Jan 2009 Journal

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A visit to the President

Because of my association with the internet newspaper the San Diego Jewish News, I was included in a delegation of contributors invited to interview President Shimon Peres. The meeting took place just one week before he visited England and was awarded a KBE, but this was not mentioned in the interview.

The building which today constitutes the President’s residence is an unobtrusive three-storey structure ensconced behind protective walls in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighbourhood. Like all Jerusalem houses, it is covered with Jerusalem stone and blends in with the surrounding buildings. It was built in the 1970s to provide a fitting habitation for Israel’s presidents, who had previously been housed in what was known as ‘the hut’, a modest, prefabricated structure situated in the nearby Rehavia neighbourhood.

The building contains paintings by leading Israeli artists as well as photographs showing leading figures from Israel’s past, especially Ben-Gurion. One picture shows him surrounded by IDF generals in 1955; in another he is accompanied by a much younger Shimon Peres; a third shows him sitting in an armchair with his legs tucked under him in conversation with an unseen interlocutor.

The President received us in his office, a large, book-lined room adorned with trophies and artwork. Opposite his desk hangs a large picture of Herzl, while many of the bookshelves also display items of Judaica. He sat with us in a comfortable seating area in a corner of the study. Perhaps partly because his own son, Yoni, was part of the delegation, the President was relaxed and spoke freely about his recollections of various American presidents, recounting amusing anecdotes and jokes and dispelling any nervousness we might have felt.

Now in his eighties, Shimon Peres seems to have total recall about the many distinguished people he has met and the impression they made on him. One could say he has an inexhaustible fund of entertaining anecdotes about famous figures. Asked about his secret for staying physically and intellectually fit, he produced an impish smile and remarked: ‘That’s a secret so I’m not going to tell you!’ In a revealing moment, asked how he enjoyed being President of Israel, he replied: ‘I’ve always been controversial. Now I’m popular - or at least respected. I think I prefer being controversial. But I’m trying to trade respect for action. What is important is not one’s title, but what one does.’ Asked what he regards as his greatest achievement, he replied: ‘What I’ll do tomorrow.’ This may have been prophetic as a few days later he attended a Saudi-initiated interfaith conference at the UN and was listened to attentively by the Saudi delegation.

At the meeting, which took place two days before the US elections, Peres reiterated his trust in America’s enduring friendship for Israel, irrespective of which party or person is at its head. He pointed out that the US was not a one-man show, that it would always remain democratic and diverse, and that it would always have a close connection to the Bible. According to Peres, therein lay its strength. He added that essentially racism had ended and that Israel sought to live in peace with all creeds, races and colours. Asked about Israel’s democratic nature, he referred to the inherent dissatisfaction and dialogue that characterised Judaism and Jews, adding that, unlike Christianity and Islam, the Jewish religion did not require an intermediary between the individual and God.

In a wide-ranging analysis of historical developments, President Peres pointed to the reaction of the Jewish world to the Dreyfus case and the deep-rooted anti-Semitism it revealed. In seeking to eradicate prejudice, some Jews developed the concept of Communism, which, according to Peres, was largely a Jewish creation. Other Jews responded by fostering a social democratic regime, as exemplified by Leon Blum and his followers. A third approach was that of the Zionists, who sought to overcome anti-Semitism by giving the Jews a state of their own.

President Peres also stressed the influence on the Zionist movement of democratic ideas and processes in Western history, including England’s Magna Carta. He also mentioned the fact that Ben-Gurion had been in London during the Blitz and had been deeply impressed by the British people’s fortitude.

Though pressed for time, Shimon Peres ended the interview with a photo session and handshakes all round. It was truly inspiring to be in the presence of Israel’s foremost citizen, its only internationally acknowledged statesman, and patently a man of towering intelligence.


Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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