The end of the era of giants

Peres Obama President Barack Obama welcomes Israeli President Shimon Peres in the Oval Office Tuesday, May 5, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

THEY came in private jets, even on Air Force One. They were followed by gaggles of security guards. But for all the ­high-profile mourners at Shimon Peres’ funeral in Jerusalem, it was his daughter who summed up the man.

The leader of the free world, US President Barack Obama, eulogised Shimon Peres with 2000 words; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took 1200 words; Tsvia Walden, a linguistics professor, needed less than a dozen words to capture what her dad was all about.

She turned the graveside Kaddish into a summary of his dying wish. God should bring peace “to us and all of his people, Israel”, she prayed, adding: “And all humankind.” 

Israel hasn’t seen a comparable funeral this century. It was a showcase of the deep effect that Peres had on so many world figures, and of how seriously they took his commitment to peace. The emotion of Obama, Bill Clinton, and of Israel’s top novelist Amos Oz was genuine; their eulogies were heartfelt.

As delegations of world leaders from 70 countries watched alongside thousands of influential Israelis, Obama ranked Peres among the world’s most revered figures. “He reminded me of some other giants of the 20th century that I’ve had the honour to meet: men like Nelson Mandela, women like Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth,” Obama said. 

Peres’ optimism for the future, Obama declared, “makes us not just honour Shimon Peres, but love him”. Bill Clinton memorialised Peres as a “wise champion of our common humanity”, as “Israel’s biggest dreamer” and a man who “lived 93 years in a state of constant wonder”. Netanyahu said that he “always looked to the future”. 

The British Royal Family has never accepted the repeated invitations it receives to pay official visits to Israel, staying away because of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Prince Charles flew in for the funeral, as he did for that of Yitzhak Rabin. He packed a royal crest kippah, which he wore at the cemetery, and later told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin about his “very fond memories” of meeting Peres, who “tried so hard to achieve the peace that is badly needed”. 

Before leaving Israel the prince paid a visit to the grave of his grandmother Princess Alice of Battenberg, who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust and asked to be buried in Jerusalem. Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove represented Australia, and told Rivlin: “I come carrying the condolences of 24 million Australians, to celebrate a great life and mourn a profound loss.”

Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is at loggerheads with Israel’s leaders, and who is accused by Jerusalem of inciting violence against Jews, attended. The decision was unpopular among his subjects. He showed “disregard” for “the blood of the martyrs and the suffering of the Palestinian people”, Hamas raged.

More moderate Palestinians were also fuming. There has been criticism from within Abbas’s own Fatah party, including a student branch that called his participation “humiliating”, and an official in the Palestinian Authority, which Abbas controls, strongly criticised him and was then arrested. 

Political analyst Abdul Hadi, head of the nonpartisan Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, told The AJN that the decision to attend was “very negative”, and commented: “It was not a funeral, it was a festival of the world to recognise the State of Israel, of which Shimon Peres was a founder.” 

Abbas couldn’t get away from Netanyahu quickly enough at the funeral, after the obligatory handshake. Netanyahu also got cold treatment from Obama, who thought he had seen Netanyahu for the last time when they met in New York last month. When Obama finished delivering his eulogy he doled out hugs, including to Rivlin, but only shook hands with Netanyahu.

For the most part, however, Peres’ burial represented a day of unity in Jerusalem, and across Israel. Despite the capital being in chaos due to cordons, residents weren’t frustrated by the inconvenience. 

Razi Bakal, an 80-year-old lawyer, said that “everyone feels the death and funeral very personally”. He had been watching the funeral on television, and was moved. “I can’t remember any funeral here that commanded so much respect from foreign figures,” he said. Noam Segal, a 34-year-old Orthodox man, said that although he disagreed with Peres on peace, he was feeling sad. “Peres gave his entire life to the state and brought people together, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs,” Segal commented. 

The sense of unity was felt on Mount Herzl, Israel’s leafy national cemetery. There were mourners from every strand of Israeli society. From Jewish Israel there was left to right, secular to religious. There were Charedim in black coats and black hats, and kesim, the leaders of Ethiopian Jewry, wearing gowns and carrying colourful ceremonial umbrellas. There were Muslim, Druze and Christian figures. Foreign delegations included Egyptians in black gowns and a small crowd from the Vatican wearing amaranth red zucchettos on their heads. 

But Peres was not always a unifying figure. Especially in the days of the Oslo peace process, which he pushed forwards, he was the target of much anger. Rivlin, a member of the Israeli right who has described the Oslo process as “failed” and called attempts to divvy up land between Israel and the Palestinians “ridiculous”, showed a humility rarely seen in Israeli politics. “Shimon, I unashamedly confess, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, at your graveside among the graves of the leaders of our nation, also your forgiveness must be asked,” he said. 

“We will ask your forgiveness. It was permitted to disagree with you. Your opponents had a duty to express their opinion. However, there were years in which red lines were crossed between ideological disputes and words and deeds which had no place.”

Rivlin went on to say that Peres’ death is not only “a great personal and national loss”, but also “the end of an era, the end of the era of giants whose life stories are the stories of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel”.

While the politicians focused on Peres’ national and international importance, his children gave some touching personal insights. “My father was very sensitive and caring towards all people,” said Yoni Peres. “He wasn’t ruled by his ego, he treated everyone as an equal and was always attentive, interested and supportive.” 

Chemi Peres spoke of his father’s love for his grandchildren, and recalled, “You beamed with joy when you gazed at our youngest daughter Yael, whom you lovingly called Yali. You loved to sing to her and took a passionate interest in her plans for the future.” 

Walden paid tribute to one of her father’s lesser-known skill sets. “He was described as a great negotiator, as someone who always found a way to get what he wanted,” she said. “To me he was a young man who used his creative skills to get us to eat, who cut sandwiches into triangles and diamonds. ‘Try this. It’s a Burmese sandwich.’ My father pulled out all the creative stops, and used every trick of the trade to tempt us to open our mouths and eat and grow.”

For many mourners, the emotional climax of the funeral was the rendition of one of Peres’ favourite songs. The Israeli singer David D’Or took to the stage and, with the casket draped in an Israeli flag to his left and a clear blue sky behind him, sang Avinu Malkeinu from the High Holy Day service. Tears poured from the eyes of family members at many points during proceedings, and on one occasion Obama comforted a sobbing Chemi Peres by offering a handkerchief. 

Diaspora Jewish leaders included Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. He told The AJN at the cemetery gates afterwards that the ceremony showed “the depth of feeling for this man” and that the eulogies “encapsulated the depth of Peres” as a statesman and a family man. Dave Sharma, Australia’s ambassador to Israel, found the funeral to be a “profoundly moving occasion”. 

After the funeral, the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa became the shiva house for the family, and thousands of Israelis have headed there. 

Members of the public, friends and associates of the late president have shared recollections and sought to offer comfort to his loved ones. Staff at the centre, which became Peres’ main focus after he left the presidency, say that they are struggling to absorb the fact that he will never again show up to his office and demand a lowdown of everything happening, as he loved to do. “It never really felt like he was an old man,” said his aide, Yarden Leal.

Full coverage in this week’s AJN.

NATHAN JEFFAY