Shimon Peres, one of the last surviving public figures of the generation that founded Israel as a nation in 1948, died early Wednesday morning, having suffered a stroke on Sept. 13 from which he never recovered.
At the time Peres died, he was surrounded by family. He is deeply mourned by the people of Israel, and Jews all over the world for his commitment to the Zionist ideal, his deep love of the land, and his efforts toward creating a peaceful future.
At 93, Peres was one of Israel’s most beloved and appreciated public figures, an intellectual and an outstanding speaker. He was also one of the most prolific and active politicians the country has ever produced, instantly recognizable around the world.
A Nobel laureate, he shared that prestigious honor in 1994 with the late Yitzhak Rabin, along with Palestinian adversary Yasser Arafat, for his active role in the peace talks in which he participated as Israel’s then-foreign minister, producing the Oslo Accords.
Peres was a member of 12 cabinets, during a long, storied career that spanned nearly seven decades. He was elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in 1959 and served continuously until 2007, when he became Israel’s ninth president. He served in that role from 2007 to 2014, and the first former prime minister to do so.
As prime minister, he served twice, including as interim prime minister, and he held many other political seats and roles in his long career.
Shimon Peres was born as Szymon Perski on August 2, 1923 in Wiszniew, Poland. The Perski family spoke Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian at home with their two sons, and young Peres learned Polish at school. His father was a wealthy timber merchant, later branching out into other commodities, his mother was a librarian.
In 1932, Peres’ father immigrated to Palestine and settled in Tel Aviv. The family followed him in 1934 where Peres graduated high school and later became a kibbutz member for several years.
All of Peres’ relatives who remained in Poland were murdered during the Holocaust, many of them burned alive in the town’s synagogue.
In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, Peres was appointed an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George. Queen Elizabeth II bestowed this honor in Buckingham Palace in London in 2008. In June 2011, he was awarded the honorary title of sheikh by Bedouin dignitaries in Hura for his efforts to achieve Middle East peace. In June 2012, Peres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from United States President Barack Obama, and on May 19, 2014, the United States House of Representatives voted to award Peres the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill read: “Congress proclaims its unbreakable bond with Israel.”
Peres published the New Middle East in 1994, which was quickly translated into at least 17 languages. The book outlined his dream for the region, and he was a strong supporter of peace through economic cooperation.
When Peres presidency ended in June 2014, it was the first time in close to 70 years he didn’t have an official political role. At that time, he was among the most recognized and admired Israeli politicians in recent years.
Three years ago Israel celebrated Peres’s 90th birthday. Renowned politicians and artists from around the world, including Bill Clinton, Barbara Streisand and others, celebrated a man whose career spanned the country’s contemporary history, from its birth to start-up nation status.
I had the privilege of seeing Peres a few times at the Israeli Presidential Conferences—high level conferences under the his auspices. The gatherings, titled “Facing Tomorrow”, brought together the top world leaders and thinkers in a wide variety of fields to navigate the most pressing global challenges ahead.
Although surrounded by many renowned speakers, Peres was always the highlight of these conferences. Always brilliant, eloquent, sharp, full of humor, extremely knowledgeable, formal and yet so reachable, Shimon Peres was a true people’s person.
I will miss Peres. I will miss his vision. I will miss the dignity he represented, the great honor and respect he brought to the Jewish people, and to the state of Israel.
Peres was the ultimate believer, who never abandoned his hope. He once said: “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist”
May the Peres family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
May his memory be for a blessing.
Leah Garber, Vice President | Director, JCC Israel Center