“Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.” So begins an eight-line poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967), one of America’s most distinguished African-American poets.
Hughes’ words come to mind as I reflect upon the life of one of Israel’s greatest dreamers, Shimon Peres (1923-2016), who died Sept. 28.
On three separate occasions, Peres served as Israel’s prime minister; and in July 2007, the Knesset elected him to be Israel’s ninth president, a position he held until the end of July 2014. The last of the generation of leaders who founded the State of Israel, Peres worked in one way or another with 10 successive United States presidents: John F. Kennedy Jr., Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Throughout the decades, Peres demonstrated both by word and by deed the importance of holding fast to dreams. In his 2007 presidential inaugural speech to the Knesset, he insisted: “Permit me to remain an optimist. Permit me to be a dreamer ... The president whom you have chosen will never tire of encouraging, awakening and reminding – because spring is waiting for us at the threshold. The spring will definitely come.”
During the course of his long and productive life, the content of Peres’ dreams underwent significant changes. Early in his career, he dreamed that the hope expressed in Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” would be fulfilled, that we Jews would become “a free people in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
According to the well-respected Israeli writer Amos Oz, in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, in 1967, Peres’ dream became that of “a banal hawk ... a settler lover, a security man, the more land the better, the more power the better.” Nevertheless, as Oz points out with great admiration, “My friend Shimon had a very rare human quality: He had the ability to change ... (He became) a stubborn believer in Israeli-Palestinian peace, in Israeli-Arab peace.” Indeed, he shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for his central role in bringing about the ratification of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
I had the privilege of attending a question-and-answer session with Peres in Jerusalem during the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in March 2002; though he was close to 80 years old, he seemed to possess the physical and mental vitality of a man decades younger. During our lengthy discussion, one of my colleagues asked him how he could justify serving as foreign minister in the administration of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, given their divergent views on the peace process. Reflecting the fact that Peres had long been the kind of dreamer who kept his feet on the ground, he answered that under the present circumstances, he felt he could do more good within the Israeli government than as a member of the opposition.
President Obama was one of several dignitaries to eulogize Peres at his funeral on Sept. 30. During his 20-minute address, Obama made it clear that he viewed Peres, almost 40 years his senior, as both a friend and a role model: “I took great pleasure in my friendship with this older, wiser man. We shared a love of words and books and history. And perhaps, like most politicians, we shared too great a joy in hearing ourselves talk. But beyond that, I think our friendship was rooted in the fact that I could somehow see myself in his story, and maybe he could see himself in mine. Because for all our differences, both of us lived such unlikely lives ... And I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations.”
Perhaps, most significantly, both Peres and Obama are men who have known the power of dreams, who have known how to make dreams matter. Toward the end of his eulogy, Obama said in praise of his friend and role model, “... he understood that it is better to live to the very end of his time on Earth with a longing not for the past but for the dreams that have not yet come true – an Israel that is secure in a just and lasting peace with its neighbors.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.