brought him to Palestine from a Polish town that is now in Belarus at the age of 11, and he'd assume a life of leadership in the Zionist movement. A protégé of Israel’s founder and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Peres was entrusted with a key role in procuring desperately needed arms for the fledgling Haganah Jewish underground during Israel’s War of Independence.
In the early years of the state, as director-general of the Defense Ministry, Peres engineered an emerging defense industry that would create the conditions in which the Jewish state could thrive in a hostile environment. Quietly and out of the public eye, the young and ingenious Peres daringly, and against the opposition of Israel’s scientific community, shepherded into being Israel's nuclear program.
Peres brought equal determination and daring when he turned his attention to peace.
In the Jewish tradition, there is no greater command than to “seek peace and pursue it.” While ever wary of the intentions of his Palestinian partners, and constantly testing their seriousness, Peres’ secret negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization led famously to a breakthrough at Oslo, promising to turn swords into plowshares, or, as he put it later at the signing of the accords on the White House lawn in 1993 — “from guns to shovels.” This perhaps is the great tragedy of Peres’ unfulfilled legacy, when the hope for peace was stopped in its tracks by bus bombings and other violence.
The intervening years from this blossoming hopefulness led to fighting and the shattering of the great hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Peres' great hopes for peace may remain unfulfilled, but he refused to submit to pessimism. Upon being sworn in as Israel’s ninth president, Peres asked the Knesset and the people of Israel, “Permit me to remain an optimist. Permit me to be a dreamer of his people. Permit me to present the sunny side of our state.”
This is a man who continued to learn well into his 90s, when his interest in nano-science and neuroscience fueled his constant curiosity and his conviction in what innovation Israel had to offer the world.
Though over the course of his 70-year political career, Peres surely didn’t shy away from the fray of politics, during his presidency he became a leader whose moral voice transcended the politics of the moment. He captured the imagination and admiration of a nation and of the world.
This week we have lost a great leader — a role model for all of us who wish to make a mark on the world. More than anything, the life and example of Shimon Peres will forever be a model of how to live a life of public service based on moral foundations.